Jonny Banger’s relationship with bootlegging began at the age of 10, when he started selling counterfeit clothing with his dad at car boot sales and markets. Fast-forward to today, and the artist’s underground bootlegging operation has transformed into an internationally recognised, DIY fashion house.
Officially founded in 2013, Sports Banger is well known for interrogating British pop culture, fashion, class, and politics through its subversive take on branding. It’s earned a cult following for its anti-government stance in particular, as seen with its NHS bootlegged T-shirt and art book the Covid Letters, which invited kids to deface the ‘stay at home’ letter prime minister Boris Johnson sent out at the start of the pandemic.
A new book, written and designed by Banger himself, is charting the irreverent brand’s rise over the last decade. Much of the imagery featured in it reflects Sports Banger’s genre-defying journey; socially conscious community projects appear alongside one-off pieces for Skepta and 2 Chainz, while high-end fashion shows feature collaborations with brands such as Slazenger, which the artist describes as “working-class gear as far removed from hype as you can get”.
Unsurprisingly, the humble T-shirt looms large in the book, with an entire section dedicated to Sports Banger’s archive of bootleg T-shirts. The very first one, which was semi-accidental but became a blueprint for the brand’s success, came about during the court case of Tulisa Contostavlos, the N‑Dubz singer and X Factor judge who had been accused of dealing drugs.
“I thought the case was a load of bollocks,” Banger writes. “A working-class girl being dragged through the mud by the tabloids.” He printed a simple black and white T‑shirt with ‘Free Tulisa’ on it, and the rest is history.
Banger made the now iconic NHS T-shirt in 2015 during a junior doctors’ strike. Wanting to show his support while making a point, he placed the familiar blue NHS letters next to Nike’s instantly recognisable logo to remind people of the fact that it’s a national health service and not a brand.
Having caused quite a stir at the time (Banger even received a cease-and-desist notice from Jeremy Hunt, who was health secretary at the time), the T-shirt’s message still resonates amid the current wave of doctor and nurse strikes. During the pandemic, Banger shifted his focus to raising money for the NHS and supplying medical staff with much-needed meals, while people across the UK adopted the T-shirt as a sign of support for NHS workers.
The book also includes a series of insightful essays from the likes of artist Jeremy Deller, writer and curator Anastasiia Fedorova, and fashion writer Nathalie Khan, addressing subjects such as politics, DIY fashion, and class consciousness.
For those that aren’t familiar with Sports Banger’s back story, it can be tricky to articulate exactly what the brand is all about. Throughout the book, the common theme that emerges is a desire to build a brand that challenges conventions and sparks conversations.
“Everyone always asks: What is Sports Banger? It’s hard to answer, and I love that,” writes Banger. “It’s about as DIY as you can get. It means we can make T-shirts, couture pieces, and books, throw raves, put out records, and put on exhibitions and fashion shows. Although it can look like chaos, there is a thread that joins it all together.”