In an internet age of targeted advertising and sponsored influencer posts, not many businesses live and die through good old-fashioned word of mouth, but Jonny Banger’s does. A decade ago he made himself a birthday present: a hastily self-printed white slogan tee reading “Free Tulisa” in simple black font. At the time, the N Dubz star and X Factor judge was under police investigation amid allegations, subsequently dropped, that she helped facilitate an £800 drug deal. Banger found that every time he wore the T-shirt people would nudge each other and whisper, or giggle and take pictures with him. He realised he was onto something; soon after, Sports Banger was born.
Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll have seen Sports Banger’s work. In the past decade the company—and the man behind it, who still refers to himself as a “raver” rather than an artist—has graced the online and offline world with a slew of viral fashion moments, many influenced by the worlds of politics and nightlife. “I knew the power of a T-shirt”, he says. “They’re like travelling billboards, I suppose. They get your message across.”
After signs warning that “phone thieves are targeting London venues” began popping up across the capital’s nightclubs in the 2010s, he created T-shirts reading “THE MET POLICE ARE TARGETING LONDON VENUES”, and a spin-off, “THE CONSERVATIVES ARE TARGETING EVERYONE”. While openly anti-Conservative—Banger’s most recent creation is a series of badges reading “TORY, They’ll Only Rob You”—an equal number of designs are created in a spirit of solidarity, for everyone from Nigella Lawson to the NHS. The latter, a Nike parody featuring the National Health Service’s blue logo with the brand’s iconic tick below, became so popular during the Covid-19 pandemic that Banger says he received 10 cease and desist letters from the government and the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
It’s not just T-shirts though; Sports Banger has branched out into off-season fashion shows, presented from his studio in Tottenham where every piece of clothing is created, from Lucozade-branded dresses to coats made of inflatable lilos and full-length gowns created from whistles. When I meet Banger, on a chilly Thursday morning in that studio, he takes me on a whistle-stop tour. “We would have done a show this year, but we just didn’t have the fucking money,” he says, candidly.
Banger’s not exaggerating. The cost-of-living crisis, made worse by over a decade of austerity, is making it more and more difficult to support creative, independent lifestyles and businesses in London. Sports Banger’s studio was secured thanks in part to grants and help from a sympathetic councillor. In the 10 years the brand has existed, London’s nightclubs have dwindled—during the pandemic one in five of them shut for good—and the city’s housing market makes it increasingly hard to secure studio space, let alone host fashion shows. “Nightlife is in dire straits,” says Banger.
But the bleakness of it has inspired designers, ravers and artists to persist nonetheless. “I don’t see myself as political,” Banger shrugs. “Yeah,” I say, flicking through the pages of his book dedicated to another of his most popular designs, a T-shirt that reads “Fuck Boris”.
To celebrate 10 years of it all, this autumn Banger and his team are releasing a new book—Lifestyles of the Poor, Rich and Famous—which charts the genre-defying, boundary-breaking fashion collective’s interrogation of British pop culture, fashion, class and politics through the subversion and (mis)appropriation of branding. A fascination with modern Britain and British pop culture ties it together.
For Sports Banger, it’s not just about hating the Tories or loving a party or even making a funny T-shirt. “It’s a celebration of people,” he says. “Our relationships with each other. You can do it all poker-face or you can sort of have fun with it. That’s what confuses people—if we’re having fun.”