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Nu-lads on the block

You may have seen nu-lad: he’s the guy in the pub with the shaved head or slicked-down fringe, his baseball cap tilted back. He’s probably wearing a pair of Reebok Classics and a bunch of labels, which seem at odds with fashion’s narrative: think Lonsdale, Ellesse, Fila, Puma, Reebok, Champion, alongside some higher-priced pieces by Supreme, Palace and Hood by Air. Imagine, if you will, a hipster that doesn’t look like a hipster. This is nu-lad, a 20-something guy from no discernible background, who prefers tracksuits to tweed, and a warm can of Stella over a pint of craft beer.

Drawing on an era wedged somewhere between Alan Shearer’s heyday and the birth of “banter site” the Lad Bible in 2012, nu-lad grew up and got a taste for sportswear as off-pitch clothing: he gave up boorish tracksuits and moved towards a conscious, rebellious “terrace-inspired” styling that encompasses affordable, nostalgic sportswear. The SS15 catwalks were a case in point, with collections by big names such as Balmain and Calvin Klein showcasing activewear, sportswear and streetwear, albeit with a high-fashion twist via plastic, neoprene and colour-blocking, alongside emerging labels such as Christopher Shannon, Y-3, James Long and Astrid Anderson. Think football kit with mega price points.

The nu-lad look is also being reflected on the high street – Topman is set to launch a collaboration with French 1990s ­waterproofers K-Way.

According to Chris Sanderson, co-founder of trend forecasting agency the Future Laboratory, this look started to emerge last summer, around the same time that the hipster backlash started. But instead of one influencing the other, these two looks couldn’t be more disparate. “Hipster style – the flat caps and beards – was about trying to look older and more distinguished,” says Sanderson. “This nu-lad style is the opposite – it’s about looking young and real, and more masculine, too. It’s about youth trying to demarcate itself from the older generation of flat-white-swigging dandies.” In 2015, the latter not only feels passe but grown-up. New York Magazine refers to the post-2004 hipster and Sanderson adds: “The people who started this hipster look are now in their late 30s and early 40s. They are no longer part of youth culture. Nu-lad, if we can call it that, is the inevitable next phase of coolness.”

Another contributor is the ubiquity of sports-luxe (expensive leisurewear masquerading as sportswear), another trend near peaking point. The rise of Lonsdale could be seen as a reaction to £400 hoodies. Daryoush Haj-Najafi, senior editor of Complex UK, agrees, seeing it more as a “reaction” to the “pretend anti-consumerist mentality” of the so-called hipster look, and less about a “return to masculinity”.

Nu-lads are the opposite to hipsters – they’re about looking young and real – or the ‘powerful identity of British working-class style’ … Adidas Originals.

Musicians are naturally pioneering this look: MC Skepta last year collaborated with wunderkind designer Nasir Mazhar and soundtracked his recent show. He did the same thing with Sports Direct, becoming its unofficial brand ambassador (“it’s the most fashionable shop in the UK true story,” says Haj-Najafi). Alongside him is Swedish rapper Yung Lean (North Face, Nike), musicians Drake (often seen in seminal-now-hip terrace-wear Stone Island), and Kanye West, who has collaborated with Adidas.

While examples littered the SS15 collections, it’s being reflected on the high street too. Later this week, Topman will launch its collaboration with French 1990s waterproofers K-Way. Adidas’s latest campaign is geared around the whole nu-lad aesthetic. Champion and Nike have concessions in Urban Outfitters. It’s almost close to becoming mainstream.

In certain circles, this look has always existed. Boys have always worn tracksuits. The obstacle to its emergence as a serious trend is, obviously, the word “lad”, which is laden with negative connotations. But the stereotype is changing – the Lad Bible (the 12th most read site in the UK) has admitted it is trying to rebrand its image as something broader, and a recent YouGov poll confirmed the “evolution”. This is a post-metrosexual, post-Loaded-reading guy who still drinks cans, likes chips, prefers dogs to cats and enjoys The Inbetweeners; he still wears Adidas and Nike. But he wants to do all of the above without being weighed down by the boobs and banter of the laddish culture we know and loathe.

Carri Munden, the designer behind seminal 2000s-style label Cassette Playa, has long been designing fashion for nu-lads, or as she calls it, “the future vision of masculinity”. But it’s her very-noughties SS15 collection, which feels more consciously reactive than ever, “totally no more beards and heritage”, she explains, when asked about the thinking behind it. “This nu-lad is the powerful identity of British working-class style,” an aesthetic she compares to the mods, which has been “a constant inspiration on my designs”. She namechecks labels such as Iceberg, Moschino and Sergio T and subcultures like “UK garage” and “terrace-casual”.

Of course, there is an argument that this style is as “disingenuous” as the pseudo-dandy look adopted by so-called hipsters, at least on some wearers. Andreas Branco – who founded Wavey Garms, a Facebook e-tailer that has huge success selling used, nostalgic sportswear by Champion and Stone Island, and running club nights (the most recent saw 600 kids dancing to Wookie and spilling beer all over their Tommy Hilfiger bumbags) – believes some are fetishing the style. “These people want to look working-class when they’re not,” he has said. But arguably much of fashion is about trying to identify with a certain tribe, be it 1960s dandy (Saint Laurent) or health goth (Alexander Wang). “Which I get,” continues Branco. “A lot of us grew up with this stuff. It’s cool that it’s back.”

Musicians such as Only Real are showcasing the look. Photograph: Charlotte Rutherford

To people like Branco, it’s less of a trend and more of a lifestyle. New magazines such as LAW, which stands for “lives and work”, appeal to this new demographic; it’s less the aspirational, middle-class reader and more “mates who work hard all day and drink in the pub” as its editor, John Holt, has said. Even the music scene is in on it, with British acts such as Only Real and Real Lies showcasing a new type of urban man. Though musically very different, both appeal to urban, melancholy youth, and they do so in Reebok Classics and Nike.

“What’s clear is that the hipster aesthetic needed to move on,” says Sanderson. “This next wave is inevitable. The point is – it feels genuine, a style that almost transcends fashion. And what the kids do, everyone else follows.”

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