“What’s the difference between celebrating your favourite drink and celebrating your favourite sports team?” asks Lucas Nicholson, founder of Novel Mart, the playful merchandise brand born last summer. Nicholson created a range of caps emblazoned with Italian cocktails such as “Negroni” or “Spritz” in celebration of the biannual Pitti Uomo trade show, which was cancelled in June for the first time in 48 years. “Pitti is a week filled with aperitivo hour and all these dinners… The idea was to create a fun souvenir to replace it,” he says.
The graphic caps took off, and Novel Mart swiftly diversified into other merch, all with a sense of irony: white sweatshirts decorated with tennis rackets and “Generic Sporting Club” slogans, or Ivy League sweaters with collegiate lettering spelling out “lasagna”. “It’s silly, but it’s taking the exclusivity out of these clubs and making it accessible to everyone,” says Nicholson.
Irreverent merchandise with nostalgic iconography is experiencing a boom. There’s the new Alex Eagle Sporting Club, for instance, which offers fencing, dancing, boxing and yoga classes, and has accompanying athletic apparel inspired by the greens and whites of Wimbledon’s tennis lawns. Designer Alex Eagle says the club was created to “democratise activities that embody a sense of Britishness that can feel culturally out of reach”. Charaf Tajer, founder of French-Moroccan streetwear label Casablanca, created his own clubs too – without the accompanying classes. His Casablanca Ski and Tennis clubs enjoy colourful sporting graphics splashed across jumpers and white T-shirts; the brand’s geographic name gives each faux club a legitimacy to the undiscerning passer-by.
London-based Eighteen86 sells unofficial T-shirts for Arsenal football club – ideal for style-conscious supporters – while New York label Paradise’s retro pizza parlour tops are sold at etailer Mr Porter. George Archer, the site’s senior buyer, thinks the trend has taken off because “it is playfully derivative and ultimately nostalgic”. He adds: “This merch is ironic, fun and deliberately tongue-in-cheek, celebrating something ordinary and recognisable.”
Chef Gizzi Erskine agrees. “We drew inspiration from classic American references, looking at films and series we loved such as Mystic Pizza, The Sopranos and Wayne’s World to come up with the design,” she says of her Giz ’n’ Green tops, which were sold at online store Hit+Run. Erskine hosted an accompanying pop-up at the east London restaurant Passo with British rapper Professor Green, cooking up luxury versions of bestselling Domino’s Pizza foods, including deep-pan pizza, BBQ wings and banana splits. Cartoon versions of the duo donning chef’s hats were emblazoned across the front of each top, with “80 City Road” scrawled across the back. “It was quite ‘if you know, you know’,” says Erskine.
Jack Carlson, founder of the New York-based label Rowing Blazers, thinks “showing you are in-the-know is the biggest kind of flex, much more than wearing a luxury brand logo”. The former professional US rower founded his label in 2017; it sells sporting jerseys from its “Clubhouse” shop in Lower Manhattan, as well as officially outfitting the US professional rugby and rowing teams. “To people who don’t know, it’s just a T-shirt or a rugby top with no value ascribed to it. But for those that do, it’s really special and it’s a conversation starter. It’s far more interesting than buying a bogus polo or rugby shirt at a department store.”
The digitisation of culture is a contributing factor in the trend. “People are more informed about brands, clothing, histories, everything,” says Carlson, who often collaborates with unexpected sporting competitions such as the Annapolis Cup (for croquet) on retail products. “As information becomes more readily available, it ups the ante for everyone. So it’s got to go beyond wearing a logo that everyone knows about,” he says. “It’s almost to the point where if you’re going to wear a really obvious logo, you have to be doing it ironically.”
Overt branding on social media and the fact that many ready-to-wear brands have adopted sporting codes means customers have become almost immune to logo saturation. “There’s so much graphic branding out there that people don’t even read the messages on T-shirts any longer,” says Nicholson. It’s for this reason that he decided to subvert the insignia of elitist institutions with his new comfort-food collection – and why he thinks niche merch has such appeal. “What do you plaster across your chest and what does that say about you?” he laughs. “Me? I’m showing my support for lasagna.”
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