The Genteel
May 17, 2021


Fred Perry's 60th anniversary polos by (L to R): Belgian fashion designer, Walter van Beirendonck; British fashion designer, Christopher Raeburn; Christian Dior creative director, Raf Simons.
Bradley Wiggins x Fred Perry polo.

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the Fred Perry sportswear label is collaborating with a total of 60 designers, musicians and creatives, who have been asked to customise the brand's classic laurel-leafed polo shirt. The project follows last year's re-issue of original 1952 garments and the all-black 60 Years collection, and will conclude later this year with an auction of all of the guest designs. As a brand that has been making an impression on British street style since the late 1950s, there is a poetic resonance about the proceeds of the auction going to the Amy Winehouse Foundation.

Although the Fred Perry label has its roots in the quintessential middle class sport of tennis, it has found an enduring niche in varying sub-cultures emanating from the creative hub of British working-class youth. Receptive to musical and fashion movements from around the globe, the resulting fusion that penetrated through was always intrinsically British - just as Winehouse distilled the American jazz/blues/soul diva template into a singularly Camden Town creation.

In post-war Britain, certain symbols carried an inborn heritage that gave a nation finding its way into the future something tangible to rally around: for mainstream society, the pub on every street corner, Royal Family and totemic "cup of tea" fulfilled that role nicely while for the first modernists it was jazz music, espresso bars, European fashion & cinema and the Fred Perry laurel leaf that gave them a sense of unity underpinned by a combination of aspiration and difference. 

The Fred Perry polo is a genius piece of design simplicity that has moved fluidly through the decades, first sported by the original modernists and suedeheads of the 1950 and '60s, the skinhead and two-tone movements of the 1970 and '80s, the indie pop stars of the 1990s and every type of creative professional since.

It's a paradox that within the gritty, hard-working and stubbornly defensive lower echelons of the British class system lies a tolerance for the new and exotic, whether in the form of music or dress (although, the 1958 Notting Hill race riots served to show that this openness didn't always extend to people).

As durable as the Queen but without the pompous ostentation, the Fred Perry brand has been around long enough to have seen the transformation of Britain from a monochrome and stiff post-war nation into a vibrant, multi-cultural country. In reaction to its Imperialist past, the small island (with big ideas) has witnessed an influx of people from around the world into its towns and cities. And as a result, the idea of what it is to be British has been made much more complicated.

It's a paradox that within the gritty, hard-working and stubbornly defensive lower echelons of the British class system lies a tolerance for the new and exotic, whether in the form of music or dress (although, the 1958 Notting Hill race riots served to show that this openness didn't always extend to people). A myriad of influences filtered through society, acting as transformational forces that would forge so many memorable sub-cultural identities in the second half of the 20th century - a revolution of values, style and attitude that continually absorbed, renewed and updated the cultural reference points of a nation adapting to the modern world.

Legendary film director, DJ and musician Don Letts, the man widely credited with introducing reggae to the punk scene during the 1970s, chronologically charts this very British coup in a series of short films entitled The Unique Story of British Music & Street Style, made in association with the Fred Perry label. From the original independent-minded modernists who built an identity around their love of jazz music and cool imported European fashion, to the misrepresented skinheads with their overly aggressive image and dedication to Jamaican reggae music, the films bring back the sense that music, fashion and cultural boundaries were constantly being blurred. Letts makes the point that all of these sub-cultures had a limited shelf-life, constantly mutating in an increasingly futile but exciting attempt to escape being sucked back into the mainstream.

By the turn of the century, it seemed that the desire of British youth to form music-led localised sub-cultures had been extinguished by globalisation and the immediacy of the internet. The world had changed irrevocably but the laurel leaf has remained a constant fixture, fading in and fading out, at the forefront of street style or left neatly folded and forgotten in the drawer. As famous English portrait and fashion photographer Rankin says on the Fred Perry website, "I first wore Fred Perry when I was 14. I was influenced by The Specials, [Paul] Weller, and Nine Below Zero. All these bands were dressed in Fred Perry but I remember the white pique polo as being the most sought after piece… white was cool, very cool."

Gwen Stefani in a Fred Perry polo.

Fortunately, the flame has been kept alive by the likes of Rankin, Blur's Damon Albarn and the late Amy Winehouse, who had collaborated with Fred Perry on a S/S 2012 collection. Last year also saw a collaboration with Tour de France-Olympic champion cyclist Bradley Wiggins, while Raf Simons and No Doubt/Gwen Stefani have co-produced capsule collections with Fred Perry, with the latter's range due for debut in America this month and set for a spring launch in the UK.

Add the names of a variety of "movers and shakers" in the world of international fashion, art and graphic design and you can begin to see how the Fred Perry brand is setting itself for another 60 years of existence. A brand that had been originally appropriated by the mods of the 1950s - the "heraldists of an imminent time of change," so says London Radio DJ and social commentator Robert Elms in Don Letts' mini films - who resisted (in style) the pressure to conform to the societal norms of the day and set in motion a domino effect that's still going today.



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