Browse all

How chavs have changed the fashion world

It has to do with Burberry, adidas pants, Victoria Beckham and the Nike Air Max Tn

How chavs have changed the fashion world It has to do with Burberry, adidas pants, Victoria Beckham and the Nike Air Max Tn


Subcultures have always played an important role in the fashion world: big brands take and rework them according to their own style vision. But the phenomenon of the so-called ‘chavs’ had such an impact, both aesthetic and economic wise, especially on a historic and elite brand like Burberry, to represent truly a unique case. During the years the English fashion house has had its ups and downs, and after having been the most desired and copied brand of the 2000s, is now having to deal with the elimination of unsold goods worth 32 millions euros. 

Who are the chavs

In every English neighborhood, there are those kids who speak in slang, smell like beer all the time and only wear designer tracksuits (adidas, Sergio Tacchini, Fila, whether they're real or knock-offs it doesn't really matter), white sneakers and caps. Well, those are chavs. The origin of the word ‘chav’ is still very discussed and controversial, but it seems to come from the Romani language and it would mean ‘child’. At the beginning, the term was used above all in Northern England, but in a very short period of time it spread all over the United Kingdom. ‘Chav’ is first used in 1998 and by 2002 it’s on all the newspapers.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term ‘chav’ as an insulting word, which usually refers to a young person, whose way of dressing - with tracksuits, white sneakers, caps and over the top jewelry -, speaking and behaving is thought to show their lack of education and low social class. What really mattered in the chav culture was showing off of a brand and the social position it implied, and it was not a big deal to wear imitations or knock-off clothes: at the highest point of this trend, the counterfeit market is bigger than ever. Stone Island and especially Burberry, but also adidas and Kappa, are chavs’ favourite brands, real or fake, all paired with Nike Air Max 95s (called in slang 110s, because they costed £110 at that time) or the Nike Air Max Tns.

The history of the tracksuit would deserve its own book, especially because in England it's a big deal. From the 70s the tracksuit is no longer something to be worn only at the gym or on tracks, but it becomes a fashionable item for everyday life. In the 80s the hip-hop scene has a huge influence on this trend: the Three Stripes adidas tracksuits worn by the Run DMC made history and are now iconic. But it's in the 90s that the tracksuit becomes something deeply connected with the English society and culture. The so-called 'casuals' made the tracksuit their uniform and symbol. This subculture was born on the terraces of football stadiums: while hooligans were openly eager to fight against police and opponents, and were mainly composed of skinheads and hard mobs, the casuals used their style to go undercover and unnoticed in the stadiums, also in order to distinguish themselves from the hooligans. Especially Liverpool supporters embraced this style: Kappa, Sergio Tacchini, Ellesse, Fila, Lacoste tracksuits, paired with strictly white adidas, Fred Perry and Diadora sneakers. The essence of the movement is always deeply connected to the football culture, along with drugs and alcohol abuse and the preference for punk and later brit pop. The frontman of one of the most British bands of all time, Damon Albarn of Blur, made the tracksuit a central element of his style and the English culture. 


In actual fact, such a simple “uniform” had much deeper social implications. It’s worth highlighting that chavs were usually young boys and girls belonging to the English working class. Sons and daughters of workers, hairdressers, salesclerks, part of the working-class world, very often living in council houses in Northern England, but also Ireland and Scotland. Chavs were usually poorly educated and had a brash, loutish and sometimes antisocial behavior, for which they were often compared to hooligans. Many believe that this word should not be used anymore, because it’s considered offensive and racist towards the English middle class, which in this way is discriminated and denigrated.

In a short period of time chav style becomes associated with bad taste and sloppiness, and the representatives of this trend become the favourite targets of radio and Tv shows, and on the tabloids everyone is talking about it. The most prominent example of this is the radio and Tv sketch show Little Britain, which through sketches and exaggerated characters recounted faithfully and without any filters the English society. One of the most famous characters was Vicky Pollard, who was intended to be a parody of chavs. A teenage girl living in a fictitious town very similar to Bristol, all she does in life is gossiping and dressing in in bright colored Kappa tracksuits. She changes diffrent jobs and tries openly to become pregnant in order to get a council house. During a special episode of the show, guest star Kate Moss played Vicky's twin sister, Katie Pollard: this gives the idea of the extent to which chavs, and especially jokes about them, had become popoular.

On newspapers and tabloids some celebrities are immediately labeled as 'chavs', first and foremost David and Victoria Beckham, but also Wayne Rooney and former model Jordan, as well as a bunch of actors, reality shows stars and singers who didn't make elegance one of their best qualities.

The Burberry Case

The brand symbol of this trend (but above all his imitations) is the epitome of classic English elegance: Burberry. The brand founded in 1856 feels the effect of this chav moment, in a negative way though. When it comes to reputation, the instant association with chavs, lads and to lesser extent hooligans, has negative consequences. Interestingly enough, the pivot moment of this trend is a picture taken by some paparazzi: the English soap-opera actress Daniella Westbrook is photographed strolling around London in a total look Burberry, and the check pattern is noticeable also on her baby’s skirt and on the stroller. The executives of Burberry realize that what has to change is the perception of the brand: the forced and vulgar ostentation of brands and luxury must end, also because it is too often connected with counterfeit. In this period of time, moreover, the luxury goods house saw a sharp decline in sales.

Christopher Bailey, appointed Burberry creative director in 2001, is in charge of resurrecting the fortunes of the brand. Bailey’s first decision is to ditch the signature check print, at that point associated to the chav aesthetic he’s so strongly trying to move on from. Then, he chooses as the faces of his new ad campaign Cara Delevigne, Eddie Redmayne, and Naomi Campbell, all representatives of a posh and refined Englishness, adding an elegant touch to the whole. His openness to the then still brand new Internet, the invention of the see now buy now, the research of new music talents, and above all the introduction of a second clothing line, Burberry Prorsum, which featured purses that became real objects of desire: all these elements contributed to the growth of the brand, distancing it from chavs and English middle class, making Burberry one of the most appreciated, rediscovered and, above all, best selling brands in the industry.

In 2014 Bailey decides that after 13 years it is time to bring the Burberry Nova check print back, by making it young and desirable. Romeo Beckham, son of the most fashionable couple of England, is the protagonist of the Christmas Film where he wears a checked cashmere scarf, paired with an umbrella in the same pattern. Change has begun. 

The peak of this reworking and reappropriation process of its origins arrives totally unexpected in Bailey’s penultimate collection as creative director. For the FW17 show, the English designer reverses the chav conception of the brand, celebrating its heritage by bringing back on the catwalk the beloved, but also hated, check pattern. The tartan print covers caps, trenches, tote bags, sweaters, skirts and vests, becoming a sophisticated and upper-class pattern. The collection, one of the best-selling collections of all time, comes full circle: Bailey ends his path at Burberry with the same element he began with.



Gosha Rubchinsky’s aesthetic 

Bailey’s decision of coming to terms with the past, in particular with a culture initially seen as not “enough” for the higher fashion world, has an important effect also on other brands and designers. Gosha Rubchinsky has always drawn inspiration from the post-Cold War Russia where he grew up, as well as youth culture and subcultures, sportswear and hooliganism. For the SS18 collection, the Russian brand joined forces with Burberry. The designs, which take inspiration from the football world, are essentially a love letter to the 90s. The check pattern is back, on caps, polo shirts, shorts, bomber jackets and trench coats: the chav look evolves further and becomes the hottest trend for the hypest fashion victims.  

The definitive transition from despised and taunted subculture to the absolute protagonist on the catwalks takes place thanks to Vetements, which revisits and reworks the chav aesthetic, and showcases it during Couture Fashion Week. Chav is officially elegant.

Chav in 2018

The chav aesthetic, reworked and polished, is now definitely part of the fashion system. Credit goes also to grime music: the artists of this musical genre that mixes rap, hip-hop and drum and bass, first of all Skepta and Stormzy, made the tracksuit their uniform, turning it into a refined item, which very quickly was seen on catwalks all around the world. 

Today the chav style can be found especially on Instagram. Above all British boys renewed this aesthetic making it contemporary and hype. The check print has made a big come back on shirts and pants, trenches and bucket hats (items sported by the most followed and buzzed personality of this new English fashion wave, Leo Mandella aka @gullyleo), as well as on the returned Nike Air Max Tn, which is customized with the classic Burberry pattern, or the Nike Air Force, paired with pants in the same texture.

Un post condiviso da Leo Mandella (@gullyguyleo) in data:

Un post condiviso da 1990 (@toni_brugnoli) in data:

Un post condiviso da Terence Sambo (@terencesambo) in data:


The irreverent Instagram profile @freddiemade, moreover, transforms the most prominent English figures in a sort of chavs memes: David and Victoria Beckham wearing a Kappa tracksuit, a Burberry bomber jacket and Nike Air Max Tns, Queen Elizabeth II wrapped in a checked scarf or dressed in a red Kappa tracksuit in pure Vicky Pollard style, Donald and Victoria Beckham with tartan trenches paired with the newest Kanye West and Balenciaga's sneakers. A trend born more than twenty years ago is now modern and fresh, revisited and transformed through today's means of communication.

Un post condiviso da freddie smithson (@freddiemade) in data:

Un post condiviso da nss mag (@nssmagazine) in data:


To think that a trend started by very young English boys had such a deep and long lasting effect is quite amazing. Media and fashion are always very fast in capturing the newest trends and subcultures, criticising them but ultimately making them theirs. 


Cover Photo: Toni Brugnoli