It’s difficult to put a finger on exactly who (or what) Jonny Banger is. The man behind the Sports Banger brand straddles a crossroads: fashion designer, artist, professional raver, curator and provocateur.
His off-schedule show during February’s London Fashion Week was the underground ticket to have, and as the buzz still reverberates around the capital, the man who kickstarted his career from a simple, yet zeitgeist-capturing, ‘Free Tulisa’ t-shirt is ready to rise to the challenge. The tee was made in response to the avalanche of tabloid press coverage Tulisa Contostavlos, former X -Factor judge and N-Dubz singer, was on the receiving end of after her arrest on suspicion of supplying class A drugs. The trial subsequently collapsed.
“I had quit my job. I suppose you could say I was depressed, eating noodles and skint,” says Banger, of his label’s accidental cult creation in 2013. “I did myself a Free Tulisa t-shirt for my birthday. She was being dragged through it by the press, and that kicked everything off really.”
Musicians Skream and Jordan Rizzle Kicks wore the tops on stage at Wireless Festival that same year and, just like that, the Sports Banger brand was born. The t-shirts took the London party scene by storm. “I suppose you could say we are professional piss-takers, but everything’s got meaning to it,” he says. It helped that the t-shirts didn’t (and still don’t) break the bank either - they sell for around £20.
After the brand’s rapid ascent, things went quiet for a few years. But, in 2022, Banger feels his message, his ethos, has cut through. “It’s nice that people finally listened. It took 1,000 whistles for people to hear us, but I’m buzzing,” he says. Banger is talking about the chainmail “whistle-blower” dress that stole the show during Sports Banger’s comeback catwalk at London Fashion Week. It was his first show since 2019.
“I’d been obsessing over the Paco Rabanne unwearable dresses from the 1960s,” Banger says of the disc gown inspiration. “We came to the point of saying – let’s make a dress out of whistles.”
The creation of the dress does well to encapsulate the Sports Banger spirit: community-based, off the cuff, and tongue-in-cheek. “We got in contact with ACME Whistles, the oldest whistle manufacturer whose factories are still in Birmingham,” he says. “They created the first sports whistle, The Thunderer, so I told them our idea and sent them a few sketches. They were fascinated and donated a thousand whistles.”
As the show’s piece de resistance, the final product came shimmering down the catwalk covered in silver whistles - complete with thigh high slits and an armour-like hood - to explosive applause. It was one of many moments that left the crowd, who had squeezed in to see ‘The People Deserve Beauty’ collection (named so because “every day that goes by, a lot of beauty is being eroded by governments and the world,” says Banger), positively buzzing.
The ‘Chanel toilet seat bride’ was another hit. It saw bootleg bathroom bits found by Banger in a Manchester market crafted into a flower headpiece and panelled gown. “The whole collection has a bit of a narrative... about everything going down the toilet,” he says.
The message was hammered home as dancers came out wearing Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees-Mogg face masks. Splashed across tracksuits, was a quote Banger had taken from the satirical TV puppet show ‘Spitting Image’: ‘If we all spit together we’ll drown the bastards’.
“I actually had a phone call with Roger Law, the creator of Spitting Image, the week of the show,” Banger says. “He said, ‘look, if you want to use anything from the Eighties you can help yourself.’”
Banger’s mindset hasn’t changed since the early days of flogging the Free Tulisa slogan tees. The only difference now is his bestselling tops have a strong political message. Think ‘HM Government Truth Twisters,’ ‘Conservatives are targeting everyone,’ and a simple ‘F**k Boris’.
The clothes are just a taste of the Sports Banger world, which has become a launch pad for broader statement-making. “It’s been quite fluid, whether that’s t-shirts, raves, music, record labels, books, exhibitions, museum work, food banks, education. Everything. It’s been a bit of an adventure,” Banger says.
During the pandemic-forced break from the catwalk and London Fashion Week, Banger didn’t sit around twiddling his thumbs. Instead, he launched The Covid Letters project, which saw an open call out to under 16s to deface the lockdown letter the Prime Minister sent out to all households in March 2020 urging residents to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. As the results trickled in – and ranged from blue paint bum prints to six year old Echo who penned “Boo for Boris” across the statement – he realised he had struck a chord.
“We had to set up a PO Box and got all these entries, so then we did an exhibition and put it all together in a book. None of it was planned,” he says. “It was the original energy from the action that kind of just carries us.” The Covid Letters exhibition ran at the Foundling Museum from October 2020 to January 2021 - Time Out described it as “a hoot.”
As for the future? Sports Banger has moved into a Seven Sisters studio, which in typical Banger style has been christened as Maison de Bang Bang. “I don’t own a house. I was like, I’ll build a fashion house then I’ll see if I’ve got any money left,” he says. “Which I don’t.” And there is plenty in the pipeline before next London Fashion Week rolls around. “We’ve got lots of raves planned up and down the UK and you will see us at Glastonbury. We are around!” says Banger. “And we are excited.”
Scroll the gallery above to see the best looks from Sports Banger AW22