17 April 2020 Courier Weekly

Brand authenticity – from a bootlegger

The story behind cult clothing label Sports Banger's NHS x Nike t-shirt.

Jonny Banger takes the rough with the smooth. He’s shifted sportswear ever since he was a little boy and founded his cult clothing label Sports Banger seven years ago. Since then, he’s received five warnings from the UK government and had two online shops and three PayPal accounts shut down. On the flip side, he made £37,000 in half an hour last Friday. A tidy sum, even by Jonny’s standards. What’s more, he spent nothing on marketing.

All of the money was made through the re-release of a t-shirt that has blue NHS and Nike logos boldly juxtaposed against a white background. It first came out in 2015, when British healthcare funds were being drastically cut by the government. Jonny’s t-shirts proved to be a conversation starter for the high street masses, not just the hypebeast few, who rallied together to discuss how important the NHS is.

Throughout this crisis the same conversation is playing out again, while his brand-hacking antics will probably land him in yet more trouble. Not that he’s bothered. In fact, he wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘Use what you’ve got, and do what you can,’ he said once. ‘I started at the bottom,’ he said another time. ‘You bootleg because you have to, not because it’s cool.’

Generally, of course, he’s right. Counterfeit designer goods are a fashion faux pas. Buying a fake piece of clothing is associated with empty pockets and long-lasting embarrassment for those who get found out. Yet Sports Banger is turning this ethos upside down. It’s hard enough for small, independent clothing brands to be successful in the best of times, let alone through a crisis. What makes him so successful?

It isn’t the notion of exclusivity and limited supply, which are key to today’s streetwear culture. With Sports Banger, everyone’s invited. ‘Lifestyles of the poor, rich and famous,’ runs the brand’s tagline.

Nor does he think streetwear is cool anymore. In the past he’s ridiculed its – along with the fashion industry’s – fixation with ‘authenticity’. After all, what does it mean when the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers collaborates with Hypebeast on a ‘Streetwear Impact Report’? Or when Harvard Business School picks Supreme to outline the future of consumer capitalism?

Jonny’s studio and shop is located on Seven Sisters Road, a typical north London street with residential buildings and an ecosystem of small businesses underneath railway arches. He holds all his stock there, when there’s any left, from the t-shirts with upside down Reebok logos on to trainers he designed with real £5 notes stuck inside the soles. The brand is very much part of his local community: he collaborates with Tottenham Textiles next door and occasionally gives work to local teenagers.

Whenever Sports Banger launches a new piece of clothing, it sells out almost straight away. But that’s not because Jonny is trying to mimic a streetwear drop. Instead, it’s because Sports Banger is a small operation and the brand can’t keep up with demand. ‘It’s a one-man thing,’ he says on his website. ‘If your order has not arrived it’s because I’m waiting on more stock and it’s all got a bit out of hand.’

The NHS/Nike t-shirts go on sale again at 7pm this evening. Online, they’re sold alongside the following message: ‘I was born in the NHS. My mum worked for the NHS. The NHS tried to save my brother’s life. The NHS saved my life. The NHS saved my dad’s life. The NHS tried to save my mum’s life. The NHS saved my best friend’s life. The NHS saved my other best friend’s life. *A short true story by Jonny Banger.’

And for now, all proceeds are going straight towards delivering fresh juices and healthy food seven days a week to a handful of NHS hospitals. It’s easy to see why, then, his brand has so much resonance and holds what so many streetwear brands pretend they have but actually crave: authenticity.

At the time of writing, it proved too difficult to find a convenient time for an interview with Jonny. But in this instance, it feels like more of a blessing than a curse. He does things his own way. Long may that continue.

Illustration: R. Fresson

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