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Everyone for tennis: Fred Perry celebrates 60 years as a sportswear icon

As Fred Perry celebrates its 60th anniversary, Rebecca Gonsalves traces the extraordinary history of a brand that transcended its origins on the court to become a cultural icon.

In a year of unprecedented  British sporting achievement, it is fitting that the legacy of a tennis  great is also being celebrated. A little more than 60 years ago, Frederick John Perry, the Stockport-born son of a cotton spinner and the first British player to have won all four Grand Slam events, showed remarkable prescience by giving his name  to a simple sweatband.

As a player, Perry had wrapped medical gauze around the wrist of his right hand to protect his racket and wipe the sweat that beaded his brow while winning Wimbledon in three consecutive years, from 1934 to 1936 – the last British male to win in SW19.

In the late 1940s, Perry was approached by the Austrian footballer Tibby Wegner with the idea of an anti-perspirant to be worn around the wrist; Perry’s subsequent prototype was made from towelling – and hardly lightweight. But, with a few tweaks, Perry’s first commercial enterprise went into production in Leicester, and he and Wegner marketed the idea by giving them to top players for free and persuading them to wear them during tournaments.

That simple sweatband afforded Fred Perry Sportswear a remarkable level of success and the pair went on to create a slim-fitting, knitted cotton pique shirt in the crisp white of the game’s traditional dress code. As a pipe smoker, Perry initially planned to use a pipe as the emblem of his company, but was soon talked out of this by Wegner, who “didn’t think the girls would go for it”.

Instead, Wegner suggested the laurel wreath, that ancient Greek symbol of victory, achievement and status that adorned Perry’s Davis Cup sweater and touring blazer. Surprisingly, given Perry’s history of conflict with the All England Tennis Club – he was frowned upon as a working-class upstart whose level of showmanship meant he was branded “not one of us” in the traditionally exclusive game – Colonel Duncan MacCauley, then secretary of the club, gave permission for the wreath to be used as a logo.

And so the now-iconic polo shirt went into production in 1952. Again the distribution strategy saw Perry and Wegner hand out shirts to the top players of the time, who found the slim fit a welcome relief from the baggy styles that had previously been worn.

“Being a realistic man,” Perry wrote shortly before his death in 1995, “I have never worried about admitting that my name is better known worldwide not for winning Wimbledon three times, but because of Fred Perry shirts and sportswear.” But how did his brand become such  a perennially cool label? Although Perry and his business partner had come up with a marketing and distribution strategy that was distinctly forward-thinking, it was the rise of the mod movement – and subsequently that of the many subcultures it spawned over the past 50 years – that indelibly sealed the success of Fred Perry.

“The birth of the mod movement is where sportswear crossed into fashion and streetwear,” says Richard Martin, director of marketing for the brand, which was bought in 1995 by Japanese company Hit Union. “Urban streetwear was about the cut of your suit, the length of your trousers, the covert rebelliousness and flamboyance this communicated – and Fred Perry was very much a part of that.”

The fastidiousness of the look – a slim-cut, single-breasted three-button suit in sharkskin or mohair worn over a Fred Perry shirt buttoned to the top – represented a time when people began to look forwards rather than back. By 1960, the young British working classes had the freedom and funds to explore their own sense of style without the pressures of conscription or financially supporting their family. And so the mod movement found a foothold among boys showing off to other boys. The resulting peacock-ish demands for shirts with more variety led to the introduction of colours to the range and, later, the implementation of the now-trademark twin tipping on shirt collars and cuffs. This was later a big hit with football fans, who could wear their team colours with typically mod-ish attention to detail.

For the brand’s anniversary celebrations, the British director Don Letts has created a series of films that explore the cultural scenes and hierarchies of the past 60 years, tracing a linear connection from the teddy boys of  the 1950s via mods, rockers, punks, skinheads, rude  boys, Two Toners, soul boys, new wavers and ravers to Britpoppers in the late 1990s. Watching the archive footage of mods on the Southend seafront, skinheads with their buzz cuts and Sta-Prest trousers, and, more recently, Damon Albarn and the Gallagher brothers leering moodily into the new millennium, all sporting Fred Perry, the  continued relevance of these sartorial references and  their influence on current designers is clear.

A strong part of Fred Perry’s appeal is the sense of nostalgia that the clothes evoke. But the continued impact of the brand is also the fruit of a series of relationships that have been both off the cuff and precisely considered.

For many, Blur frontman Albarn embodies the contemporary brand more than anyone. Since the release of Blur’s second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, in 1993 and the accompanying promotional image by Paul Spencer, “British image 1”, the musician has frequently been seen wearing a Fred Perry polo shirt and Harrington jacket. “During Blur’s 2009 reunion we got a call from [Damon] asking for eight of a particular style of shirt which he then wore all the way from Colchester Tramshed to the Hyde Park gigs and Glastonbury,” reveals Martin.

In these days of corporate sponsors elbowing their logo into any situation, no matter how out of place it might appear, this sort of natural promotion is almost priceless. In Fred Perry’s case, it literally is, as the brand refuses to pay people to wear its product – a policy begun by Perry himself in the 1970s. Albarn, adds Martin, wears a different colour shirt and Harrington jacket for each of his different roles in Blur, Gorillaz and Dr Dee.

Another musician who affiliated herself with the  brand was the late Amy Winehouse. “She was a massive Perryhead,” says Martin. “We spoke to her management years ago about doing a collaboration through her stylist. She was going through quite deep trouble at that stage – those Blake, Camden years – and we decided to pick it up when she was in a better place. A year elapsed and we got the call from her manager. When we met Amy, it was quite difficult to get her past purist Fred Perry products. She’d say, ‘It’s so perfect, how am I going to move it on?’”

The designers spoke to her about her own retro sense of style, incorporating the 1950s pin-up details she favoured. “She took traditionally masculine pieces and feminised them with a capped sleeve or a semi-sheer fabric. She always wore them with the collar up, so we made them that way,” says Martin. When the singer died last year, the brand had to decide whether to continue the line and how to do so. After speaking to Winehouse’s family and management it was decided that the range would live on, with profits going to the foundation established in her name. Designed by Winehouse’s friend and sometime costume designer Amy Molyneaux of PPQ, the line continues to sell very well, particularly in the Far East.

“We obviously build up the music legends who wore the uniform of the subculture we were a part of,” says Martin, before reeling off a list of entries from the Fred Perry hall of fame: “Terry Hall, Paul Weller, Ray Davies, Damon Albarn – but there is also a continued, contemporary relevance with bands such as Two Door Cinema Club and Everything Everything.”

Striking the right balance between the past, present and future on one axis and sport, music and fashion on the other is part of a complicated and far-reaching strategy for the brand. And proof of its success comes in double-digit growth year on year, season on season. In part this is because, as the economy contracted, retailers hedged their bets with well-known classic brands, often with concrete ideologies and fan bases to ensure sales. Fred Perry is currently focusing on its expansion in the Far East, South America and the Middle East.

Menswear is the main focus of the brand, accounting for the lion’s share of turnover, and while the classic 1952 cotton pique shirt is still a bestseller, more recently collaborations with designers such as Richard Nicoll and Raf Simons have helped to expand the company’s horizons. This season, Nicoll’s last designing womenswear for the brand’s limited-edition Laurel Wreath line, features classic 1960s styles updated with equestrian motifs and a modern take on traditional fabrics. Of his appointment in 2010, then-marketing director John Flynn says, “Richard’s signature style of feminising traditionally masculine shapes and silhouettes suited us perfectly.”

Simons, recently installed as creative director of Dior, designed the Laurel Wreath menswear collection between autumn 2008 and spring 2011, and resumes the role for spring 2013 with a line that has already received critical acclaim. “He is a highly conceptual designer but also understands what you have to consider to ensure the range sells,” says Martin. “His understanding of British creative culture has influenced his collections since the 1990s, whether it was Peter Saville, Paul Weller or Joy Division, and Fred Perry has been part of that. When I initially emailed him [about working with us], the yes came about five minutes later.”

“The collaboration came about quite naturally,” says Simons of the project, “probably because we share the same spirit and mind. Quality is very important for me.”

The most recent addition to the brand’s line-up is one that dovetails nicely with the founder’s initial career: Bradley Wiggins’ collection of cycling shirts tipped in the Olympic colours. Modishness is a defining part of the Olympian’s identity, and the shirts that bear his name  – rather sweetly on a tag sewn in as if on his PE kit – are classics of that era of design. “He didn’t want it to be  a technical cycling collection,” explains Martin. “Other people do that, we don’t. If you go back to the early 1960s, the cycling shirt – in block-coloured Merino wool – was part of the London-based mod’s wardrobe.”

Released earlier this year, halfway through Wiggins’ winning Tour de France push, the collection sold out in weeks. “Bradley could have fallen off in the first week, but he won it and then a week later he won the gold medal time trial,” says Martin. “He is now on this path of transcending his sport and becoming this wonderful cultural icon.”

“I remember my first Fred Perry shirt,” adds Wiggins of his love of the brand. “I got it in 1989, the standard polo in blue, I bought it myself. I’d watched Quadrophenia and started getting into the mod look – that’s when I first knew Fred Perry. For me, the mod look will always be about the Small Faces and then, after that, obviously Paul Weller and the Jam, the revival thing. It’s nice for me now that people like Paul Weller have thanked me for the shirt.”