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How Sports Direct became cool, against all the odds

If you’ve ever set foot inside a branch of Sports Direct, the giant, cluttered discount sportswear shop, all neon banners and permanent sales, you’ll probably find the following statement confusing. But here it is: “Sports Direct,” explains Daryoush Haj-Najafi, senior editor at Complex UK, “is the most fashionable shop in the UK right now.”

To the average consumer, Sports Direct is the sportswear shop at the crummier end of the high street. Selling a mix of well-known brands such as Adidas and Lonsdale as well as lesser known labels such as USA Pro, it remains a confusing business model: a blend of extremely cheap clearance items subsidised by the high-margin sales of its own-brand products. Then last week, Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley found himself in hot water after being openly criticised for operating a highly questionable working environment. Sports Direct would not respond to any of our requests for a comment today.

Suffice to say that shopping there isn’t the most pleasant experience, either. It requires wading and scrabbling. There’s a lot of creatine to get through before you find a bargain.

Then along came Skepta. In 2014 the grime MC was seen drinking out of Sports Direct mugs in his video for It Ain’t Safe. Skatewear label Supreme also featured heavily in the video, but Skepta remained loyal to the cut-price shop, even after breaking the US: “When I’m in the States, I’m fully kitted in Air Max, tracksuits and a curved peak. I come through with my Sports Direct and JD Sports swag. I’m looking like some Asbo kid and shocking people,” he recently told Hypebeast, later performing in a Sports Direct T-shirt on stage. His song That’s Not Me explains that he has binned Louis Vuitton and Gucci because it no longer represents who he is. As Skepta explains: “A lot of rappers will move to the US and embody the so-called ‘rapper lifestyle’, but the money they make is never that much, so they end up looking stupid.”

Sports Direct’s famous giant mug.

The success of Sports Direct is not solely down to Skepta, but a combination of factors. On one hand, rap culture has helped the once-waning market for cheap sportswear. Alongside Skepta is US rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose new album sits at the top of the charts, and who has collaborated with Reebok (a big brand at Sports Direct) on numerous occasions: “My sneaker rotation is all Reebok classics,” he explains. “I took it back to seventh grade.” Reebok, in turn has enjoyed a double-digit sales increase. Lonsdale and Dunlop have become fashionable again. Then there’s the current climate on the high street and recent, mercurial interest in cheaper sportswear. In the past 18 months, there has been an explosion across both ends of the sportswear market – from posh athleisure, through sportswear in the real, literal sense of the word, that is clothing for sport. Britain’s sporting goods market currently nets about £5-6bn pounds a year.

Affordability, of course, is integral to Sports Direct’s success, which also explains its possible expansion into Europe. Its cut-price model has helped the chain expand across Europe: it has just opened a 49,400 sq ft store in Glasgow and looks set to move into France where it looks set to usurp similar shops like Decathlon.

Skepta at SXSW this year. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

Stylist Ayishat Akanbi, who has worked with Adidas, Labrinth and Ghetts, thinks this is less of a new trend and more this generation’s take on British streetwear. ”That’s a tricky term, as for the past 10 years the American streetwear scene has dominated.” Since brands such as Supreme and Palace have shifted from standard skatewear to a more design-led arena (recent collections have a £200+ price point), the attention has moved back to sportswear, although Akanbi says: “The unwritten rule was that if you didn’t play sports, you most certainly did not wear sports brands.”

Akanbi namechecks labels Muzuno, Londsdale, Le Coq Sportif, Ellesse, Helly Hansen and Champion, which are all making their way back into high-street fashion. Akanbi thinks this rejection of luxury fashion is deliberate, and is “largely cultivated by the grossly underpaid consumer … It represents a political idea which simply states that clothing is too expensive, fashion is entirely too important and rebellion will always reign supreme.”

Reebok Classics in neon yellow.

As to whether Sports Direct will conquer the overseas market remains to be seen. The whole aesthetic, which Akanbi argues started outside of London but has moved towards the capital, feels very British. Still, if Skepta’s global appeal is anything to go by, it could well take off.

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