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How far-right groups are using fashion symbols to recruit the youth

On Sept. 24, British fashion brand Fred Perry released a statement on its website and social channels, announcing that the company would no longer be selling its $95 polo shirts with a gold and black laurel design to the United States and Canada.

The reason: The shirt had been adapted as a uniform by far-right group the Proud Boys.

“That association is something we must do our best to end,” the statement read, vowing not to make the shirt available in North America again until the Proud Boys ceased using the clothing line “to their own ends.”

The shirt’s appeal among right-wing extremists is partly to do with imagery. The laurel wreath logo on the Fred Perry polo is (unintentionally) similar to the yellow wreath used in some Nazi ceremonial flags. But according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor of education and sociology at American University’s School of Public Affairs, the fashion statement, when used by the Proud Boys, has a more nefarious purpose.

The co-opting of brands like Fred Perry has “helped make the far-right more palatable to a broader range of youth,” she tells The Post. “It helps them blend in, making it easier to ‘try on’ extremist ideas without fully committing in the way that shaving their heads required in the era of the racist skinhead aesthetic.”

It doesn’t end with polo shirts. As Miller-Idriss explains in her new book, “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right” (Princeton University Press), out now, the market for hate is thriving.

“Today’s far-right consumers can choose from a wide array of high-quality products … from the way they cook to the clothes they wear,” Miller-Idriss writes. “There are dedicated YouTube talk shows, clothing brands, and music streaming services.”

It’s a shift that began in 2014, when German neo-Nazis began dressing like Brooklyn hipsters — a style that German media dubbed “Nipsters.” In a Rolling Stone profile of the Nipster movement, one of the co-founders claimed it helped Nazis “live within the mainstream” and present a “friendlier, hipper face” to the public.

This strategy soon made its way across the ocean to American far-right radicals. Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, wrote a screed in 2017 calling on white nationalists to change their recruitment tactics.

“The core of marketing is aesthetic,” Anglin wrote. “We need to look appealing. We want to hit the average. We want normal people. We have to be hip and we have to be sexy.”

While today’s hate groups are anything but hip or sexy, they have gotten more sophisticated when it comes to presenting themselves as “normal.”

The so-called Boogaloo Boys, an extremist group that believes a second American civil war is imminent, took part in sometimes violent protests earlier this summer in states like Texas, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, all while wearing floral Hawaiian shirts.

The origins of the floral shirt trend involve Internet wordplay — it started with jokes about the 1984 movie “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” which evolved into shorthand like “big igloo” and “big luau.”

This use of mainstream aesthetics “can make far-right views seem less dangerous to the public,” Miller-Idriss said. “It’s harder to recognize ideas as extreme when they come in a package that looks more like the kid next door than the neo-Nazi of people’s imaginations.”

Food is a particularly rich domain for sharing subtle messages about identity and tradition, “as well as narratives of rebellion against an unjust state or liberal elites,” says Miller-Idriss.

Examples include Balaclava Küche, a vegan cooking channel hosted by German balaclava-wearing extremists, or The Blonde Butter Maker, a cooking vlog that “blends messaging about white European paganism with video instruction on how to make nut milk, dehydrate herbs, or preserve berries.”

Another way that hate is marketed in an appealing package is “Fashwave,” a mashup of fascism and the synthesizer-based synthwave genre of music. Synthwave has long been a favorite of extremist groups — white supremacist Richard Spencer once called synthwave rockers Depeche Mode “the official band of the alt-right,” a title the band members rejected — but in recent years, fashwave has emerged to provide an official soundtrack for hate. Popular fashwave artist Xurious have songs with titles like “Team White,” “Death to Traitors,” “The Caucasion Mind,” and with almost 100,000 streams on Spotify, “Revolt Against the Modern World.”

As with Fred Perry, not all hate-group gateways are knowing collaborators. When fast-food franchise Wendy’s tweeted a meme of Pepe the Frog (a popular Internet comic that’s been appropriated by alt-right white supremacists) dressed as the company’s logo in 2017, the company quickly realized its error and pulled it down, but not before the Daily Stormer named Wendy’s “the official burger of the Neo-Nazi Alt-Right movement.” They also gave this dubious honor to Papa John’s Pizza (calling it the “Official Pizza of the Aryan Master Race”) and even singer Taylor Swift, who the Daily Stormer called an “Aryan goddess” and a “neo-Nazi sleeper agent.”

Some brands, like Dr. Martens, have garnered controversy for unwittingly endorsing their association with hate groups. In 2017, the English footwear company was widely criticized for a holiday billboard in Portland, Ore., that featured a black boot with red laces, a color combination often used by skinhead groups to demonstrate that they have “spilled blood” for the white supremacy cause.

These new aesthetics of modern extremism enable those with similar ideological views to identify each other, Miller-Idriss says.

“It signals political affiliation and attitudes toward others, allowing like-minded youth to find one another and strike up conversations in school, at stadiums, in bars, and at parties.”

As one young person influenced by these tactics explained to the author, when they see someone wearing a T-shirt from a brand known to market to the far right, it makes them think, ‘Maybe I’m not so alone after all.’

It also becomes a game, Miller-Idriss says. Because parents, teachers and other authority figures can’t always recognize the symbolism, it gives young people a sense of power and secrecy. “They’re hiding their ideological views in plain sight in ways that other insiders might recognize, but most outsiders would not,” Miller-Idriss says.

This could take the form of an alphanumeric sequence of numbers and letters like “2YT4U,” which translates as “too white for you,” or the slightly modified Detroit Red Wings hockey team logo, with the spokes replaced with the lightning bolts of Hitler’s Schutzstaffel, worn by members of a hate group called Detroit Right Wings.

Miller-Idriss warns that the problem will only get worse as far-right nationalists find new ways for young people to be two things at once — mainstream in their appearance and interests, but extreme in their ideas and positions.

“This makes for a softer, less committed, and more experimental entry,” writes Miller-Idriss. “A literal trying-on of extremism that also enables plausible deniability.”

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