Adi Gillespie: "Much of Life Isn’t in Our Control. Keeping My Training on Point Makes the Rest a Lot Easier"

Daniel Davies
·8-min read

From Men's Health

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

Adi Gillespie is out of his comfort zone. When you consider that we’re talking about a man who joined the RAF at 17 and served in Afghanistan, who was employed as a personal trainer to a member of the Saudi royal family and has travelled the world playing rugby, that’s quite a statement. But Gillespie’s latest project has him rattled. At least, a little. “It’s probably been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “All of the things I did before this involved a physical aspect, and that kind of stuff I find quite easy. But this has been just completely different.”

At 29, he is now the creative director of his own luxury fashion label, Indigo Burg. For the first time, his physical prowess gives him no advantage, and that’s daunting. After all, knowing how to nail a calisthenics workout – and Gillespie knows how to do that better than most – doesn’t give you a leg-up when selecting fabrics or learning about pattern cutting. “When I started, I could describe exactly how I wanted the brand to look and feel to everyone else,” he explains. “But in terms of talking to factories and discussing the 20 different seams you could have, I didn’t know. I had to show them what I wanted, because I don’t have that background.”

While Gillespie may be learning on the job, his excitement about his new career is palpable. During our interview, his voice rises a few decibels as he passionately outlines his hopes of getting Indigo Burg into the biggest stores in the world and onto catwalks in Paris and Milan. When he discusses how upset he was after a skateboard injury ruined his chances of making it as a professional rugby player, or the “slog” of completing RAF basic training, the contrast is obvious. The man we’re talking to now is Gillespie at his most vulnerable – but also at his most alive.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

Behind the Wire

Gillespie was once just an energetic kid with an extraordinary aptitude for sport. At six years old, he was already training with Team GB-level gymnasts and, by the age of 11, the strength he had added to his mobile frame equipped him with the perfect build for rugby. Gillespie was a natural and, within a few years, he was chosen to play for the Devon under-15s team, before making it past thousands of other hopefuls to play for South-West England’s Rugby Academy. But just as he was about to enter the England Schools programme, he fractured his wrist in a skateboard accident, which put him out of action for a year. Dejected, Gillespie considered packing rugby in altogether.

Around the same time, some of his friends were starting careers in the military. Living near the Royal Marines training base Lympstone Commando, Gillespie had ambitions of one day wearing a green Royal Marine Commando beret, too. His regional rugby coach Craig Townsend – brother of the current Scotland head coach, Gregor Townsend – visited him at home to try to keep Gillespie on the path to becoming a professional player. But he couldn’t
sway him. “My coach came and said, ‘If you stay, you can go and train with the [Exeter] Chiefs twice a week while you’re still in college,’” remembers Gillespie. “But I’d already made up my mind, and I ended up applying for the military when I was 16. I joined at 17.”

On the advice of his dad, Gillespie chose not to apply for the Marines (“I guess it’s a bit of an ego trip, but he said the novelty would wear off…”) and instead joined the RAF. With his fitness background, he navigated the basic training relatively easily, though he describes officers “beasting you for no reason, really”. Then, he went on to complete just over a year of technical training, before finally graduating as an aircraft electrician.

Unlike the experiences of the many other ex-servicemen visible in popular culture right now, what shines through about Gillespie’s military life is the mundanity of it all. He explains how he’d work shifts, doing “three days on, two nights off, that kind of thing”, adding: “You’d work 12-hour shifts, so you’d be in at 7am to get a brief from the team that was in before you on what aircraft had landed that day, and you’d fix it. It would be like that the whole day, really. You would just be ticking off whatever jobs needed doing.”

During his time in the military, Gillespie served in Afghanistan, doing 12-week tours providing support from “behind the wire”, rather than on the front line. He also took up rugby again, travelling all over the world to play in rugby sevens tournaments for clubs such as Samurai, London Wasps and Rosslyn Park. But after spending six years in the RAF, there was little left for him to achieve. Serving had given him some amazing opportunities, not least the ability to play competitive rugby in Dubai and the United States. However, when he looked around, all he saw were men who had been in the service for 10-15 years longer than he had but didn’t seem to have a lot to show for it.

“I think if I do a boring job for long enough, I just end up sawing the branch I’m standing on because it’s not enough for me. I need some creative endeavours to keep me going,” says Gillespie. “While I was in the military, I was putting out these videos and that was enough at the time, but I’d grown out of that and wanted to do a little bit more and actually build a business. Looking back, it was a good time for me to jump ship.”

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

Fitness for Life

Gillespie left the RAF with a rough idea of what he wanted to do next. He had already amassed a social media following of around 150,000 people with the functional training videos he was putting out while he was serving, but a career as a fitness influencer would have to wait. Gillespie met a member of the Saudi royal family while on a double date with his then girlfriend. Fortuitously, the Saudi royal was on the lookout for a personal trainer. “He basically just said, ‘I need a trainer,’ and I offered to coach him while he was in London, then we kind of just carried it on from there.”

For the next two years, he travelled the world supplying his client with the kind of functional workouts he had been perfecting while in the military, with some CrossFit-style training thrown in for good measure. “I got to travel to all these amazing places, and I could take my friends out there,” says Gillespie. “It was quite a crazy period.”

Crazy though it was, it was still fitness, and fitness was what he did best. While he was training his royal client, Gillespie was building his Instagram following, which currently stands at 200,000 followers. He also launched the online and IRL training club, UVU, which fused his love of fitness, training and content creation. Go to YouTube and you can still see the hyper-stylised and wildly popular content that came out of Gillespie’s UVU training sessions, where a group of like-minded, six-pack-wielding men would meet up on the grimy outskirts of London to train. Gillespie says simply, “We’d all get together, play some music and do calisthenics.” But in the background, he was already working on his next project.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI

For over a year, Gillespie has been burrowed away, working on turning Indigo Burg into a reality. Gillespie sees the brand – which is named after the Mark Rothko painting Indigo on Burgundy – as being about more than just luxury fashion. Like the UVU project that preceded it, Indigo Burg will be as much about the content it influences and the films and the images it inspires, as it will be about fashion.

While Gillespie is no longer part of the workout industry, he certainly hasn’t forgotten about fitness altogether. He says he is in better condition now than ever before, with his training providing him with an element of control while the rest of his life is in flux.

Forging Ahead

“Training is massive to me now, more so than at any other time,” he observes. “In any creative business, you don’t know where it’s going to go and what you’re going to do next. A lot of it’s in your control, but there’s so much that isn’t – so by training and keeping that side of my life very much on point, it makes the rest of it a lot easier.”

Fashion and fitness, clothes and content: Adi Gillespie has time for them all. The conscientiousness he crafted in the military, and the functional and calisthenics workouts that have formed the basis of his career since, will inform, not impede, what he does next.

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