People love fashion for a variety of reasons: as a vessel for self-expression, as a form of cultural capital, and dressing for a sense of community. But what happens when brands (unproblematic on their own) fall into cultural associations that they didn’t anticipate? Or worse, unwittingly become associated with problematic and harmful movements?
Well, let’s talk about Lonsdale. Founded in 1960 in Soho, London, the sportswear brand soon became a world-known label, with boxing legends such as Mike Tyson and Muhammed Ali sporting the brand on frequent occasions and contributing to its global reputation. However, by 2001, the brand had started getting a different, bizarre and far more unsavoury rep: Nazis.
As Rachel Nolan noted in her 2008 article on the fashion of the far right, “shirts from the British company Lonsdale, covered in jackets unzipped to display the “NS” — for National Socialism — have a meaning that would go unnoticed in Britain or the United States. The German far right likes the “N” on New Balance shoes for the same reason.”
During the early 2000s, European neo-Nazis appropriated brand names and slogans which had no real relation to their ideology – they just fit the acronym. As Nolan explains, the four middle letters of the Lonsdale brand (NSDA) were worn on display – neo-nazi’s wore jackets and layers over Lonsdale t-shirts so that just these letters would be seen. To them, NSDA stands for the full German name of Hitler’s Nazi party: Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. Heavy.
Understandably, Lonsdale was less than pleased with this inadvertent association. What was merely a Sports Direct staple in the U.K had become a brand associated with one of the worst groups in global society across the channel, and so the brand acted by launching a campaign to (literally) redress its reputation, and condemn the groups wearing it.
Lonsdale directly targeted the issue by launching a campaign with the slogan ‘Lonsdale loves all colours’. It was surprisingly pretty effective, causing many anti-racist groups to start wearing the brand in protest. New consumers, emboldened by Lonsdale’s retaliation campaign, were able to re-shift its socially recognised meaning. Since then, the brand has remained committed to opposing its once-appropriation by neo-nazis in Europe, sponsoring LGBTQ+ and immigrant aid charities as well as openly-left sports teams
Lonsdale’s fluid reputation serves as a reminder that a brand’s identity can be manipulated in ways which are unpredictable and unintended by the brand itself. However, the ongoing efforts made by the company and their relative success goes some way in suggesting that these damages caused to companies are reversible – even if it means years of resuscitative marketing.