LOS ANGELES — On the website for UK sports and casual wear brand, Fred Perry, you’ll find a polo shirt listed as “the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt” along with an advisory that reads, “This product cannot be shipped to USA or Canada.”
The brand stopped selling that particular shirt in North America last month because, in 2016, it was adopted as the de facto uniform for members of the alt-right group, the Proud Boys.
A statement on its U.S. website explaining the decision reads in part:
“Fred Perry does not support and is in no way affiliated with the Proud Boys. It is incredibly frustrating that this group has appropriated our Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt and subverted our Laurel Wreath to their own ends. The Fred Perry shirt is a piece of British subcultural uniform, adopted by various groups of people who recognize their own values in what it stands for.
“We are proud of its lineage and what the Laurel Wreath has represented for over 65 years: inclusivity, diversity and independence. The Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt has been an important part of that uniform since its introduction in the late 70s, and has been adopted generation after generation by various subcultures, without prejudice.”
Just days after Fred Perry stopped selling that shirt, the Proud Boys, who have been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, received an apparent shout-out from President Donald Trump, who told them to “stand back and stand by” from the debate stage on Sept. 29.
Trump’s statement is under new scrutiny following the revelation of a right-wing militia plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
But Fred Perry’s statement explaining its decision to stop selling that particular polo shirt in North America is also worthy of some scrutiny.
It’s true that the company's brand has a long association with “various subcultures,” beginning with the UK mod scene of the 1960s. Over the decade, the Fred Perry polo, which is available in dozens of other color schemes, has been emblematic of various UK subcultures, including ska, punk, mod, and skinhead, many of which have long flourished in Southern California.
“I used to see pictures of people in the UK wearing them. I just liked the style,” said John Kruze, a Long Beach financial services and sound engineering professional who’s been involved with the SoCal mod scene since the early 1980s.
Some observers question Fred Perry’s suggestion that the shirt has been adopted generation after generation “without prejudice.” Yes, Fred Perry polos have been the uniforme de rigeuer for various diverse, multi-cultural subcultures. But they also have been associated with far-right skinheads, both in the UK and in the U.S.
“If it wasn’t the Proud Boys, it was some other skinhead clique that had white power roots or white nationalism roots. It’s always been there,” explained Greg Lee, lead singer of long-running L.A. ska band, Hepcat. “Fred Perry has always kind of floated, in my opinion, between the two. I stopped wearing them myself long ago.”
Having your favorite brand of polo associated with fringe, right-wing skinheads is one thing. But seeing an upstart hate group adopt it and then seemingly get a call-to-action from the president is something else. For many, it struck a nerve.
“I was angry. I feel like they were taking away what we’ve been standing for. We’re not for racism. How dare they adopt this and try and make it their own,” said Gabby Loks, a Los Angeles reggae DJ who’s been sporting the Fred Perry style for about 10 years.
“They’re giving it a bad name, they’re giving the laurel a bad name, and they’re taking away from the good that we’ve been standing for all this time. That’s why I came up with that hashtag.”
Loks, who is Hispanic, was among the first to start a social media backlash against the Proud Boys, posting a picture of herself wearing a Fred Perry polo accompanied by the hashtag #NotYourWreath.
An equally incensed Kruze was among others who soon joined in, posting a picture of he and his fiancé, both sporting Fred Perry.
“Fred Perrys have always been synonymous with my wardrobe – I’ve always worn them, and when I saw that whole thing going on I had to say something,” said Kruze. “I don’t know it just struck a bone with me.”
But not everyone is convinced the shirt is worth fighting for. For Lee, who is Black, problems with the Fred Perry polo pre-date the Proud Boys.
“For people to stand up now and say ‘Oh gosh, they’re wearing Freds, Freds belong to us.’ I disagree,” said Lee. “I think that whole idea of the privilege of not having to deal with it if you were anything other than a person of color allowed this to flourish.”
The Fred Perry polo’s past association with right-wing skins may be part of the reason for the Proud Boys adopting it. But there may actually be a more practical reason.
Rejecting overtly confrontational right-wing regalia, like swastikas, or combat boots, in favor of a more buttoned-down, borderline preppy look, provides the group with a certain amount of cover.
Prior to them making headlines after the debate, the average person seeing a group of Proud Boys at a bar or in the street could easily mistake them for just another group of bearded, tattooed hipsters, ironically choosing to wear the same shirt for a night out.
Whatever the reason, for people like Greg Lee, it’s long past time to let the shirt go.
“There’s no way to take it back – there’s no point in arguing it. I see people posting stuff about they’re wearing their Fred and saying ‘this laurel isn’t racist’ or whatever. What’s the point?” said Lee. “If you put oil in water, it’s there. You can’t take it out.”
For others, like Kruze, the shirt will always be something worth standing up for – even if it puts him at risk of being mistaken for a Proud Boy.
“I’m hoping somebody does,” said Kruze. “Because then I can explain and maybe educate somebody. What it really stands for, what it really means.”