Fred Perry, the classic English sportswear brand that has just celebrated its centenary, manages to walk a canny line between embedding its long connection with Britain’s vibrant underground music scene and fashion credibility.
The unlikely appropriation of a sportswear range associated with the gentlemanly art of lawn tennis by the rebellious Mods of the 1960’s would, ultimately, change the face of not only this brand but many others: the possibility of a market –and a visibility- beyond the niche arenas of sport were set in motion. Though perhaps not obvious on the face of it, in effect, Fred Perry’s appropriation by a spontaneous groundswell of rebellious youth is a narrative that has since repeated itself in various guises, perhaps most obviously with the association between other sportswear brands and later American rap scenes.
As various commentators have pointed out, what on the face of it might have seemed unlikely – Vespa-riding, speed-munching rock kids donning garb usually seen on well-mannered upright sportsmen- was almost inevitable. Frederick John Perry was, after all, a working class hero, a man born of humble Mancunian roots. His prowess as an international sportsmen and, later, a smart businessman enabled him to break free of the rigid British class system. So, when the first generation born after World War II neared adulthood, and social conditions demanded a revision of power structures and the archaic British class system, they would look to appropriate heroes and role models. In the way that we now understand that fashion – and the fashion of a subculture in particular- is a complex beast, the unexpected combination of wild kids and elegant tennis clothing was perfect for the times.
Exactly what the firm’s response was at the time remains vague. One suspects it was hardly an immediately enthusiastic one. But, in time, Fred Perry would prove itself to be one of the smartly flexible companies that understood that this unexpected turn of events might prove good for business. And, indeed it has. Never turning its back on its roots nor on its connection with underground music scenes despite increasing collaborations with those from the worlds of ‘high fashion’ in recent decades has meant that it has managed to both retain old loyal customers and remain attractive to younger generations, a rare achievement indeed.
The brand’s emphatic association with British underground music scene continues through programmes such as those through which they provide profile for top emerging music talent. And its fashion credentials remain impeccable in a number of arenas ranging from respect for its traditional English clothes-making traditions through to its high-profile collaborations with sought-after international design talent such as the collaboration with Raf Simons whose sleek pared down reworking of the label’s classic practical garments are ideal for contemporary living; for those who want to signal an unpretentious yet fashion-conscious style.
As Summer nudges hesitantly towards us, one suspects that the well-appointed gentlemen on holiday would do well to invest in one of the eye-catching shirts with their notable shortened collars; perhaps even one with this season’s signature neon flashes of colour.