Top men and bad lads

Menswear store Topman momentarily forgot where acceptable laddishness ends and unacceptable laddishness begins. Big mistake.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Topman – the UK’s bland clothes store for blokes – got more free ads than it could have dreamed of when its brand director David Shepherd called his customers ‘beer-swilling hooligans’ on 19 July 2001.

The Sun ran a centre-page spread headlined ‘What the well-dressed hooligan is wearing’, featuring a shaven-headed model suited and booted in Topman garb (1) – while the London Evening Standard got hooligan-turned-author Dougie Brimson to try on Topman’s latest gear (2).

But Topman’s top men also got their fair share of flak. ‘To publicly and negatively ridicule your core customers is a very dangerous thing to do’, warned Ben Perkins of Retail Intelligence (3). ‘Football hooliganism is about as fashionable as space-hoppers’, wrote one business editor (4). And before you could say the words ‘drama’ and ‘crisis’, Topman was falling over itself to apologise.

So why all the fuss? All David Shepherd said was that Topman had ‘re-evaluated who our customer is and he’s the everyday 18-year-old lad….hooligans or whatever’ – and that ‘very few of our customers have to wear suits to work – they’ll be for his first interview or first court case’. And as one marketing expert pointed out, ‘Male shoppers will be revelling in their image as a Topman hard guy – let’s face it, every teenage boy wants that image’ (5).

But that’s the point: a laddish image dressed up in laddish fashion is all well and good. But laddish behaviour, complete with ‘hooliganism’ and ‘court cases’? We’ll have none of that, thanks very much. David Shepherd’s big mistake was to forget momentarily where acceptable laddishness ends and unacceptable laddishness begins.

Topman has always struck a balance between playing the lad card while encouraging its shoppers to become ‘new men’. Walk into its main UK store in London’s Oxford Circus and you’ll see laddishness everywhere you look – there are huge posters with menacing male models dressed in Union Jack shirts, giving the finger or grabbing their balls while growling at the camera. You can buy t-shirts with slogans like ‘I don’t do mingers’ or with pictures of guerrillas brandishing machine guns.

At the end of 1990s, Topman even started to stock Ben Sherman shirts and Fred Perry t-shirts, the brands worn by every self-respecting football hooligan in the 1980s. (But, of course, Topman only stocks Ben Sherman’s and Fred Perry’s watered-down ranges – for the real thing you still have to go to mod shop and home of skinhead chic, Merc, on Carnaby Street.)

But alongside all this laddish fashion, Topman has a Very Responsible Attitude to its young male shoppers. In March 1999 it sponsored a report by the youth campaigning group Young Voice, which found that ‘a boy’s world is governed by the “virtual laws of masculinity”. These decree that you should act like a man, but they form barriers to asking for help’. The solution? ‘If there were ever a magic bullet that could transform a young person’s life’, said the report, ‘it would be a pill coated with self-esteem…’ (6).

Back then, Topman revealed what it really liked about laddishness. ‘”Lad culture” may not seem to have much to recommend it’, said managing director Andy King, ‘but it’s a role a boy can understand and in which he will enjoy the security of peer approval. It is encouraging to see plenty of evidence of young men not behaving badly but doing well’ (7).

And in June 2001, Topman launched a campaign to educate its customers about testicular cancer. The Big TC might be extremely rare and have a 95 percent cure rate, but that didn’t stop Topman launching a range of testicular cancer t-shirts and using its website to tell young men that they should be more health-conscious – ‘cos we think it’s important to raise awareness of the cancers that can affect blokes’, it said, in what it considers to be typical ladspeak (8).

But that’s the secret of Topman’s success – it is fashionably laddish while at the same time encouraging its 18- to 25-year-old customers to become health-aware, better-behaved, decent young men. Think about its testicular cancer t-shirts – you can’t get more laddish than slangish slogans like ‘Bollocks to cancer’ and ‘Crown jewels: have you checked yours?’. But the t-shirts are also a declaration of new manhood, a sign that you’re emotionally attuned and in touch with your body.

Then David Shepherd had to go and ruin everything by mentioning those nasty blokes who want more from laddishness than just to wear the t-shirt. And nobody wants to hear about them. Laddish fashion and culture (think Topman, Guy Ritchie, Jamie Oliver and co) might be thriving – but laddish behaviour (think rowdy football fans, drinking in public, hanging round street corners) is under attack.

So remember Topman: the only lads New Britain likes are those who walk the walk and talk the talk – as long as they don’t drink the drink and fight the fights. Otherwise known as your customers.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Men will be…boys, by Jennie Bristow

Beyond the boy zone, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Sun, 21 July 2001

(2) London Evening Standard, 20 July 2001

(3) Topman customers ‘hooligans’, BBC News Online, 19 July 2001

(4) Sun, 21 July 2001

(5) Sun, 21 July 2001

(6) See Beyond the boy zone, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Guardian, 16 March 1999

(8) See the Topman website

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