Mod Subculture and Fred Perry

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  • December 16, 2016

Fred Perry has been adopted by generations of British subcultures including Mod. Reuben Billingham is a fashion consultant who has worked with Fred Perry for many years and has worked on their collaborations with the likes or Paul Weller and Bradley Wiggins.

Who or what influences your style?

Reuben: Today in my mid-40’s it’s a more Suede head/Ivy League style I just think it’s more age appropriate and it’s subtler than my style used to be. Ultimately it’s most strands of the Modernist scene that influence my style from 1950’s through to some revivalist elements.

I’ve also worked within the men’s fashion business since I was 17 years old and so I’ve appropriated fashion brands that dip into Modernist details from high street brands, vintage to £300 shirts; I’m not a label snob.

When I was younger my influences were quite obvious; The Small Faces, Early Rolling Stones, Paul Weller, Blue Note musicians, French and Italian 1950-60’s films, The Avengers & Man From U.N.C.L.E 1960’s TV and original 1960s magazines. Perhaps most importantly older more established Mods and dressers in Birmingham.

I never really took to the revivalist look of Jam Shoes, Fishtail parka as I was too young to have caught that period and it seemed too bold for me. I got into the scene around 1989/90 when I started going to pubs and clubs in Birmingham city centre as a spirited 18 year old. At this time I met with Ocean Colour Scene at The Ship Ashore pub and became friends, I also met with Trish Keenan while she was setting up the band; Broadcast at pubs & parties in Moseley and a great weekly night called The Sensateria at a club called the Hummingbird in Birmingham city centre. These types of crowds had an influence on my style I subconsciously too, and would say its more mid 1960’s European in its tone.

Since 2001 there has been a barrage of images available purely down to the Internet. On-line societies and blogs have allowed all scenes to be influenced by images that have not been seen since the original movement. This combined with all of the great books that have been published such as: “A very British phenomenon” by Terry Rawlings and “Mods the new religion” by Paul Smiler Anderson, continue to influence me today and have to some extent re-energised the scene.

What does being a Mod in today’s society today mean to you?

Reuben: I’ve spent the last 25 years being shaped by Mod style; where I live, my wife, where I travel, my career, my modes of transport, my friends and so in a way I don’t think about being a Mod. My passion to learn more about Modernism however shows no signs of diminishing.

I have certain quirks that normals would find odd; for example only frequenting independent; pubs/restaurants/shops -too many landmark establishments are being lost to modernisation which is quite ironic I suppose. I refuse to wear overt sportswear and trainers. I never set foot on a London bendy bus I walked rather than get on one and I was very pleased to see a version of the Route Master back on the streets. So in a way I try to support a more traditional way of life that aligns with my style choices.

I’ve had a great opportunity in the last 10+ years to be able to travel far and wide. Today we can search out Lambretta dealers in Vancouver, Soul nights in Tokyo, Record shops in Sao Paolo and live gigs in Clarksdale Mississippi all of which I’ve done. So whereas up until 10 years ago being a Mod was London focused, I’m now learning about the scene internationally and made friends along the way. I’m still meeting people here in the UK too based on the way I look usually along the lines of “I used to be a mod” that is the strength of the movement it has undeniable attitude steeped in history.

Some of the younger mods coming onto the scene today look closer to original modernists (pre-1964) than we did aged 17/18 and its down to the internet for sure the details of dressing can be studied to the exact point. The sussed element maybe not as strong as Original, Revivalist and 90’s Mods because these groups had to trawl clubs/markets/tailors etc to search out the right sounds/looks and converse with like minded people along the way and ultimately learn more about the scene. Its great to see young mods coming onto the scene however they approach it though, we need more.

Importantly original Mods have come back into the scene, which has been great for these men and women to pass on the true facts again thanks to the Internet and symposiums, which I’m personally a big fan of. I’ve heard some really heart warming stories recently of old Modernists finding old friends, bands reforming and club DJ’s playing out again.

Having worked with Fred Perry what does the brand mean to you? Why do you think Fred Perry has been adopted by so many different generations of subcultures?

Reuben: My first Fred Perry was “borrowed” from a tennis fanatic uncle and I remember getting approving nods from the older boys at school on none uniform day when I was 13. It’s the first branded item I’d ever worn and so that stuck with me for years; the notion of guys you looked up to acknowledging an item of clothing fascinated me.

It might seem odd but in a way it meant more to me when I was a young fledging mod as you could be immediately considered as a mod if you had a Fred polo on or at least that’s what I believed at the time.

When I joined Fred Perry in May 2005 this was ultimate modus operandi to act in some small part a custodian of that emotional attachment that the brand leaves with individuals. I accept that there are trends within the fashion world but certain brands such as Fred Perry do not have to mould to every one.

Initially Fred Perry was adopted by Modernists as it was aspirational it was relatively uncommon for say a 16 year old working class Modernist from Stamford Hill to play tennis in his whites in 1960. It was a step towards the jet set and all of the international romantic connotations it bought with it (Ralph Lauren plays on this to a much larger extent today) this need to bettering yourself through peoples perception of you, as a Mod is essentially the movements raison d’etre. Fred Perry went in an out of trend from 1960-66 as it was worn by none modernists off court too, here and internationally and so not deemed a pure modernist style. From 1966 Hard mods, suede heads and leading up to 1968/9 skinheads took the Fred Perry shirt back as their own as it was utilitarian not hippy and denim was being worn increasingly too, now that Jeans were more readily available.

It was this period of the shirt being worn as day wear with: Jeans, desert boots/loafers and a Harrington/3 button jacket for example- everything just right, simple but very stylish that has been set in stone and etched I believe into the British psyche. Most mods would still wear tailoring in the evening club nights/gigs. This mid-1960’s period combined with the most influential music the world has seen is a freeze frame of cool that has been used by every creative industry to date.

So when 1978 Mod revivalists, skinheads and all of the subcultures around it looked at old magazines and spoke with original modernists Fred Perry was mentioned and could still be found in sport shops all over the country and even internationally. It could be worn in a subculture way and you could be part of the movement while you worked out the right detail for your first bespoke tailored piece. It’s also important to mention that some 1960’s companies had disappeared by 1978 but Fred Perry was still trading. While some purists wore second hand original Modernist/Skinhead items the vast majority didn’t want to stand out too much. The fit & quality of 1960’s clothing was not brilliant and also a small point but peoples body shapes had changed- the baby boomers were generally speaking very slim.

The 1978 revival period is I would say Fred Perry’s most important period as it did genuinely appeal to most subcultures perhaps only Levis are the other brand to achieve this feet- achieving absolute cool.

The Jam, The Chords and Secret Affair and Sham 69 amongst others all went on to feature a Laurel logo on the sleeves of their records and the world took note. An aspiring Mod/Skin at this time in San Francisco or Hong Kong having an interest in British music could see from music magazines, even if they couldn’t find the records that the polo shirt or V-neck with the Fred Perry Laurel logo was locked into their chosen sound.

For international subcultures Fred Perry was identified as being particularly British other than Slazenger and as an après sport attire these were the only visible branded labels coming out of the UK. Yes Bukta, Mitre and Admiral and the like were available- but they were for sports only unlike today where all branded sportswear is the norm.

At the end of the day Fred Perry appealed because it was: branded and so immediately identifiable, well priced, relatively good quality, kept a core look and didn’t chase trends as brands do today, aspirational in class and other worldly to the none domestic consumer.

During the 1960s music and fashion were both closely linked for the first time, in regards to Mod style do you think that relationship is still strong today?

Reuben: Yes retrospectively its impossible for Mods to ignore the efforts of British bands taking the sound of original Black blues/jazz musicians and combining the sound with the style of dress on album covers.

Revival period and Brit pop was an absolute acknowledgment of the style of the 1960’s scene. I’m not sure where I heard this but the original mod was a youth culture, revival was revivalist scene and the latest revival a lifestyle choice of which of course I am wholly guilty.

To this end if you have a band with an outwardly 1960’s sound the band will at some stage have at least one member that dresses Mod (i.e Clem Burke drummer in Blondie), it may not be glaring obvious to the normals but a fellow mod would register. Equally a fashion brand that wants to try and portray a Mod style will play 1960’s music (Dior Homme summer 2007 /This Dior show was a turning point in menswear style and has a certain domino effect to date). In my opinion the musician will get it right over the clothing designer as a musician has soul and while I’m not a fan of the word -authenticity.

In more recent years bands such as: Eli Paper boy, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Leon Bridges, and most bands on Daptone records while not overtly Mod have a Mod following because the above bands take the time to dress well and move correctly.

Most importantly from a clothing perspective retro music signify to designers and think tanks that there is a heritage scene. Going off subject slightly but this can be seen in the aforementioned Routemaster bus and styling of the new mini, Beetle VW, Fiat 500, vinyl record sales and record players for sale in none specialist shops.

Strangely during the Brit pop period there was no real alignment with fashion houses to return the favour it was all very sportswear driven thankfully the second hand clothes availability was good. I believe most bands at this time looked quite scruffy. There were a few labels started by Mods such as PPQ, Burro and Duffer St George but it was quite a London based effort and not purist. Brit Pop was also surrounded by Rave/House music scene and this appealed to the masses so this also had an influence on clothing companies.

In the past 12 years the likes of: COS/J.Crew’s whole design approach from music, store design, marketing is inspired by mid-20th century Modernism. Also brands such as: Prada, Brooks Brothers, Levis LVC, APC, Bass & Co and Thom Browne and high street brands have meant that Mods have been able to stock up on new clothes. Conversely the second hand market has dried up and items are rarer and more expensive due to the fashion/brand houses buying it all up for research development.

You’ve worked with the modfather himself, Paul Weller, how important do you think it is for brands like Fred Perry to work closely with musicians?

Reuben: Paul Weller had a very clear idea of the shirts he wanted to work with and the first shirt was dark green with light blue and burgundy tipping, split hem and none branded buttons, also had a slightly deeper collar. These were all designed from memory and inspired by his favourite polo shirt from his youth.

Fred Perry has been lucky during my time at the brand 2005-2015 to have worked with brand legends at an early stage: Sir Bradley Wiggins, Amy Winehouse and Andy Murray. The relationship with Terry Hall was also a success, on limited edition knitwear. Fred Perry then went onto collaborate with The Specials for a number of collaborations.

Fred Perry is a sportswear fashion brand that has been closely linked to numerous scenes. This enabled Fred Perry to work easily with Wiggins and Murray the industry and consumers understood why these collaborations had come about equally as with Weller, Whinehouse & Hall. Yes Fred Perry should collaborate with musicians and strong characters such as Wiggins that transcend their sport with a subcultural slant; it doesn’t have to be purely music based.

I don’t believe though they should grab onto any artist such as a Kanye West, they would need to have a natural Fred Perry anti-establishment. If you look at most luxury predominantly womenswear labels; their campaigns feature A-list actresses. Within the next few years it will become increasingly the norm to have a celebrity model in campaigns. A Rhiana Puma type tie up will also become increasingly visible.

The competitors of Fred Perry from a heritage music clothing perspective possibly labels such as: John Smedley, Levis, Clarks, Dr Martens and Ben Sherman have not tried or failed in my opinion to find genuine links to musicians and manufacture strong collaboration collections. Interestingly John Smedley and Ben Sherman have also linked up with Paul Weller.

The strength of Fred Perry of course is that it has a huge fan base and selecting the correct celebrity collaborations could further help them to take absolute ownership of the soul stylist scenes.

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