When I was growing up in Lewisham in London, there were always clothing brands which definitely did not want to align themselves with anyone south-east of the river, and there were those which were happy to get the few pounds coins we could spare. Lewisham’s Black Market, as we locals knew it, was the destination that my mum would drag me to without fail on a Saturday morning. It was where she could pick up Jamaican delicacies that high street supermarkets turned their noses up at (and still do). And, if I was lucky, I’d get a beef pattie as payment for resisting the urge to moan the entire morning as she dragged me around.
On our way through the market, I would stop in front of the rows and rows of beautiful clothes hanging on rails. The expensive stuff was closer to the till, the knock-offs around the periphery. There were labels we’d seen American R&B and rap artists rocking in the videos and we all wanted a slice of the action.
We wanted to rock outfits like LL Cool J, Mobb Deep, TLC and Aaliyah were. And if we could find something that looked close to the real thing, it would be happy days that day. Buying the cheaper version would also be a more economical way of nodding to black culture as a kid back in the day, because at any given moment some other kid on the street could steal it off your back.
But labels like FUBU were labels that aligned themselves to black culture and reaped the benefits. Globally. When me and my friends were sitting in London watching The Box music channel, we wanted to mirror the clothes and the culture we were witnessing from the other side of the world in cities we’d never stepped foot in, like Los Angeles and New York. Clothes were the easiest way to do that. Although these brands aren’t the ones that maintained their status over the years, the fact that they aligned to the culture is not forgotten.
I was reminded of that by a tweet a couple of weeks ago that spoke about the rebranding of clothing company Jack Wills. In the post, the user was talking about a Jack Wills poster that had been circulating online after popping up on the London Underground featuring a diverse group of young folk, and with the tagline: “It’s a Vibe.”
Now, if column-writing included the ability to add a digital gif, my choice at this very moment would be an image of a woman with pursed lips complete with a raised, knowing eyebrow, eyes peeping out above lowered reading glasses. You know what I mean, right?
But since a gif isn’t an option, let me refer to some of the words from the original tweet: “[It was] a brand for poshos and toffs and it’s now trying to capture the streets.” Ironic, really. I remember when Jack Wills first launched: it positioned itself very much as a brand that wasn’t for me and my mates. Its obvious obsession with class and money set it apart from so many other brands, with store locations in places including Eton, Oxford and St Andrews.
And with an emphasis in Jack Wills’ advertising on private school pursuits such as polo, rugby and rowing, Lewisham Market definitely wasn’t part of its branding plan. That wasn’t the image of Britain it was after.
I even remember the Jack Wills shops. It was never a brand me and my mates bought into; it wasn’t for us, so why would we? But when we did venture into its shops out of curiosity, we were never there for very long, as staff would invariably make a point of making us feel uncomfortable within seconds of entering. We were university age by that point, so technically their target audience. But not all undergraduates are created equal.
The hierarchies of both luxury and high-street fashion were not unusual then, and they’re certainly not unusual now. Who can forget the furore when Burberry became popular among the working class? Aspirational wealth was not the marketer’s dream; generational wealth was more its bag.
But the need for brands to be more authentic and inclusive in order to survive is going nowhere fast. A$AP Rocky hooking up with Dior and Calvin Klein in the late 2010s and Marc Jacobs taking streetwear to the catwalk in 2017 are good examples of that .
So the Jack Wills rebrand fascinated me, as it felt pretty much the opposite of that which came before. It was also a reminder of how powerful black culture and street culture have always been. Failing brands (Jack Wills went into administration in 2019 and was acquired by Sports Direct) tend to veer towards the street eventually because bankable creativity in music, fashion, food, culture and more almost always come from there – no matter how many posh brands try to fight it.
Charlene White is a presenter for ITV News and Loose Women