Amid the foreboding scenes, all-out chaos and touching moments of community which cemented Netflix’s Top Boy as one of the UK’s greatest TV exports — a quieter element of the story arc deserved attention: the style.
After five series, the Hackney-set gangster drama has garnered a cult following. During this time, its protagonists, frenemies Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson) and Dushane (Ashley Walters), have been fighting it out to become the titular Top Boy by selling food (drugs). We’ve watched them and the other residents of the show’s fictional estate, Summerhouse, grow up. And everything about the show has too.
Its portrayals of race, representation, crime and gentrification have become increasingly nuanced, and so has its use of clothes. As East London-based streetwear designer Robyn Lynch says: “This season really showed an elevation of style for certain characters. It introduced a touch of quiet luxury as well.”
This season really showed an elevation of style for certain characters as they have grown up. It introduced a touch of quiet luxury as well.
Standout pieces, including a techy half zip-up seen on Sully, a camo windcheater worn on Jaq’s (Jasmine Jobson) day off, and some chic workwear ‘fits for Shelley (Little Simz), have had fans sleuthing for similar looks. Costume designer Nathalie Humphries, who worked on the final series, tells me: "My agency has been swamped by requests online with people wanting to know where the clothes are from."
Much has been made of Top Boy’s cultural impact over the years. It has fast-tracked the careers of actors like Micheal Ward and Letitia Wright, spawned celebrity-fans-turned-characters (megafan Barry Keoghan notably appears in the latest season) and its UK grime and drill soundtrack has granted the genres a wider audience. It’s also huge across the pond — anglophile Drake became the show’s benefactor, taking it to Netflix as exec producer after Channel 4 failed to renew it after two seasons in 2013. Yet, little credit has been given to its style, and its ability to both hold a mirror up and influence the real-world fashion market. However, after the final series, that looks to be changing.
Streetwear has always been carefully sewn into the fabric of Top Boy. Because it’s set in such a prominent borough, with a specific style code, it was integral to get the looks right for the sake of verisimilitude. However, as each season had a different costume designer, the continuity could have easily faltered. It didn’t. "[The main characters] wear similar shapes in terms of aesthetics throughout,” notes Humphries.
The clothes are an integral part of illustrating some of the main characters’ rise to infamy and their increased wealth, which is why style snobs have been able to spot the subtle changes in the recent series. It’s in the fabrics and cuts, explains Humphries. “Kane [‘Kano’ Robinson] is hugely stylish in real life and his clothes have progressed through the series. You started to see C.P. Company and Stone Island, we carried that on, and added more street labels like Kith." While Lauren Miller, who styled season two on Netflix, says that in her series, “Dushane wore expensive timepieces as his subtle display of wealth”, and had polished looks, distinct from the gangs he was moving away from to build his own business.
This ‘if you know, you know’ factor of the style is intentional and unique to Top Boy. Miller explains it was important to the production team not to “glamourise the world that these characters live in”, adding: “The real-life versions of [the gang’s looks] would most likely feature more designer brands, flashy logos and jewellery than shown in the series, but actually you don’t want that to distract from the storytelling.”
In violent scenes, this brand anonymity is mandatory for the team, with Humphries explaining that only clothes without logos are chosen to appear in these parts of the plot to ensure viewers don’t associate them. It means the style really sings in the more tender moments of the show, when the Top Boy contenders and their right-hand woman Jaq (Jobson) are off-duty, or in scenes which feature the wider community. “Alongside the roadman aesthetic, there are some other versions of Hackney residents in the mix. I live there and really enjoy the vibrancy of the borough,” explains Humphries, who looked to photo archives like Future Hackney on Instagram to paint a picture of the style.
Economics and social mobility are fundamental to these looks as well as the gangs. In series three, Shelley (Simz) is gaining success with her nail bar, and vicariously so are her staff like Mandy (Natalie Bianaca Athanasiou, also known by her rap name NoLay), so the characters’ wardrobes become more sophisticated, showing more “confidence and using sharper, cleaner lines”, says Humphries. She calls it important to the “female care” storyline - and it’s about self-care too, as Humphries notes that Shelley’s looks are supposed to appear attainable from her own means, not as though they were bought with Dushane’s money.
The characters are supposed to feel like someone you could walk past on the streets of East London in popular haunts like Number 1 Café.
You only have to walk through Hackney, where much of the show’s action is set, to see how accurate the style is for the whole cast. Miller explains: “The characters are supposed to feel like someone you could walk past on the streets of East London in popular haunts like Number 1 Café.” Right now, Carhartt (worn by Simz) is splashed across the biggest billboard near London Fields, and teens riding Lime bikes on Mare Street wear the same Nike tech fleece seen on Stef this series. Then there are the reams of Gen Z who queue for the annual sale at the outlet store in Truman Brewery to cop pieces from Sully favourites C.P. Company and Stone Island.
Miller defines the look as a “street uniform”. While she says she mixed in “lesser known names like Yelir and Unknown London, as well as some black-owned brands including Benjart, Trapstar and Tax 3 to give them more exposure”, some key pieces are intended to be instantly recognisable to streetwear lovers and sneakerheads. They’re an obsessive style set, after all.
The show mimics a very classic London street style. Growing up, brands like Nike, Trapstar and Stone Island were a staple. Seeing these brands in the show just reinforces that.
Indeed, Ned Membery, the co-founder of vintage streetwear store Dukes Cupboard, says the show mimics “a very classic London street style. “For me, growing up, brands like Nike, Trapstar and Stone Island were a staple across London. Seeing these brands in the show just reinforces that.”
Meanwhile, his co-founder Milo Harley praises the cult pieces in the show. “The Nike Destroyer jacket Ashley Walters’ character [Dushane] wears in an earlier season is a pretty legendary piece. Also the C.P Company. jacket Kano wears in the most recent season is definitely iconic in London and in streetwear [communities].”
As the show’s popularity has grown, the pieces have been seen by a wider audience and a keenness to be associated with the cast has benefited brands. President of Italian sportswear label C.P. Company Lorenzo Osti tells me: “After the show aired, we noticed an increased interest in [C.P. pieces] the characters were wearing in the show, especially Sully.” He notes how many “subreddits, and forums titled ‘ID on Sully’s jacket?’” there are.
The label has tapped into the hype as part of their recent collaboration with Kano, which sees the grime singer’s recording studio notes printed inside a series of limited edition Metropolis jackets (retailing at £1,000). Osti says the combination of his music and Top Boy credentials make Kano “perfect” for the brand.
Earlier this month, Nike released a super-exclusive collection of 30 pairs of Air Max 95s, the model seen on Sully in the show. While at London Fashion Week, West African designer Foday Dumbuya created a Top Boy and Netflix-‘sponsored’ Hackney FC jersey and tracksuit for his LABRUM line.
Drake got in on the action early, with a Top Boy branded collab for season two, as part of his NOCTA line for Nike. The functional Alien Gortex Jacket was sold at $500 via the Netflix store to US viewers. Miller was asked to feature it in the show and chose it for the character of Jamie (Ward) in blue, “his hero colour”.
The fashion aptitude of cast members such as Ward and Jobson means they’ve been cherry-picked straight off-screen for high street and high fashion jobs. Stylist and creative director Shaquille Ross-Williams has worked with Jobson on her looks since the promo for her second series, and notes that more “elevated” brands have sought them out recently, as they’ve gained more visibility and confidence in working together. “We’ve had major moments with Prada and Chanel this year,” he says. Adding that, “Jasmine has a lot of self-awareness when it comes to her style and input on the looks. It’s very collaborative.”
Having previously styled Ward for the cover of Man About Town, Ross-Williams describes the show as a “platform” that is allowing the cast to have “major opportunities” in fashion.
Just as the show ended on a high, the stars’ style is on the ascent as they step out of its dark world and into the fashion spotlight. The show’s legacy will also live on in some smartly timed collectible collabs for all the fanatics out there.