The People Deserve Beauty, by Matt Williams

In the bleak February of 2022, the UK was cautiously emerging from the restrictions of the pandemic under a government populated by vindictive policymakers, pathological liars and narcissists. In the middle of the month, we were hit by the worst storm in decades – with a deluge of rain and record- breaking winds roaring across the country, leaving a trail of destruction and disruption.

In the midst of all this mess, a welcome distraction had arrived in the form of an invitation from Sports Banger to attend a fashion show held in their studio in the deepest depths of South Tottenham. The storm was raging, but I felt the urge to travel to this unknown location, get lost for a few hours, forget the stress of the pandemic, bump into old friends, and experience something different and exciting. As Emma Warren writes in the 2020 pamphlet Document Your Culture, the allure of shared spaces like clubs, community centres, and DIY fashion shows is to find ourselves among ‘like-minded souls’ who ‘make us happy and keep us well’. This is what I hoped to find at Sports Banger’s show, fittingly titled The People Deserve Beauty. Possessed with an unwavering determination to attend, I got myself together, jumped onto my bike and headed out.

Since its inception, Sports Banger – an independent, multidisciplinary collective of creative minds and hearts – has instinctively sought to challenge conventions within the fashion industry. Hard to define, their work encompasses T-shirts with politically charged, often bootlegged graphics; a record label; frequents raves and parties; guerilla billboards; self-published books; the list goes on. They move freely between mediums and media, resisting conventional business structures or plans and connect- ing as much with ravers as NHS workers, kids, and pensioners (like my dad, who wears his anti-Thatcher Sports Banger T-shirt proudly and my youngest boy, who sports his ‘Solidarity with Striking Workers’ T-shirt with commitment).

The rain had begun to dissipate as I cycled through a maze of side streets en route to Maison de Bang Bang, passing a group of south Americans playing pan pipes under railway arches. Upon arrival, the crowd were smoking, drinking and chatting animatedly outside the venue. The storm had scuppered Sports Banger’s best-laid plans for the show to happen al fresco style in the car park, so we were guided inside a larger space where a makeshift catwalk had been hastily arranged. The audience buzzed with excited anticipation, nervously playing with their phones in the darkened room until the atmosphere was pierced with deep sounds from massive speakers, blaring out the first beats of an unreleased track from Sports Banger’s HERAS label. The People Deserve Beauty had begun.

A year on and the final act of The People Deserve Beauty is this large-format publication developed in collaboration with the artist Gareth McConnell and published by Sorika. This editorial presents some of the personalities from the catwalk show captured in various stages of dress and undress against a backdrop of fabrics printed with Sports Banger graphics and McConnell’s ethereal photographs.

McConnell’s work has appeared in diverse contexts, from early socio-political documentaries to gallery walls, self-published books, and fashion magazines. In recent years, he has scaled back his fashion work to focus on a more experimental approach to photography, creating hallucinogenic images, which he describes as ‘part camera club, part John Baldessarri’s “Wrong” series’. The photographs are often layered still-lifes of flowers, shot up close in McConnell’s studio using unconventional photographic techniques, long exposures, and bright lighting. The images are charged with colours so vivid they appear luminescent, creating an intense, head-on encounter that draws the viewer in and transports them into an alternate and intoxcating space. In conversation with Sports Banger, McConnell channelled the energy and spirit of The People Deserve Beauty to create the images published here using similarly experimental methods to his ‘nature magic’ still-lifes. A distinctive process – part Banger, part McConnell – that beautifully captures the energy and boldness of the clothes.

Jonny Banger and McConnell first connected during the 2020 lockdown, when Gareth gifted Jonny a photographic print from his Night Flowers series as a gesture of reverence and solidarity. Both were actively fundraising during this time, albeit independently of one another – selling photographic prints and clothing and donating proceeds to grassroots organisations supporting communities in need. Since this early offering, McConnell and Sports Banger have fostered a generative, collaborative relationship based on a shared vision that draws upon the energy and aesthetic of various socio-political and counter-cultural movements that successive governments have tried to downgrade or dismantle.

McConnell’s work speaks to his experiences as a young man navigating the rave scene in Northern Ireland amid the Troubles. McConnell was part of a disaffected generation who found solace and release from cyclical recessions, dead-end jobs and social deprivation in the form of psychedelic drugs and Balearic dance music. It was a movement defined by long nights and long days, punctuated with hallucinogenic interludes while various chemical concoctions wore off or plant-based entities took hold, generating a visual haze that McConnell evokes in his imagery. Over 11 years, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government had inflicted endless neoliberal economic policies that segregated society and systematically weakened trade unions, depriving the working class of their public voice. Rave was a kind of defiance to state legislation. In many ways, the movements of that era parallel an attitude expressed by the masses today, who are exhausted by the government’s financial mismanagement, moral bankruptcy and authoritarian approach to overpowering any form of civil dissent.

The amalgamation of Sports Banger’s collaborative and inclusive attitude with McConnell’s lucid visual expressions amplifies the need for meaningful events like The People Deserves Beauty, particularly during politically challenging times. Banger’s loud, inspiring fashion show, thrown despite an epic storm, and this subsequent document show us how peripheral cultural spaces can harness collective energies to create something beautiful.

With this in mind, I would like to thank you all for making a difference.