I meet Jonny Banger in his studio in Seven Sisters, a vibey, unprettified bit of north London. His sumptuous, edgy, 3kg book – Sports Banger: Lifestyles of the Poor, Rich and Famous – is sitting between us. “It’s maybe for people who are artists but don’t call themselves artists. I still struggle to call myself that. I used to say I did T-shirts. Now I say: ‘I make things.’”
He and the subversive fashion collective he founded definitely makes T-shirts – sometimes with slogans that you understand with your gut before you decode them with your brain, at other times with a brand, subverted, rolled into a rallying cry (for instance, incorporating the Calvin Klein font – and initials – into a curse directed at the Tories).
It all started in 2013 with one that read “Free Tulisa”. It was a birthday present to himself. The singer Tulisa Contostavlos, part of N-Dubz, had been arrested on suspicion of supplying cocaine. The case was thrown out in 2014 when a judge decided that the journalist Mazher Mahmood, one of the witnesses, was likely to have lied to the court.
But Banger had reached that conclusion a little ahead of the justice system: “I don’t know what it was that chimed with me. I just thought it was …” He pauses. “Bollocks.” In his book, he elaborates: “The UK tabloids plastered her across every front page. The whole thing was a fucking disgrace. Tulisa is a homegrown working-class queen. The Free Tulisa T-shirt was the beginning of Sports Banger.”
Later, there would be “Team Nigella” when the red tops went after her: “The tabloid press, men of power … it’s a bit vigilante and it’s not fair.” He did that design in spite of himself. “I didn’t want to look like I was doing the same thing, like some kind of formula. Because then Justin Bieber would be caught smoking a spliff or something and people would be asking for ‘Free Bieber’.”
The Sports Banger book was launched at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a grand building a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, last month. “We’re in the institutions now, for better or worse,” he says. It is a far cry from his studio: two floors of books, T-shirts, rave paraphernalia, objets d’art, mementoes and buzzing, passionate activity from art directors, guys packaging T-shirts to ship and a beautiful staffordshire bull terrier cross called Olly.
He reckons there is a copyright infringement on every page: “The only time I feel alive is when I get a cease-and-desist.” Banger might relish it; not everyone could handle it. He gets messages from people saying: “‘I was thinking about doing some sort of bootleg – what do you think?’ To which my reply is: ‘If you’re thinking about the consequences, this probably isn’t for you.’”
Banger, though, was born for this. When he was 10, he sold knock-off Ralph Lauren shirts with his dad at car boot sales, so you could say his career as a bootlegger artist began before he left primary school.
When he was 15, he was making zines, putting on club nights and DJing. He walks me through his love affair with the Essex rave scene, starting with his work experience in a record shop when he was 15: “My mum had just died, so I was looking for something. It was just me and my brother in the house. He was 18, so he could be my guardian.”
The rave aesthetic isn’t an unusual reference point in fashion, but often it misses the subversiveness of the genre or tries to make it corporate. “I see a lot of people doing sort of ravey fashion shows, but I’ve never seen these people at a rave. I’ll still be there, front left, having a little dance,” he says.
His work has become steadily more political as politics has become more degraded and the effects of that more widespread. “As it’s got worse, we’ve got shoutier. It just naturally comes out in the work. When there’s a tangible feeling in the world, you can smell it, you can hear it, you’re on the bus, you can see it, then you can’t help but be influenced by it.” Nevertheless, he says, “we’re not activists. We’re ravers with a duty of care.”
The T-shirt that landed the biggest blow was Under the Counter, which couldn’t have been simpler: the NHS logo with a Nike swoosh underneath, for £21.99. It was part of a brand-subversion collection: a T-shirt featuring the Reebok logo upside down; a Slazenger towel with “Banger” underneath. It was basically a giant screw-you to the world of branding. Something happens to these images when they are repurposed and lo-fi – the kudos leaks out of them and is replaced by rebelliousness.
Banger’s animus towards global brands might be playful, but it’s still real: “A kid will come out and he’s the next hot thing, and he’s happy to be draped by some brand that has done nothing to get him to that position, nothing to help anybody. I find it mad that people continue to support trash.”
Under the Counter was also a direct response to the junior doctors’ strike in 2015. “It created a lot of conversations. It’s quite personal to me,” he says. His mother was a mental health nurse; his grandmother was in the Red Cross at the inception of the NHS. “I’m not reacting to public feeling, thinking: ‘Maybe they want this.’ It’s not made to market. It’s made for us. But we’ve got all the same issues, we’re in the same country, we’ve got the same government.”
When Covid hit, someone posted a picture of themselves online holding one of Banger’s NHS T-shirts in one hand and the letter from Boris Johnson that went to every household, telling people to stay home, in the other. It was captioned: “One of these is going in the bin.” That gave Banger the idea for the project that became the Covid Letters and ended up in London’s Foundling Museum. Kids were invited to deface the letter and send it to Sports Banger, which would send them a bootlegged not-Blue-Peter badge in return. That created “500 pirate kids marauding across the UK” whom he is hoping to “engage in more projects”.
Sports Banger did its first fashion show in 2019, but it was “off-fashion week”, not in the main schedule. It looked like a riot: modelled by friends, soundtracked by Essex raves, a staffie called Chino sporting a neon coat. It couldn’t have happened in regular fashion week. Never mind the complaints over copyright infractions; think of the health and safety. “I’m gagging to do another. The only reason we didn’t do a show this year is that we’re skint. It’s really expensive, even by DIY standards. You’ve got to make everything and pay everyone – it really adds up. The really radical thing about Sports Banger is that everyone gets paid.”
He continues: “This isn’t a fairytale of Tottenham. It’s been a struggle this year, keeping the lights on.” He and a handful of others in the studio start chatting about a bailiff who turned up last week, demanding £4,000 by the weekend. They showed him their Haringey Heroes certificate for services to the community during the pandemic. He said he would see what he could do, “then he turned up two days later in his casuals to buy a T-shirt”, Banger says.
So, Sports Banger isn’t a fairytale, but between the fashion, the art, the politics, the raving with duty, the marauding pirate-kid army and the bailiffs who switch sides, it has the spirit of a modern English folk tale. “I live around the corner [from the studio],” Banger says. “I pay extortionate rent for a one-bed flat in a block of ex-social housing. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a house ever. But I want to build The Fashion House, the eccentric UK fashion house. I’ll build this and then see what happens.”
Sports Banger by Jonny Banger is published by Thames & Hudson (£45). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.