Sporty Style Is Trending So We Talked to Melanie C (Yes, Sporty Spice), the One Who Started It All

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Sporty style is poised to be completely taking over the summer, with the Olympics happening in Paris following a couple of incredibly athletically-minded seasons on the runways. It started over in England where football (or soccer as we call it on this side of the pond) is king, and Grace Wales Bonner and Martine Rose released collaborations with Adidas and Nike respectively. Here in New York, Bode’s Emily Adams Bode Aujla recently launched Bode Recreation, a sub-label focused on activewear, and christened it with a Nike collaboration featuring both sneakers and ready-to-wear. Add to that the current WNBA fever that’s sweeping the nation, and well, it’s simply never been a better time to indulge your sporty sensibilities.

In thinking about all the sporty trends that have taken over the industry, I kept coming back to one woman: the inimitable Melanie Chisholm, known to you, me, and the rest of the world, as Melanie C, aka Sporty Spice, the undisputed cultural mother of our athletic fashion era. Almost 30 years later, her uniform of track suits, cropped tops, and Nike Air Max Sneakers is looking exactly right.

An early promotional images of the group in Paris in 1996—before Spice mania took over the world.

Photo: Tim Roney/Getty Images

“What is so fun is that I see kids, I see grownups, I see all these different generations wearing these sporty clothes and I do think, well, I had a hand in that,” Chisholm tells me over Zoom, fresh off a tour that just wrapped in Australia. “Now I wish I’d kept more of those clothes, but the things I’ve kept I still rewear and I’ve found myself even rebuying some of the pieces I had back in the day.” She starts laughing. “Look, I’m sitting here wearing Adidas poppers!” She lifts up her leg to show off a pair of the classic snap-off pants in a bold shade of red.

“Wannabe,” where it all began.

If you were a teenager in 1997 with access to the The Box TV channel, then you’ll likely remember being absolutely enthralled by the Spice Girls’s debut music video for “Wannabe,” which quickly established each one of the girls’ personalities through their wildly distinctive clothes. There was Geri in a sequined leotard worn over black tights (“she was always in some kooky outfit she’d picked up at a thrift store”); Emma in a white shift dress with matching platform sandal mules; Victoria in a little black body-con dress and elegant ankle-strap chunky heels; Mel B in a lime green tank top and black and green shiny pants and steel-toed boots; and Chisholm in bright blue Adidas track pants with neon green stripes, a shiny orange spandex halter top, and trainers—all of which came straight from her own closet. “At the beginning it was all of our wardrobes, we didn’t have any money to go out and buy things, and we didn’t even have a relationship with a stylist,” she says.

Their looks stood out because at the time—and even now—pop groups always opted for matching or coordinating outfits. “We tried a lot of stuff with the original management but there was always someone that felt and looked uncomfortable,” she recalls. “If we had a nice little dress on, then I’d feel really out of place, and then if we were all a little bit sporty or casual then Victoria just didn’t feel dressed-up enough.” It was Geri that brought forth the idea that everyone simply come as they are. “I remember it so vividly, we used to rehearse in a church hall—this is when we first got together way back in 1994 and were looking in the mirror one day and Geri said, ‘why don’t we just dress as we do?’” The rest, as they say, is history.

Mel C wears a pair of Nike Air Rifts in the “Too Much” music video.

Chisholm grew up playing “loads of athletics” including football, hockey, tennis, and netball, but her penchant for sporty clothes was less a reflection of her active lifestyle, and more a result of growing up “just outside” Liverpool. “Predominantly through the ’80s it was a real industrial, working-class town; and that is how kids dressed when you were out in the park or riding your bike,” she explains. “I think probably at the time, it was cheaper to dress like that, there wasn’t that much money and the clothes were durable so it just worked.” Later, when the raving scene flourished in the early ‘90s, sportswear was the go-to look. “I went to a performing arts college so I was dancing all day, and I started out clubbing and people were just going out in tracksuits,” she adds. (It’s interesting that these are some of the same points of reference for many of the British designers like Martine Rose, who have been incorporating elements of sportswear into the collections.)

As Chisholm embarked on her post-Spice Girls career, there came a time when she felt the need to change her style—albeit temporarily. “I think all of us have this moment of going ‘I’m an individual,’ and we were just trying to discover who we were as ourselves.” She continues, “I went through a little phase where I felt if I wore sports clothes in public I’d look like a Halloween version of myself—but the reality is we were individuals within the band, so it’s lovely to come back and go yeah, I’m so comfortable in this skin, I didn’t need to do any searching. I don’t think I’ll ever look back now. For the rest of my days I will be very sporty.”

“I loved the look of boxers underneath track pants. At the beginning, I remember borrowing, I think it was one of Mel B’s boyfriend’s Calvin Klein boxer shorts—but I definitely made up for it once I got some pennies in the bank.” At the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, where each girl arrived in a truly iconic look, Chisholm was rocking Ralph Lauren boxers underneath her all-white look.

Ron Davis/Getty Images

On the rare occasion the five women wore matching clothes, their choice of accessories was always grounded in their own personal style—of course Chisholm paired hers with a pair of Air Maxes. The Air Max 90s and the 97s are her favorites. “Even now, when I order things and the boxes turn up my daughter is like ‘mom, no more sneakers, you’ve got a problem’.”

Tim Graham/Getty Images

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