Heavy hitter: British Vintage Boxing

The sportswear brand’s founder, Zen Martinoli, talks to Brummell about Henry Cooper, integrity and his love of wearing boots with joggers

Style 16 Apr 2021

British Vintage Boxing

British Vintage Boxing

Can you introduce us to British Vintage Boxing?

We are a premium, boxing heritage-inspired sportswear brand. We combine old-school boxing gym style with sartorial style and have made it luxurious but affordable. It’s casualwear with a heavy emphasis on sweat fabric – we are known for really good joggers and sweat tops. We don’t want to diversify too much – but we are going to start doing original artwork, and posters. We are a visual brand, and I think that’s a nice way to embellish our proposition with imagery. We’ve had such a good response on social media to original art already. We’ll do limited editions of boxing imagery with different artists from around the world.

Were you involved in boxing before launching the brand?

I was a fitness and boxing instructor for about 15 years. Boxing and fitness have always been a massive part of my personal life. It has been a constant – whatever happened in my life, I always came back to my two hours of fitness every single day for 30 years. British Vintage Boxing came out of my passions and experiences combined with how I felt boxing deserved a brand that reflected the noble art and heroes of yesteryear. I wanted to create something that I thought had a level of quality about it and that redefined vintage in a way for a modern audience. There was no eureka moment, it was completely organic.

These ideas of gentlemanly behaviour, nobility and brotherhood seem to be really important to the brand. Is that something that comes from boxing as well?

Our core principles are brotherhood, integrity and probity. These values come back to Henry Cooper and the brand’s connections with him. We are an official licensee for Henry Cooper, we wanted to attach ourselves to one boxer and he was the perfect candidate.

Along with Muhammad Ali, Cooper was a boyhood hero of mine, even though he had basically finished his career the year I was born in 1971. The more I learned about him, the more I could see and admire what he stood for. That only increased with the advent of YouTube when I could watch his fights and see more of what he’d done. The more I found about him, the more I admired his reputation as a gentleman, a style icon, his courage in the ring, his quintessential Britishness, and his unfailing integrity. Somebody who embodied all of those traits and encompassed the idea of boxing heritage was something we wanted to connect with the brand. So it made sense to team up with somebody like Henry Cooper.

It took more than a year and a lot of emails to get through to Henry Marco Cooper, his son, and suggest working together. They are a lovely family and it’s been a real privilege to continue work with them. Henry Cooper, and everything he stood for, is at the heart of the brand, he never lets us down. With anyone you worry that there’s going to be something that might be unearthed that might taint him in some way. That never happens with Henry Cooper, it’s just better and better: his relationship with his wife was a beautiful love story, he was a wonderful parent. He was just a really solid bloke who happened to ply his trade between ropes. Even people who were most averse to boxing still loved Henry Cooper. Much like Muhammed Ali, he transcends sport to such an extent that you respect the person, even if you don’t like boxing.


Is Henry Cooper your favourite boxer of all time?

It’s a really difficult one. Because there are so many different ways to approach the question – do you look at who’s the greatest technical fighter, defensive fighter, or offensive fighter? Or do I choose a guy who I think was incredible human being and a great boxer? Obviously, Henry is there. Muhammad almost seems a lazy posit, but he was quite simply the greatest. There are others, who had more impressive records, but he broke the mould as a heavyweight who fought like a middle weight. He was so clever, very intelligent, no fighter had ever been as erudite as him. And he had an unbreakable, undimmable spirit. He was god like for me when I was a child.

I am quite anchored in the romance of boxing of yesteryear and that is what British Vintage Boxing is all about. Boxing was more about socio-economic conditions back then rather than celebrity. From what I see, there was a level of humility that I feel is sometimes lacking these days. I have always loved boxing because I was fascinated with the courage that it took to step through the ropes and put everything on the line. Who else would dare do that in life? It’s a willingness to invite tragedy in the search of something great – in an instant you can go from triumph to disaster in a moment and there’s nothing more human than that in a condensed moment.

What are some of your favourite items from the BVB collection?

I love everything but I think what has a special place in my heart is our Queensbury range that we launched with in November 2017. The collection is named after the Queensbury Rules, the first modern rules of boxing. We went for cool vintage greys with red colour graphics, and vintage details that have become fundamental to the brand. The collection drew inspiration from the Ali vs Cooper fight in 1963. So we have 63 as part of the graphic too. The Queensbury Classic 1963 sweatshirt is one I always come back to when I’m wearing something casual. It’s a classic sweat, that I always come back to: super soft fleece, really gentle to wear. After that we kind of moved on to our Bombardier range, which has more vintage detailing including side panels, eyelets on the arms – the original way to ventilate – and reinforced stitching just for extra made-to-lastness and a modern shape. We produced the Bombadier range in brush matte cotton, as well as loopback.

Zen Martinoli of British Vintage Boxing
Zen Martinoli of British Vintage Boxing

Who is the British Vintage Boxing customer?

It’s a broad base of people because they might be attracted by our Britishness, Vintage-ness or Boxing-ness. They are all very different but what unites them is that they place a premium on quality, style, and attention to detail. They carry themselves with a level of sartorial pride. They echo our sentiments of integrity. They’re aspirational. They’ve got quiet heroism about them. I think they place great value on brotherhood, family, being upstanding: those are the things that we try and promote and that have resonated. I think they are reverent and appreciate the legacy and romance of boxing’s heritage. They’re not all boxing fans, I think the message of our everyday champion appears to have gone beyond that, almost like Henry and Mohammed have, which is really nice.

What are your plans for the future British Vintage Boxing?

I think if you’d have asked me that question before Covid and Brexit, I would have had a much more solid answer. We would want to have a bricks and mortar at some point, we would want to do more pop-up shops. We did our first one in November just before Covid hit and that was a real success. But that’s not on menu now, maybe in five years. I think British Vintage Boxing will double down on what we do already as well as moving into new territories: we’ve been well received in Scandinavia, the US and Australia so we can look at how much we’ll we’re going to push it in those directions. We will continue to build ranges and dodge the bullet as they’re fired. See how things go and respond to them. We’re a relatively small brand so we have the ability to pivot, turn and react.

Who are your style icons?

I grew up in the 80s and we were heavily influenced by the 50s and 60s. So James Dean’s the king of style for me. Also, Steve McQueen, the kind of guy I had on a poster in the 80s. There are great shots of Steve in sweatpants doing boxing training. It was also the time of Nick Camen in his Levi’s and white Sunspel T-shirts in the launderette. Hardy perennials but those things are classic for a reason.  For me as well, what’s really important here was images of Ali and Cooper during the 50s and 60s wearing boots with their joggers – it became a massive influence for me and really struck a chord with our customers. A few people have sent in pictures of them with a tracksuit and boots on, it’s wicked.