How The NHS Became The Coolest ‘Brand’ In Britain

Designed by Anna Jay. Photos by Origin Sound, Sports Banger, @run.for.heroes, @alexis.alexis.alexiss
If there’s a silver lining to the coronavirus crisis, it’s that the National Health Service has become more than just publicly funded healthcare; it’s officially the coolest brand in Britain. Of course, the NHS isn’t a brand – nor is it a charity – but with celebrities and influencers sporting fundraising merch created by brands big and small, it’s evolved beyond a much-loved institution into the only name to label yourself with on lockdown. 
Britain’s love for the NHS runs deep. Since its founding in 1948, every single person in the country has been touched by it in some way; from the maternity wards to end-of-life palliative care, NHS workers' love and compassion is woven into the very fabric of our lives. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s attempts at privatisation prompted national uproar, which led her former chancellor, Nigel Lawson, to write in his memoirs years later: "The NHS is the closest thing the English now have to a religion."
So how exactly did the NHS – our underfunded but beloved health service – achieve Supreme-levels of cult cool? It all started with Sports Banger. Back in 2015, the tongue-in-cheek bootleg brand riffed on the instantly recognisable NHS logo, pairing it with a Nike swoosh tick on a T-shirt designed to support junior doctors. Sports Banger’s garms mash political statements with '90s sportswear nostalgia – think tees reading "The Met Police Are Targeting London Venues", a response to Fabric nightclub temporarily losing its licence in 2016, plus flipped Reebok logos and homages to the founder of Slazenger – so its playful homage to the NHS seems fitting.
Streetwear’s revival centres on its '90s roots, the decade in which the NHS logo we know and love today was created. Before the introduction of the unmistakeable blue and white design (Frutiger Bold font in 'blue lozenge' Pantone 300, FYI), the various arms of the health system (it only really started being widely referred to as the 'NHS' in the '90s, too) had their own regional visual identities, as the service wasn’t formed from the ground up but by pulling together existing hospitals and services. Now with uniform branding nationwide, the NHS emblem is as ingrained in Britain’s visual lexicon as that of the BBC or London Underground. 
Sports Banger’s tees enjoyed a second wind during the 2017 general election, when Bristol Streetwear created a similar bootlegged design in response to Corbynmania, featuring the then Labour leader’s name in red above a Nike swoosh. Now, Sports Banger founder, Jonny Banger has reissued his 2015 'Under the Counter' design to support ICU teams at five London hospitals (Homerton, Lewisham, St Thomas’, Whittington and Whipps Cross) as well as staff at the Mortimer Market HIV centre. "All the money from this purchase goes to delivering fresh juices and healthy food 7 days a week over the next 3 months," a note on the website reads. "Food suppliers invoice every Friday and we pay from T-shirt sales." Banger’s fundraising reflects the relationship between individual Brits and the NHS – at once a way to protect our communities and show our gratitude from personal experiences, summed up by this message on the website:
"i was born in the NHS
my mum worked for the NHS
the NHS tried to save my brother’s life
the NHS saved my life
the NHS saved my dad’s life
the NHS tried to save my mum’s life
the NHS saved my best friend’s life
the NHS saved my other best friend's life"
The latest drop of NHS merch to hit your Insta feed comes courtesy of graphic designer Victoria Boyle and DJ and Origins Sound founder Armândo Mehrkar, who have collaborated on ultra cool football scarves emblazoned with galvanising messages. "We’ve wanted to team up and create some original merch for quite some time," they explain, "and when the UK moved into lockdown we thought it would be the perfect opportunity to create something that conveyed a strong message and would help support those people who are risking their lives every day for us." Similarly to Sports Banger, Boyle and Mehrkar are teaming up with London eateries to put 100% of every donation towards food drops for hospitals across the capital, from King’s College to Hammersmith. 
Photo courtesy of Origin Sound.
Football scarves have been used to demonstrate loyalty to more than just your local team in recent years, with everyone from Vetements and Y/Project to House of Holland serving up a slice of fashion fandom in past seasons. Boyle and Mehrkar looked to the NHS' own branding for design inspiration; their blue and white scarves read "Made in the UK", "Since 1948" and "Saving Lives". "The reverse of the scarves showcase an inverted colour palette highlighting the status quo: 'SOCIAL DISTANCING' and 'WASH YOUR HANDS'," they explain. The result is a cult buy which the V&A will no doubt be looking to acquire as a reflection of the current zeitgeist.
Once again, Brits’ unique love for the NHS is apparent here: taken out of context, these sentiments – "Made in the UK" – could come across as nationalist thanks to the co-opting of our country’s identity by Brexiteers and the far right. Yet when applied to our treasured NHS, national pride is celebrated far and wide. "We feel that anyone that regularly uses the NHS services appreciates it, but it’s often easy for people to take it for granted," say Boyle and Mehrkar. "The events of COVID-19 have really shown everyone how vital they are and this appreciation must continue going forward. All healthcare professionals (doctors, nurses, surgeons, porters, cleaners etc.) should be treated like heroes."
Slick design is what separates these cult cops from the equally well-meaning but often naff tees we typically associate with charity fundraisers, something creative platform Everpress understands intuitively. "There are always a number of charity-focused campaigns popping up on Everpress at any given time," head of creatives, Nick Law tells me, "and we also run our own dedicated fundraising campaigns such as 50/50." An ongoing initiative, 50/50 enlists 50 artists to create 50 T-shirt designs in support of various organisations: 2019's was community-led Justice4Grenfell and the year before that, Amnesty International. Now, Everpress' NHS-blue-and-white 'Together' tee has emerged as the biggest drop of the crisis. 
"It's an homage to an OG Everpress classic, called 'Utopia', designed by Adam Tickle for the 2018 50/50 campaign with Amnesty International. We always loved the power in simplicity of that one, but given that we’re hardly living in utopian times right now, we asked Adam to repurpose it with a more relevant sentiment," Law muses. "After the initial videos showing people elbowing each other out the way for bog roll, it does seem like COVID-19 is uniting Brits generally; there have been some incredible stories of compassion and kindness coming to light. At the heart of this has been the NHS workers, whose dedication and bravery throughout this has been mind-blowing, and an inspirational lesson in selflessness."
A slew of fashion brands have jumped at the chance to support the NHS in various ways, from Rixo’s fundraising 'Stay At Home' tee, loved by Man Repeller’s Leandra Medine, and Blacksmith Store’s monochrome NHS cap to Holly Fulton, Bethany Williams and Phoebe English’s Emergency Designer Network, a fashion collective producing reusable scrubs for hospital workers. It’s encouraging to see the fashion industry – itself at great risk of collapse, with the British Fashion Council estimating that 35% of young designers won’t make it through the crisis – rally around a greater cause in an uncertain time, but it is the brands and designers employing the NHS' iconic visual identity in their work that have emerged as fashion’s coolest charitable champions. 
Fashion has a long history of using its voice to bring about social change – from Katharine Hamnett's '80s slogans to Frank Ocean's Kayla Robinson-designed tee reading, "Why be racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic when u could just be quiet?" – but the existence of public funding has long been problematic. Governments rely on the safety net of donations from the public to get away with slashing budgets and depriving essential services of money and resources. Essentially, charities step in where the state fails. It’s laughable how, just five months ago, the news cycle was dominated by talk of the Tories revisiting Thatcher’s plan to sell off the NHS for parts, this time around in US trade deals in the wake of Brexit. Now, the Conservative government encourages us to Run for Heroes and Clap for our Carers despite its persistent austerity and pillaging of the NHS via cuts, cuts and more cuts.
There’s a quote by stand-up comedian Henning Wehn circulating on social media right now: "We don’t do charity in Germany. We pay taxes. Charity is a failure of governments’ responsibilities." As NHS devotees, of course we’re all more than happy to donate; lack of control is defining our existence right now and pulling together as one big community to support the ultimate triumph of Britain’s welfare state is heartwarming, particularly when the country has felt so utterly divided in recent years. As Josh Glancy, a Brit living in an equally divided America, noted in his Times column last weekend, our fierce loyalty to the NHS has brought together those who have been diametrically opposed on the political spectrum of late in a way he’s not seeing in the USA. Boomer or millennial, conservative or liberal, city-dweller or countryside-resider – the NHS unites us all.
We should all contribute and volunteer whatever money and time we can afford during this crisis but we mustn’t let the government off the hook by allowing it to continue to neglect the NHS. After all, it wouldn't need our donations if it hadn't been ravaged by years of austerity. Post-pandemic, our voting power will matter more than ever; may the crisis electrify us into future action. In an influencer-centric world, thank god that it wasn't a celebrity or a cult label but the NHS that became the coolest brand in the country at a time of global crisis. Let's hope our hero worship lasts forever.

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