Tiger Stripes on the Block: How ASICS Became a Banlieue Style Staple

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Beyond the borders of Paris – the glamorous and sometimes boringly sleek French capital – there is an exceptionally vibrant creative energy pulsing from the so-called banlieue districts, which are the home to mostly reclusive communitieswith few chances to improve their situation.

As one can imagine, this circumstance is not necessarily chosen, but has developed over decades of being denied access to equal opportunities by French authorities and society as a whole. With this, naturally, comes an aversion towards the media which mainly portrays such blocks as a place for lost souls defined by drugs, violence, and overtly excessive police brutality. You know, people who are taking Justice’s “Stress” music video too literally.

Those problems are undoubtedly real and they need to be addressed to achieve betterment, but it would be unfair to exclusively recognize those aspects. It would overlook the humanity and creativity of the people living every day within the confinements of the banlieues. Now, an immensely powerful tension is brewing in the banlieues, turning them into an emblematic symbol for French street culture.

Scroll down below to read our in-depth documentation of how Japanese heritage brand ASICS became a staple style of the French banlieues.

Creatives who grew up in those blocks distilled their experiences in their art and created a very specific aesthetic around it. Be it through cinematic masterpieces like Mathieu Kassovitz’s ‘La Haine’ or Ladj Ly’s ‘Les Misérables’ — a more recent example — or through photography and music. In the context of the banlieues, art is both a means of self-expression and an opportunity to illustrate problems one sees in attempting to make such voices heard.

Most of the artwork resulting from that is (sometimes brutally) honest, celebratory of the people in the banlieue, and deeply poetic. Take photographer Mohamed Bourouissa’s “Périphéries” series, for instance. That body of work combines compositions from classical paintings with the subjects — most of whom were his friends — he used to portray in his banlieue. He challenges those who disregard the suburbs and the kids living there as an irrelevant periphery to have a clear and direct look at those sceneries by elevating them into a more artful context. At the same time, he shows
that the elitist hierarchy some people apply to different kinds of art (and artists!) is nothing but nonsense.

Contemporary photographers like Yanis Dadoum or Escalope take a more candid approach to their work. They show their surroundings as authentically as possible. The appeal of their work is not comparable to a perfectly staged image or “beauty” in the common — and honestly, quite boring sense. Its beauty grows from its realness, from the raw grit that most of the sceneries they portray inherit.

For them, it is essential that they — as “insiders” — do that work sincerely. If someone else might do it, there is a looming threat of the result becoming too voyeuristic, or even worse: exploitative. Also, in that case, the honesty might get lost. In an interview with i-D magazine, Yanis Dadoum said about the blocks he grew up in, that, “They are like a scary myth. Everybody thinks that if you go to the banlieues, you're gonna get robbed or shit like that. At the end of the day, society always reminds you that you are from the banlieues.”

Of course, music is also a powerful tool to flip the “reminding” on its head and to make sure voices from the banlieue are heard and their speakers are seen. Especially rap and the huge stance of the art form in France are largely fueled by the energy of the banlieue. Today, rap superstars like PNL, Jul, Koba LaD, or Zola are carrying the torch when it comes to representing that culture — both in their music and in their often very cinematic music videos.

Over the years, the style and aesthetic cultivated by kids in the banlieues have grown to be the one defining influence in French youth culture. Identifiers like popping wheelies on motorbikes, playing football, listening to and producing rap music, and an omnipresence of sportswear have spread from the suburbs to the city and beyond national borders. There is a lot of Nike to be seen as one might expect. Another more surprising brand is gaining more and more cultural real estate in banlieue culture recently. ASICS has been rising in popularity in the last few years.

At first glance, the origins of the Japanese sportswear brand and Banlieue culture seemingly could not be further apart. On the one side, you have ASICS with their performance and tech-focused approach and primarily clean and refined imagery in its communication. Speaking of aesthetics, that is almost precisely the direct antithesis of the lived realities of most people in banlieues, which often are shaped by rawness, grit, and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

Of course, the latter could abstractly be adapted to ASICS’ “Sound Mind, Sound Body” motto and the benefits that principle could offer to banlieue kids, but that would maybe be a little too farfetched. The compatibility of the two becomes clearer when simply looking at it from a product standpoint. ASICS’ high-performance standards and R&D requirements result in running sneakers that offer versatility, functionality, and longevity — all traits that are very useful to kids in the banlieue who can apply both to their everyday life and distinct taste.

The creativity of the banlieue that can be seen in other art forms also gets apparent when looking at how people in that culture dress. The looks consist of fitted tracksuits combined with accessories donning luxury fashion logos (think Louis Vuitton or Gucci), football jerseys, and running sneakers. Overall, the styles are very sports-focused, comfortable, and either very colorful overall or with distinct, colorful hits.

Football plays a formative role in conjunction with French rap — similar to the connection between Basketball and US rap — and therefore also influences the clothing associated with the genre and culture. Some say those specific style codes started in Marseille before slowly spreading all over France and blowing up once it dominated Paris.

A certain avant-gardeness can certainly be attributed to those styles. When you don’t have unlimited options, you have to be creative with what you have — meaning, when you don’t have access to the resources you don’t need to follow some fashion trend; you create your own. And that is exactly what happened.

With sports retailers being the main source for clothing in those areas — counterfeit markets set aside for a moment — the youth fashion there leaning towards sportswear is a natural progression. Also, like other style codes established by subcultures, the look was first adopted by many suburban kids to imitate the grown-ups they saw on their blocks. Both as a means to seem more adult themselves as well as to represent their culture. Since the aforementioned youthful energy is thoroughly represented in these styles, artists are some of the main catalysts for exporting those aesthetics outside the banlieues and across French borders. Mainly photographers and rappers are documenting life in these banlieues and celebrating their subcultural pull while simultaneously acknowledging the struggles innate to their existence.

While Nike Air Max and Nike TN models are still seen everywhere, ASICS continues to move towards the forefront when looking at everything “banlieue”. What makes that especially interesting, is the vast distance between the realities in the French suburbs and the sneaker brand’s distinctly Japanese heritage. And while the two remain world’s apart in terms of their historical positioning, the banlieue subculture has managed to find commonality and a series of unique overlaps.

Some people tell a story similar to the adidas Superstar’s rise to popularity in the 1980s in the US. Apparently, ASICS were the shoes of choice to wear to illustrate status in French prisons, and thus this style code permeated outside those penitentiary walls and was adopted by the streets. Being carried by big sportswear retail chains like Intersport or Decathlon at an accessible price point certainly helped to spread ASICS running silhouettes in the banlieue, too. Also, at some point, when ASICS was not seen everywhere, it had a novelty factor with the inherent potential to mark the brand and its running silhouettes as identifiers for the banlieue.

Jul from Marseille, for example, has been name-dropping ASICS more often in his songs than Kanye West claimed his Yeezys jumped over the Jumpman. And he did it a lot even before ASICS recognized his influence and allowed him to do his own colorway for the GEL-Venture 7, dubbed “Ovni”. While he is constantly celebrating huge successes in France, he still lives in his banlieue and is strolling through the streets in a tracksuit and a pair of ASICS. This connection to his roots and the simplicity as well as the functionality are all represented in that look and are some of the main aspects the rapper is so widely admired by his peers and fans for.

Another recent collaboration project between ASICS and a French brand was the M+RC NOIR Gel-Quantum 180 6. While the Paris-based label might not be mainly operating in the banlieues, they are heavily inspired by its aesthetics. They also portrayed that in the design of the shoe as well as in the accompanying lookbook which was shot by Bishop Nast — another thriving creative from the blocks.

Both those projects can stand as examples of the types of ASICS silhouettes that are the most popular in the banlieues. They are mainly runners that offer certain longevity and have proven to be dependable like the GEL-Kayano and GEL-Quantum lines for example.

While ASICS might think of themselves as performance-oriented in connection to a more conventional idea of sports, the banlieue kids appreciate that mindset and adapt that functionality-focus to their own personal context. It could quite easily be argued that circumstances in the banlieues present very difficult challenges to many people living there. Especially to the younger generations searching for ways to navigate that highly competitive and demanding — if not sometimes hostile — environment.

Being outside all day, playing football, hustling (in many different ways), simply living in tracksuits and ASICS, the intertwining of ASICS and the culture has been gradually developing in a very organic and effortless way. When asked what the message behind his style and preference for ASICS is, photographer Escalope states in a documentary: “The message is simple. I like football, I like tracksuits, I like ASICS. Here is the message. This is how I dress.” It is honestly doubtful that the brand had any intention to kick off that trajectory but it just so happens that a community discovered that the performance traits of ASICS products matched their specific needs and added the shoes to their creative toolbox.

They also work as a classic identifier through clothes — a youth culture claiming a garment that originally had been created with a different intent and using it for themselves, therefore making it their own. In the end, all these factors boil down to an incredible amount of realness and raw authenticity. Of course, that authenticity is very appealing for spectators — e.g. the audiences consuming the music and artworks coming from the banlieues.

Naturally, this is resulting in their style codes being adopted worldwide. That evolution has even gone so far, that the same ASICS runners worn by kids and rappers from the banlieues are becoming more popular in Japan again. Japanese youth are looking for something new and feel attracted to the energy coming from that culture. Thus they try to be a part of it and imitate it – including the ASICS shoes, of course. If that is not a full-circle moment, we don’t know what would be. It once again emphasizes the incredible power of culture to connect people through art, style, and energy.

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