Sports Banger: T‑shirts don’t change the world but they’re a good start”

From "Free Tulisa" to "Fuck Boris", Sports Bangers tees have always said what we're all thinking. As the brand turns 10, its founder Jonny Banger has released a book recounting its accidental rise to fashion week, via cease and desist letters from the Tories.

It’s supposed to be tricky to find Sports Banger HQ, tucked away in the industrial state hinterlands of Tottenham, past a branch of Screw Fix, and next to a place making cakes. But there’s actually no mistaking it, owing to the bass reverberating from an unassuming door, on a very average Tuesday afternoon. As it says on the other side of said door, welcome to Maison de Bang Bang.

Since Sports Banger, the bootleg-heavy, politically opinionated clothing brand, began in 2013, it’s been applauded for its outspoken, anti-Tory moments, ones that have ranged from a (now discontinued) T‑shirt combining the NHS branding with the Nike tick, to The COVID Letters, an art book that invited kids to deface the stay at home” letter Boris Johnson sent out in March 2020. But that pounding bass should set the record straight. I’m not an activist,” says founder Jonny Banger. I’m just a raver who thinks you have to be fair.”

And now Banger is also an author. Sports Banger: Lifestyles of the Poor, Rich & Famous, a 300-odd page hardback tome, comes out this month, produced by high-brow publishers Thames & Hudson. It tells the story of how the brand evolved from creating its first T‑shirt in 2013 to putting on fashion shows, exhibitions and even launching record label Heras in 2020.

That first T‑shirt happened by accident. But it also provided a sort of blueprint for the Sports Banger take on the world. Banger had been following the court case of Tulisa Contostavlos, the N‑Dubz singer and X Factor judge, who was accused of dealing drugs: I thought the case was a load of bollocks,” he writes in the book. A working-class girl being dragged through the mud by the tabloids.” So, as a birthday present to himself, he printed a T‑shirt with FREE TULISA” across it. Everyone ended up wanting one. I’d never seen anything like it – people stopping me, asking for photos. It made people talk and the support for her was real.” Banger quickly put the T‑shirts into production.

The trial around Contostavlos collapsed in July 2014 when it emerged that The Suns fake sheikh” reporter Mazher Mahmood had entrapped her. Did Sports Banger’s tees help her case? Who knows, but the whole saga got Banger thinking about the power of T‑shirt. He started printing more limited runs and soon, he says in the book, became the busiest client of his local post office.

Naturally, Banger’s tees run throughout the book, with a section in the middle cherry-picking the best, each one merging youth culture, class politics, bootleg humour and hedonism. There’s the Tommy Hilfiger logo repurposed to say London, England”. Or a bandaged-up hand holding a cigarette, dedicated to Josh, a raver who cut his little finger off during a big night but wanted to party on regardless. Another splices Margaret Thatcher with a mounted policeman during the Battle of Orgreave in 1984’s miners’ strike, an upside-down Ralph Lauren Polo horse on the back. Elsewhere, there’s a sideways Reebok logo next to an image of Victoria Beckham circa 1996. Then of course, FUCK BORIS”, along with the story of how a woman wearing one was told her T‑shirt was illegal” on a BLM march in 2020.

Banger is not your typical fashion designer. He works with a small team, bouncing ideas between himself, art director Dom Ridler and a few others. He sits amongst framed paraphernalia including an old Larry Levan T‑shirt, a certificate naming him a Haringey Hero and a Communication Workers Union T‑shirt. He chain-smokes and talks enthusiastically about pigeons (he recently discovered his granddad, Billy Wright, was a highly rated pigeon fancier). He grew up in Colchester and learned a DIY ethos when he worked in a record shop as a teenager, going on to study music production but not finishing the course. Growing up in Essex, rather than London, gave him a wider point of view, he says. Is that perspective British? Pause, puff on a cigarette. British it’s a loaded word, isn’t it?” he says. “[But] if you show a lot of this work to anyone that’s not British, people wouldn’t get it… I like this Britain in here. I wouldn’t say I like Britain out there.”

He thinks Sports Banger is successful because it says what a lot of people are thinking. It’s a vehicle for my voice [but it] usually resonates with people because we’ve all essentially got the same issues, or the same government.” This checks out with the brand’s most famous T‑shirt – the one that combines the NHS branding with a Nike swoosh, produced in 2015, prompted by the first junior doctors strike in 40 years. Banger’s mother worked as a psychiatric nurse for the NHS and, as he writes in the book, before she died when he was a teenager, the NHS tried to save her life. The T‑shirt was a way to show his support while making a point, putting the familiar blue logo of a public service next to that of one of the biggest sports brands in the world. The NHS symbol is not a logo or a brand,” he says. Brands can be bought and sold. [This is] reclaiming logos which are shoved in your face and giving them back to the people.”

Banger writes that T‑shirts don’t change the world but sometimes they’re a good start.” And he’s had first hand experience of the NHS T‑shirt’s impact. I was in the smoking area [at Corsica Studios in London] and a little raver kid was like, The NHS is sick innit, my mum works for the NHS,’” he says. I’m just like, YES!’”

Not everyone was thrilled with the drop. Jeremy Hunt, who was Health Secretary at the time, sent Sports Banger a cease and desist notice. The NHS letters and logo is registered to whoever’s in that role,” explains Banger. I would pixilate [the T‑shirt] and put not for sale’ on the website. They would say, Thanks for pixelating it on the site. Can you tell us when the giant poster on Holloway Road is coming down?’ You make that disappear and then, maybe a year later, you might be a bit pissed off or something, so you put it back up.” Some things were out of Banger’s – or Hunt’s – control, though. Franz Ferdinand drummer Paul Thomson wore the T‑Shirt on the Andrew Marr Show in 2018, broadcasting Sports Banger’s message to the show’s two million viewers.

During the pandemic, Sports Banger changed from a business making T‑shirts to one raising money for the NHS and supplying medical staff with much-needed meals. He says this, again, was rooted in the ethos he’d learned at raves. There’s the cliché PLUR: peace, love, unity, respect,” he says. The best way to describe it is just like a duty of care, [asking someone] Are you alright?’ When the raves stopped in lockdown, that duty of care didn’t stop for us.”

Instead, that care manifested less in clapping on the doorstep and more in delivering what medical staff actually needed. “[People] would be fundraising and they mean to do well, but they’re dumping 15 pizzas at A&E and the nurses don’t want pizzas, there’s already loads of food there,” he says. We’d co-ordinate it so the food would arrive at the same time everyday. All that takes is a sort of a phone call or something, it’s only a little bit more effort.” Banger is rightly held up as a hero for this work. What would he do if he was given an OBE? Pause, puff, giggle. Maybe I would like the act of receiving it… and then I’d just fucking stick it on eBay.”

In the decade since the brand started, Sports Banger has done two proper fashion shows. The second one, in September 2022, was called The People Deserve Beauty and used its pre-existing T‑shirts as a theme, with FREE TULISA, FUCK BORIS and the NHS all featuring alongside vogueing, and modelling by midwives and rappers. Vogue described it as hilarious” and excellent”. We’d done raves,” says Banger. Then when we did a fashion show, I was like, Oh my God, this is a next level buzz. This is insane.’” The only reason he hasn’t done more is budget: We just haven’t got any fucking money,” he says. Especially this last year, it’s hard keeping the lights on.”

It’s another statement that Banger’s fans can likely relate to. Because Sports Banger has never been about money or clout. While Lifestyles of the Poor, Rich & Famous is a massive achievement, it’s not self-congratulatory. Instead, it’s a handbook for the next Banger, who might already be working at a record shop in Colchester, about to change the world with a couple of logos.

We wanted it to take the form of a DIY cookbook,” he says. Every image on every page is very much achievable.”

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