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Just getting into his Stride

As his techno sneakers walk out of the shops, Justin Deakin is walking tall as the hottest property in footwear. By Melanie Rickey
Sitting on a bright yellow inflatable sofa in his ultra-modern studio space in north London, the 27-year-old shoe designer Justin Deakin looks like a bright-eyed young thing with the earnestness of a Bisto Kid. Except he is no newcomer.

Deakin is the hottest footwear designer of the moment. Judged the Best New Designer for 1997 at the recent Footwear Awards, his range of techno sneakers, Stride, is on show in the Review Gallery at the Design Museum.

This is no mean feat. Stride sneakers have only been on sale for six weeks, and are selling out so quickly from shops across Europe that Deakin and his partner (in business and in love), Linzi Boyd, are grinning from ear to ear.

Leeds-born Deakin has been in the shoe business since 1990, when he was a buyer for a local fashion store. Rather than taking the traditional route via a footwear college such as Hackney's Cordwainers, he came at design from a commercial point of view. "There was nothing around that we wanted to buy in the early Nineties. The only decent shoes cost at least pounds 175, and everyone was wearing biker boots, so we designed something we wanted to wear and could actually afford."

He teamed up with a friend, Craig Tate, to form a traditional, but fashion-based men's and women's company called Nicholas Deakins, which is still in business, although Deakin left in 1994 to pursue his own lines. The first to leave his stable were Herbert Toe and Judi Toe, named after his mother and father, which fused traditional cobbling methods with hi- tech soles. But his burning ambition was always Stride.

Once they decided on a name and a logo for their sneakers it took two years, five prototypes, several trips to Korea, and more than pounds 250,000 to launch Stride. When he talks about this monumental effort there is a twinkle in his eye. This is a designer who doesn't talk about ethereal creativity. He talks sole units, uppers, price points and construction with a broad Leeds accent and a jingle of his chunky silver jewellery. "All we wanted to do was develop a new kind of footwear that used sports technology, but that people could wear every day," he says.

The trainers are a visual feast, with references as diverse as Evel Knievel's Velcro-fastened motorcycling boots, to puffa jackets and work boots, as well as from mainstream trainers. Christine Atha, curator of The Review Gallery, says, "The trainers are there as a contemporary idea, as well as a typical example of today's culture. They recall 1960s TV shows with their names, for example Stealth and Stingray, and also act as containers for so many references."

When Atha first approached Deakin, she told him "you're part of the trainer revolution". Deakin, however, still can't believe his luck. "It's brilliant, to get into the Design Museum you'd think it would take years." It has taken him months.

On Thursday, the opening night of the Design Museum's latest exhibition, The Power of Erotic Design, many visitors strayed to the glass cabinets featuring Stride, and the Just Deakin/Inflate collaboration, the inflatable flip-flop. "They were crowding around the glass cabinets having a good look," says Atha.

She is showing Stride alongside the ad campaign for the shoes, which features various styles in the context of greasy-spoon food: deep-fried with chips and peas, in a pie dish, or as boil-in-a-bag, with the catchline "put em on your plates ... mate".

Stride is a complete design concept, from the brand name to the logo to the shoe, and it works. Richard Wharton, from Offspring, a shop in Covent Garden dedicated to trainers, has been selling them for the past few weeks and watching them leave the shop in droves. "I wish I'd bought more of them, they appeal to everyone: it's not a black thing or a gay thing, although both groups are buying them, it's a fashion and club thing."

He is waiting for the red, white and blue variations on the current styles to come out next month, and will increase his order. Until then, catch them if you can. Deakin is passionate about keeping them reasonably priced - and pounds 69.99 (or pounds 64.99 for the girls) is a small price to pay for an instant design classic.

Stride will be on show at the Review Gallery at the Design Museum until August. The Design Museum, 28 Shad Thames, London SE1 (0171-378 6055).

Stride is available from Offspring, 60 Neal Street, London WC2; Aspecto, 85 Bridge Street, Manchester; branches of Cobra Sports; branches of JD Sports and Hip, 9 & 14 Thorntons Arcade, Leeds.