Luxury clothing brands more typically associated with conservative values were hauled over the coals last week after two pubs in Leicester banned drinkers wearing four top designer labels as part of a move to crack down on alcohol-fuelled violence.
The Parody and The Varsity, part of the Barracuda Group pub chain, barred punters wearing Burberry, Henri-Lloyd, Stone Island and Aquascutum. The labels had become the 'unofficial uniform' of a gang of yobs known to cause trouble in the two city-centre bars, according to Barracuda, which says the rules are guidelines for their doormen - and that a woman with a Burberry handbag would probably not be turned away.
But the story highlights the increasing association between people labelled as troublemakers and certain clothing brands.
Colloquially known as 'chavs'- which rather snobbishly stands for council house and violent - 'Kappa slappas', 'scallies' and 'geezers', an emerging social group was last year identified by advertising agency Vegas. It described the youngsters as manual labourers without degrees who live with their parents, have disposable income and wear labels such as Burberry - whose brand presence has been unwittingly buoyed by a lively market in counterfeit goods.
Most PROs feel chav culture's adoption of these brands will not affect the reputation of the clothing long term. Fashion PR agency Iroquois's managing director Catherine Morris believes that in Burberry's case, it is too well established to be tarred by the current coverage: 'These stories will not dent Burberry at all; its true customers will not be concerned by such associations.'
Frank PR managing director Andrew Bloch, who represents Henri-Lloyd, also dismisses yob association as a 'here today, gone tomorrow' issue. 'This is such a small element of Henri-Lloyd's customer base, and in terms of media coverage, it was Burberry that was hit the hardest,' he says.
The four labels are not the first major brands to reach for the crisis management plan following unwanted associations. PROs at Italian fashion house Prada, for example, must have been dismayed when a gang of robbers were dubbed the Prada Boys last year because of their love of the brand.
And when hooligans wearing Hackett clothes were shown throwing chairs in Charleroi during Euro 2000, the brand's traditional middle-class image was questioned. It's not just associations with the criminal fraternity that can give clothes brands a headache. In 2003, Dorothy Perkins ditched its line of red anoraks because of an alleged association with Coronation Street transsexual Hayley Cropper.
So if high-quality brands and negative associations can be par for the course, how do top labels ensure any link with yob culture is short-lived?
'The Burberry Check is the most recognisable print of the label founded in 1856. It has done a brilliant job of ensuring it remains aspirational, which it has done through its association with celebrities,' says Cohn & Wolfe marcoms director Claire Mann.
But Mann adds that smaller items, such as caps, are affordable to lower-income consumers: 'There's always a fine line for a fashion brand to walk between creating an aspirational product and slipping into the mainstream. This is a constant challenge, and one that brands such as Adidas address by creating limited-edition products to keep ahead of the curve. By the time the style has been adopted by the mainstream, the brand is on to the next big thing.'
The brands lash out
Bloch says: 'I take my hat off to the (Leicester) pubs: it was a clever publicity stunt. They have got tons of publicity on the back of this story.'
But Barracuda PR manager Caroline Nodder says the chain never sought media coverage. 'A local journalist saw a sign (outside a pub),' she reveals. (The story) was carried by a local paper and picked up by the nationals. It is not a stunt.'
Henri-Lloyd has launched a damning attack on Barracuda's decision to bar its brand, labelling it 'ridiculous prejudice'.
A Stone Island spokeswoman says: 'We are aware of Stone Island's popularity among football supporters who wear designer labels as status symbols.
But Stone Island is an internationally respected brand worn by a wide variety of individuals from all walks of life. It is the individual who is the outlaw, not the garment.'
How some of these brands see themselves emerging from the negative publicity is unclear. Neither Burberry nor its financial PR adviser Brunswick would comment on the issue of brand reputation. Aquascutum, represented by Modus Publicity, also declined to comment.
Individuals associated with Burberry, highlighted by website ChavScum, include Christina Aguilera, Jordan and Danniella Westbrook. The image of Westbrook clothed in the famous check head to toe, buggy and child included, will be hard to banish.
But with less than 12 per cent of Burberry's new stock carrying its signature check, the brand is clearly evolving and reported record profits earlier this year.
How long it takes for chav culture and the counterfeit market to catch up with the new range will determine whether the brand can shake off any negative associations.
BRANDS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Stone Island: Started in 1983 by Sportswear Company, the Italian owner of clothing brand CP Company. Sportswear launched in 1975.
Henri-Lloyd: Launched in 1963, it found fame after one of its jackets was adopted by Milan scooter society the Panninari in the 1980s.
Burberry: The epitome of all things English, so much so that the popular brand lobbied the EU to keep its 'made in England' label rather than having to swap to 'made in the EU'. Launched in 1856, the company's signature check design is recognised around the globe.