When British triple Wimbledon champion Fred Perry launched a clothing range in 1952, he would have been hard-pressed to foresee how it would become embroiled in a political row decades later.
Fred Perry’s lightweight polo shirts, complete with distinctive laurel wreath, made headlines recently when the label said it would stop selling certain versions of the garment in North America and was working with its lawyers to “pursue any unlawful use of our brand”.
What prompted this legal call to arms? Enter the Proud Boys.
The Proud Boys in Fred Perry
Set up in the US in 2016 by Vice founder Gavin McInnes, this men-only organisation of self-described "western chauvinists" is characterised rather more bluntly as a hate group by the anti-racist Southern Poverty Law Centre.
Regularly making the news for their street violence, bellicose support for Donald Trump and enduring hostility to Islam, brawling groups of Proud Boys were often photographed wearing black and yellow Fred Perry shirts – public relations kryptonite for a hip fashion label with roots in youth subcultures going back decades.
“We are proud of its lineage and what the laurel wreath has represented for more than 65 years: inclusivity, diversity and independence,” Fred Perry said last month. “Despite its lineage, we have seen that the black / yellow / yellow twin-tipped shirt is taking on a new and very different meaning in North America as a result of its association with the Proud Boys.”
Speaking in 2017, chairman John Flynn had to distance his brand from the Proud Boys. "Fred was the son of a working-class socialist MP who became a world tennis champion at a time when tennis was an elitist sport. He started a business with a Jewish businessman from Eastern Europe. It's a shame we even have to answer questions like this. No, we don't support the ideals or the [Proud Boys] group. It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with."
Politics and fashion often make uncomfortable bedfellows, and it is not the first time that labels or designers have had to react to some unwelcome associations.
In 2016, the same year McInnes was saddling up with his Proud Boys, sportswear brand New Balance had to distance itself from an endorsement by US neo-Nazis. One prominent activist declared the company's trainers to be the "official shoes of white people" after New Balance appeared to endorse US President Donald Trump's trade policies.
Skinheads in Ben Sherman and Dr Martens
Across the Atlantic, Fred Perry and other brands have a strong connection to the UK’s once-thriving collection of musical tribes. That British skinheads’ look included shirts by Ben Sherman and Fred Perry, Dr Martens boots, light Harrington-style jackets and heavier Crombie overcoats, left those labels vulnerable to the bad publicity arising from any criminality or extremism on their customers’ part.
The skinhead scene is an apposite example of this blurring of the lines between style and the street. Skinhead subculture came in waves in the UK, with its original manifestation in the late 1960s being working class, apolitical and closely tied to the reggae and ska music brought to Britain by West Indian immigrants.
Later iterations of the skinhead style in the 1970s and 1980s provided a pool for the UK's far-right to recruit from. This produced startling images of shaven-headed young people – mostly men – indulging in the same kind of street violence that sealed the Proud Boys' unsavoury reputation decades later. That most skins stayed out of politics – even referring to their violent, far-right brethren as boneheads rather than skinheads – didn't stop the subculture from getting a bad name. However, where it was once possible to figure out someone's politics from their style choices, the issue has become more clouded, the colourful Hawaiian shirt now being a case in point.
Hawaiian shirts and the boogaloo movement
Worn by gun-toting right-wingers at protests in the US, the shirt was appropriated through a bewildering stream of internet slang and wink-wink, nudge-nudge coded meaning.
References to 1984 musical film Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo acted as a message-board euphemism for racial conflict or a second US civil war. Over time, boogaloo morphed into big igloo or big luau – luau being a traditional Hawaiian party, hence the shirt.
As with the Proud Boys, a mixture of bogus irony, niche wordplay and internet obscurantism allows such groups to adopt some plausible deniability. This coded meaning takes another form in parts of Europe, Germany in particular, where displays of neo-Nazi symbols are illegal. There, streetwear brands produce clothing with disguised ultra-right imagery and slogans. As British cultural theorist Mark Fisher presciently wrote in 2006: "Postmodern fascism is a disavowed fascism."
But, unlike the Zoolander-ish antics of high fashion when it swims head-on into the propellers of controversy – as when Hong Kong make-up brand Woke Up Like This recently had to pull a liquid blusher it named after Anne Frank – Fred Perry's woes are not self-inflicted.
'Brands run a risk by shirking a political stance'
So, how can a fashion brand react when its products are hijacked? Omar Khalifa, a communications expert in Dubai, tells The National that an "aggressive communications campaign" can help. Labels, he says, can use tactics such as "internal diversity and sensitivity training programmes; donations to organisations working with minorities; hiring racial justice, inclusion or diversity specialists; or pledging any number of decisions that would redress whatever situation caused furore".
But does pulling a product – particularly a piece of clothing – only cede ground to whichever motley crew of extremists misappropriated it? Does anyone with a yellow and black Fred Perry shirt now have to go around denying they are a fascist? “The economy is liberal, at least nominally, and businesses know that,” Khalifa says. “It doesn’t matter what the company believes or embraces. Whatever product needs to be pulled will have to be pulled, regardless of what motivates such a move.”
For Minter Dial, a professional speaker in the UK and author of the new book You Lead, a label failing to respond brings its own dangers. "Brands now can run as much risk by shirking a political stance as by espousing one," he tells The National. "And the most sensitive target of any political stance by a brand is the employee base. Staying silent on an issue is increasingly taken as acquiescence. For me, the key is establishing the type of brand you have and want to stand for."
Fred Perry seems to have made that choice and skilfully managed to detach its clothes from the worst excesses of the subcultures that adopted them. But the Proud Boys won’t be the last to attach political and other signifiers to fashion choices.
European brands such as Lacoste and Stone Island became popular with football casuals – many of which, if political at all, leaned towards the right. In Turkey, it is still the case that facial hair can offer a clue to the owner's politics (big moustache for leftists; the handlebar variety for nationalists).
Wrapped up in all these layers of meaning is a heady mix of class, style, politics and in-group identity. If our politics is becoming more tribal – and we live in a world where even wearing a mask can be a political statement – labels can expect their products to be woven with more than just fabric.