Did a Politician Ruin a Trendy Shoe?

Things have been tough in Britain lately. A cost of living crisis, soaring rents and economic recession. Illness at Buckingham Palace and the fracturing of the national service.

But the so-called disunited kingdom was brought together last week in collective horror and mild revulsion. The catalyst? Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who opted to wear a box fresh pair of white Adidas Sambas during a Downing Street interview to promote his tax policies.

Sambas, which trace their roots back to an Adi Dassler design from 1949, have more recently been hailed as the favorite shoe of Harry Styles, Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Rihanna — and were buoyed by a hip collaboration with the British designer Grace Wales Bonner. But their association with Mr. Sunak meant that the coolest sneaker of the year was instantly and irrevocably tainted.

Social media lit up in outrage over the prime minister’s attempts at relatability; soon most national newspapers were also on the case.

“Adidas Sambas were this year’s coolest shoes — until Rishi Sunak got a pair,” said The Observer. “How Rishi killed off the biggest trainer trend in one fell swoop,” blared the Telegraph. Saying that Mr. Sunak was trying to present himself as young and hip, British GQ wrote, “Sunak took an eternally cool sneaker, and ruined it for everyone.”

By Monday, pairs were vanishing from the streets of London. “Distinct lack of Sambas on the Peckham to Dalston overground this morning,” one person posted on the social media platform X (Peckham and Dalston being akin to some of the hipper neighborhoods of Brooklyn). “Sense of fear and uncertainty in the air.”

On Wednesday, the hullabaloo had reached such a din that Mr. Sunak offered a “fulsome apology to the Samba community” on the London radio station LBC. Though he wasn’t totally contrite.

“In my defense I would say I have been wearing Adidas trainers, including Sambas — and others, in fact — for many, many years,” said Mr. Sunak, 43, a Stanford M.B.A. graduate and former investment banker who is also partial to an Everlane hoodie and Palm Angels sliders. “The first pair my brother got for me many, many years ago — my first pair of fun Adidas trainers as a Christmas present. I haven’t looked back since.”

The Sambas may once have been the footwear of choice for the trendy creative industries, but lately they have spread in the wild to the feet of bankers, tech bros, accountants, dentists and, clearly, politicians. Was this choice of a mass-produced sneaker really that unexpected for a youngish prime minister? Sales exploded in 2022, according to the shopping platform Lyst, and searches for the trainers rose 350 percent that year after going viral on social media.

Oversaturation often plays an outsize role in a journey from immense hype to the dustbin of “ick” in pop culture. (See Burberry scarves, the Gucci double G belt, Cartier Love bracelets and Facebook for anyone under 21.) Nor is Mr. Sunak the first politician to roll up his sleeves and try to appear a more approachable leader through his choice of footwear. Look at President Biden with his Hokas, President Obama in Adidas Stan Smiths or, er, the $399 gold Never Surrender sneakers unveiled by President Trump. With a few exceptions, association with a world leader or first lady tends to make a fashion accessory more popular, not less.

Sadly for Mr. Sunak, however, this has not proven to be the case. It really is just him. Or, to be fair, it’s a reflection of the British public’s exasperation with the latest incarnation of the Conservative Party government, now in its 15th year in power but which is on course for a wipeout in the elections later this year.

Perhaps he can take solace in the fact that as prime minister he finally brought a divided nation together, if not at the ballot box, then online for having “ruined” Britain’s favorite sneaker. A win, as they say, is a win.

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