Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Comment
9 April 2024

The meaning of Sunak’s Sambas

A little bit executive, a little bit football terrace, these trainers unite fintech and fashion, senior copywriters and junior accountant managers.

By Clive Martin

When Rishi Sunak, the purported Prime Minister of Great Britain, was pictured on Friday conducting an interview with the “financial influencer” Abigail Foster in a pair of bright white, box-fresh Adidas Sambas, his choice of kicks became perfect fuel for the internet reaction machine.  

Within seconds of the reveal, journalists, fashion pundits and ageing sneakerheads alike were throwing their heads into their hands. The collective timeline lit up with digs about Sunak’s intentions, his ham-fisted attempts at “relatability”. The media soon caught on: “Adidas Sambas were this year’s coolest shoes – until Rishi Sunak got a pair,” said the Observer. “Can Rishi Sunak leave the Adidas Samba alone, please?” chipped in GQ Style. “How Rishi killed off the biggest trainer trend in one fell swoop,” added the Telegraph.  

It’s an understandable but all too predictable response. Because not only is Sunak a walking buzzkill – a man whose arrival could suck the life out of Berghain on a Sunday morning, whose choice of aftershave is probably run through several shadowy advisers and focus groups – he also picked on a trainer with a vociferously loyal fanbase.  

Alongside their close relative, the Stan Smith, Adidas Sambas are the ordained footwear of “the creative industries”. A little bit executive, a little bit football terrace, they are a trainer that unites fintech and fashion, senior copywriters and junior accountant managers. Although launched with the 1950 Brazil World Cup in mind, they have since become synonymous with a certain lifestyle and vocation; think brisk coffees on Columbia Road market, weekday strolls around the Tate, marketing symposiums, Eurostar selfies, ShowStudio livecasts and nonchalantly sliding a pushchair back and forth, while you finish off that third Negroni outside a St Leonards cocktail bar. They are a uniform for many, and evidently, a sacred cow for some.  

Yet the despairing reaction to Sunak’s adoption of the Sambas raises a number of questions about aesthetics and signifiers in contemporary culture. Chiefly, what kind of shoes are acceptable for a young-ish prime minister to wear? And why do we cling on to the fading subcultural associations of such a mass-produced product?  

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

Perhaps, to see the wood through the trees, we need to ease up Sunak here. Because as deeply insincere and uncool as he is, Sunak is very much a “trainer native”. He was born in 1980, a year that places him on a jagged generational cusp, among the fresh-faced Gen Xers and the most geriatric of millennials. He is several years younger than David Beckham, Kanye West and Liam Gallagher – and nearly two decades junior to Michael Jordan, the man who did more for sporting footwear than anyone since Chuck Taylor. He would have grown up with trainers as a standard, as the norm, as something people just lived their lives in.

It’s tempting to imagine a young Rishi walking in a cosseted, elitist world of Oliver Sweeney brogues and GANT deck shoes, and at times, he possibly did. But this is also someone who graduated Stanford University in 2006, around the same time that Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey were changing the course of the internet in hoodies and flip-flops. Trainers and finance are not mutually exclusive for anyone of Sunak’s generation, yet we seem to view his “Samba moment” as an oddity akin to Nadine Dorries wearing a pair of Depop Tabi boots or Johnny Mercer turning up to the GB News studio in wrap-bound Balenciaga sunglasses. As beguiling as it is, we are attaching notions of alternative lifestyles, of enhanced taste levels, to something that has been pedestrian for a very long time.

The likelihood is that Sunak is just aping the style of the “tech bros” he so clearly admires; the ones who run crypto funds from beachside Miami apartments, sometimes work barefoot, and invite The Weeknd to play at the office Christmas party. These are the people an Ivy League grad like Sunak could have been, had he not entered – and embarrassed himself – in the staid world of British parliamentary politics. No doubt, he’s hoping to show them there’s still a bit of Palo Alto in him.

They too, are just reflecting something greater. Fashion has its trailblazers, but the major changes happen slowly, and en masse. Over the last 20 years, the world has become an increasingly casual place – one that no longer seems to accommodate the formal. Our cities and public transport networks are swamped, the air is thick with pollution, and an increasingly health-conscious workforce now prefers to e-bike or power-walk into the office.

Changes in climate mean that it is more likely to be warm and wet than cold and dark, so herringbone coats are no longer fit for the modern businessman. People tend to exist in a state of low-key perpetual work, rather than slipping in and out of weekday and weekend guises. Fancy restaurants no longer require you to wear a tie. All of which means that an open-collar shirt and a pair of nice trainers is a perfect uniform for this era.

While Sunak will have his pair of shiny black Oxfords for Prime Minister’s Questions, or for entertaining the 1922 Committee, he, like everyone else, no longer moves in a world of long mahogany tables, boozy lunches and Savile Row suits. Now it’s all “flexible work space”, open-plan offices, ramen-on-the-run, cheeky high-intensity interval training sessions and roll-top backpacks. This style of being is now so prevalent, that in some London offices, it isn’t unfeasible to be made redundant by someone in full workout gear.

With this in mind, the reaction – while understandable – starts to sound a bit like the consternation around Tony Blair wearing jeans in the office, or Ken Clarke and his Hush Puppies. It might be hard to admit but just like everyone else conducting meetings in their trainers, Sunak in his Sambas simply reflects how the world dresses today.

[See also: David Cameron’s West Wing polish is putting Rishi Sunak to shame]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article :