Fred Perry’s iconic symbol and the battle being fought over it

A small laurel wreath embroidered into the cotton – it’s an iconic and instantly recognisable symbol.

But this seemingly innocuous logo means all sorts of things to all sorts of different people.

2 Tone heroes The Specials, known for their politically sharp lyrics, wore Fred Perry shirts when singing about the working classes during the 1970s.

A Fred Perry collection dedicated to the legacy of Amy Winehouse also exists.

Even Gwen Stefani and her No Doubt bandmates have donned the famous logo on stage.

And of course tennis player Fred Perry himself – the Stockport son of a socialist MP – wore the polo shirt and launched the brand at Wimbledon in 1952.

The laurel wreath logo has been appropriated by all kinds of sub cultures over generations

Mods, Suedeheads, skinheads, ska fans and indie kids are among the many British subcultures to have adopted the classic Fred Perry tennis shirt over the years.

But the shirts have also gained unwelcome associations with those on the hard right.

Most recently, Fred Perry’s black and yellow twin tipped polo has been adopted as the uniform of North American far-right group the Proud Boys.

The self-described male only “western chauvinist” organisation promotes and engages in political violence.

Proud Boy leadership pray before the start of a rally in Portland, Oregon

Their adoption of the Fred Perry polo shirt has become a source of embarrassment to the clothing brand – which this week roundly condemned the group.

In fact, the company has pulled the black and yellow twin tipped shirt from the US and Canadian markets and says they are working with lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of the brand.

An online statement reads that Fred Perry “does not support and is in no way affiliated with the Proud Boys” and speaks of frustration that the group has “appropriated” the shirt and “subverted” the laurel wreath logo “to their own ends”.

It reads: “The Fred Perry shirt is a piece of British subcultural uniform, adopted by various groups of people who recognise their own values in what it stands for. We are proud of its lineage and what the Laurel Wreath has represented for over 65 years: inclusivity, diversity and independence.

“The Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt has been an important part of that uniform since its introduction in the late 70s, and has been adopted generation after generation by various subcultures, without prejudice.

Fred Perry has axed one of its most iconic shirts
Fred Perry has pulled one of its most iconic shirts from the North American market
(Image: Instagram)

“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. That association is something we must do our best to end.”

When Fred Perry chairman John Flynn was questioned about the association in 2017, he said: “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 group that you speak of. It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with.”

When the Fred Perry polo was first launched at Wimbledon in 1952, it became an instant hit.

Fred Perry (right- holding tennis rackets) walking off the Centre Court at Wimbledon in 1933
(Image: Mirrorpix)

Part of its appeal stemmed from Perry himself, a three-time Wimbledon champion who came from humble beginnings as the son of a Stockport cotton spinner.

He lived a glamorous and remarkable life, winning a string of major championships, marrying four times and dating film stars, including Marlene Dietrich.

Over the years Fred Perry clothing – run by the Perry family until 1995 – became beloved by Mods, indie kids and ska fans.

It’s popularity has spanned generations and numerous opposing subcultures.

Amy Winehouse wearing a Fred Perry polo

Sociologist Prof Ellis Cashmore says Fred Perry is not the first brand to receive unwanted attention.

Ben Sherman shirts, popular with Mods in the 1960s and skinheads in the 1970s later became popular with football hooligans.

Burberry tartan caps became the preserve of football fans in the early 2000s.

While British brand Lonsdale had to contend with German far-right groups adopting their t-shirts during the 1980s.

“Burberry was closely associated with ‘chavs’ a few years back and did nothing,” Prof Cashmore says.

“The Burberry check baseball caps were popular with football fans too.

“Potentially, this was damaging to a brand which positions itself as upscale and classy. But the brand rode out the storm and has lost its link.

“The other clothing brand that springs to mind was Tommy Hilfiger, which really struggled when its clothes were worn by American gangs.

Thomas Turgoose wearing a Ben Sherman shirt in the film This Is England
(Image: Publicity Picture)

“Hilfiger was the label of choice in the 1990s and couldn’t in practice do anything. They were really embarrassed about it at the time. The stigma of those gangs transferred to Hilfiger.

“Once the brand has been appropriated there’s not much you can do about it.

So what can clothing brands do when their garments are appropriated by certain groups?

To simply hope that the problem goes away could lead to substantial brand damage, especially in the midst of a global anti-racism movement such as Black Lives Matter.

The pressure is on to not only condemn, but also to take action.

“BLM is going on all over the world so Fred Perry must have thought ‘we have to do something quite dramatic’,” Prof Cashmore says.

1970s Skins
(Image: By The4Skins2004 – http://the4skins.tripod.com/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2567924)

“They can’t pull the whole range so they’ve come to this halfway decision where only one particular colour is pulled from the range.

“They’re making a symbolic gesture by removing this particular shirt.”

The Proud Boys, founded by British-Canadian Gavin McInnes, are known for their anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric but deny links to the alt-right or white supremacists.

They describe members as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world.”

Facebook and Instagram have banned the Proud Boys and Twitter shut down accounts associated to the group last year.

McInnes, 50, last year sued the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) for designating the organisation a hate group.

A group of skinheads sitting on the steps of Thomson House, Newcastle, September 1970
(Image: Mirrorpix)

Skinheads were originally a subculture that incorperated fashions from the Mods and Jamaican rude boys and were anti-facist and non-racist.

But the look was later appropriated by groups affiliated to the National Front and those on the extreme right.

Prof Cashmore says the Proud Boys penchant for Fred Perry polos could be a nod to the British far-right skinheads of the 1980s.

He says: “Despite it becoming like a uniform for the Proud Boys I don’t think there has been any conscious decision. It’s just a trend that gathers its own momentum.

“These things do have a life of their own.”

Proud Boys outside a Trump rally in Orlando, Florida
(Image: Getty Images)

He adds: “The whole skinhead culture of the 70s and 80s was also popular in the U.S. It emerged in Britain but there was also an American movement that mimicked the British that had some racist factions.

“This is only a guess but all I can think of is that the Proud Boys are looking back on an American version of skinheads.

“When Ben Sherman was appropriated by far-right groups I think they thought the reputational damage could be terminal if they didn’t do something. So they moved onto other garments – they diversified. And it muffled the association.

“Fred Perry is probably also hoping their other products will overwhelm the association.”

So will Fred Perry’s denouncement of the Proud Boys movement make a difference?

Gwen Stefani wears a Fred Perry shirt while on stage with No Doubt in 2009
(Image: BrianTheMute)

Despite the brand’s popularity with musicians over the years, Prof Cashmore says it will take more than a celebrity endorsement to keep their reputation intact.

“Freds are a phenomenon that has weathered all kinds of political ideals and different groups,” he says.

“Clothes firms obviously profit when their brand is cool and sells well; equally it has to grin and bear it when groups with dodgy credentials – like the Proud Boys – seize on its products.

“Fred Perry has issued an insulting slap in the face to its loyal patrons now. So it will be interesting if the Proud Boys turn to another brand of polo shirt, or maybe continue to wear the Freds just to embarrass the company further.”

|Ma Evening Post