Jaimie Fuller wants to get one thing straight from the start. He’s never claimed to be ‘the Bob Geldof of sport’, as has been widely reported in his many appearances in print in recent years.
What he said, he tells me at the exclusive Café Royal restaurant in London, where we meet for breakfast on one of his frequent visits to the UK, was that he wants Skins, the compression sportswear brand that he owns and of which he is executive chairman, to be the Bob Geldof of sport, with a “mission to change the world through sport.”
He wants Skins to “do what Geldof did through music. This forms the backbone of my vision about the role sport plays in society. All this trouble in governance means we’re failing to maximise the power of sport. For example, the Fifa debacle in Qatar. If Fifa had said [from the outset] it was not prepared to have the World Cup on the back of slavery, the Qataris would have said, ‘Where do we sign?’ Geldof looked at the influence of music, saw a problem in the world, got his mates together and said, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”
So, if not as the Bob Geldof of music, how would Fuller, a congenital outsider who has made his name by standing apart and criticising the industries with which he is associated, describe himself? “How about s--t-stirrer?,” says Fuller. “It’s something I’ve always done.”
Fuller (and Skins) hit the mainstream headlines last year when Rob Young, an ultra-runner sponsored by the company, was exposed as having cheated in his attempt to break the Trans America record, involving running around 60 miles a day for 46 days. Under the headline, ‘Runner’s cheating is exposed but for once a sponsor stands tall’, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that “instead of stone-walling, his sponsor Skins did something unusual: it turned to two independent experts, Roger Pielke Jr, of the University of Colorado Boulder, and Ross Tucker, of the University of the Free State, and told them to get to the truth, whatever the consequences.”
In their report Pielke and Tucker concluded that Young received “unauthorised assistance – most likely in the form of riding in or on a vehicle for large parts of the attempt.”
Yet Skins seemed only to benefit from the association with Young, who had been the victim of horrific abuse as a boy, and from its reaction to the incident, with Pielke and Tucker praising Skins’ “transparency and integrity,” while the Guardian argued: “Wouldn’t it have been refreshing for Sky, having spent millions funding Team Sky, to bring in independent experts to check everything is above board with their TUE requests? Meanwhile, as Pielke points out, when the BBC and ProPublica made serious allegations against the Nike Oregon Project, Nike’s reaction was to withdraw rather than open its doors to scrutiny.”
Fuller himself was praised for his compassionate stance towards Young, even after his cheating was exposed. He tells me: “He’s a nut job, but in a really nice way. He’s overcome adversity through running and he was using sport to do greater things around issues of domestic violence. He wanted to have a crack at Trans America, and we offered to support him. It never occurred to us there could be any accusation of shenanigans. We could have had cameras, or a formal data process. I wish we had.
“I got an email from a guy making unbelievable accusations about Rob cheating. I didn’t think it was possible. Call me naïve, but we had a guy there, a kid who was an intern at Skins driving the camper van. The first thing I did was ring him and he assured me everything was above board, but it didn’t take long to realise we needed to do something. Through consultation we came up with the two guys who did the investigation.”
When I point out that, if anything, the company seems to have emerged from the potentially embarrassing saga with its reputation enhanced, Fuller says: “So we should do. We set a strategy in 2009 that if something happens we’re going to be open. We got good press, which I didn’t complain about.”
All this trouble in governance means we’re failing to maximise the power of sport
‘Good press’ is something Fuller pursues single-mindedly. Earlier this year, he ratcheted up the s--t-stirring another notch when his press agency issued a statement (and followed it up with a reminder) deploring the support of Kevin Plank, founder of rival US sportswear firm Under Armour, for US president Donald Trump, after Plank described Trump as a “real asset” to the country.
Inviting Under Armour brand ambassadors, including NBA basketball’s Stephen Currie, ballerina Misty Copeland and former WWE wrestling star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to “jump ship” and join Skins instead, Fuller claimed in a statement that Plank “says it’s great to have a president that puts business first – profits before principles. Is that good? Of course it isn’t.
“Great sports brands like Nike, Adidas and until now, Under Armour, have a fine history of celebrating diversity and acceptance. The people they sponsor are testament to this. So, if Steph Currie, Misty Copeland, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson or any of their ambassadors start to feel a bit uncomfortable in their Under Armour, and want to jump ship or walk the plank, we’ll be here with open arms. Because we believe that sport has an obligation to build bridges, not ridiculous walls. And we believe that it has the ability to the whole world make great again.
“So let me be clear. If you support racism, if you support sexism, if you support prejudice in any form, please, please, please don’t buy SKINS. But if you applaud the athletes and brands that put principles before profit, then join us and shut hate down. Join us, and rise up.”
It’s a rare marketing strategy that involves inviting potential customers to “please, please, please” not buy your product, although Fuller is probably safe in thinking that no one, not even racists, sexists and those that support prejudice, ever identifies themselves as such. So just how calculated is the approach, and how much is it simply an extension of Fuller’s naturally iconoclastic personality? Put brutally, what’s the return on investment for a brand from gaining a name for speaking out over ethical issues?
Fuller’s response is characteristic. “There’s no return on investment. I take decisions on the basis of the long term. I don’t sit and say, ‘how much should we spend on a Fifa [criticism] campaign?’ This is brand-building, it’s developing brand equity. Guys like Steve Jobs, they didn’t explain functionality or say what the price was. Brand-building is an art in itself. The objective is to get the public to understand what we stand for; what we believe in; who we are. We want them to choose Skins for two reasons: one, because it’s a superior performance product; and two, because they love what this brand does. More people buy with the heart than the head - except for the Swiss and Germans!”
Later, fearing that his response might “come across as cavalier and mercenary whereas there is something far greater behind it,” he sends me an email in which he clarifies: “I was very straight in saying that the stuff we do as a brand is a commercial strategy – it’s a strategy that (hopefully) enhances our brand desirability. I never run away from that fact. What I failed to impart though was the things we do as a brand which are part of our brand values of ‘fuelling the true spirit of competition’, these are also core beliefs of the vast majority of those in our business and of course me. This is not just a matter of grabbing onto the issue of the day and trying to leverage it to our benefit, this is taking a set of beliefs that unite our company and wrapping them around our brand.”
The comparison with Under Armour is actually an interesting one. Fuller regards Skins as a David to Under Armour’s Goliath, describing his own company as a “pissy little Australian brand” for which he paid “f-all,” and scoffing at the prospect that Skins could ‘do an Under Armour’ by moving out of providing underclothing to become a major kit supplier to top professional sports teams around the world (Under Armour has deals with the likes of soccer’s Fluminense, FC St Pauli and Tottenham Hotspur, rugby union’s Wasps, Clermont Auvergne and the Welsh national team and baseball’s Yomiuri Giants).
Fuller claims to be happy to play the underdog, relishing his brand’s success in “calling out” Fifa sponsors McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Visa as “hypocrites” for their support for a World Cup in Qatar, with its much-criticised reliance on indentured immigrant workers. “McDonald’s signed up to the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights,” he says, “yet it’s happy to sign up to slavery.”
Yet asked if Skins could tread a similar growth path to Under Armour, Fuller says: “I’d love to. Being as successful as Under Armour [would happen] in my dreams! (he was speaking before issuing his statement on Plank’s support for Trump). The US brand was founded by the 23-year-old Plank in 1996 and reported revenues of $1.31 billion for the fourth quarter of 2016, albeit it recently disappointed investors with a forecast of revenues of $5.4 billion for 2017, compared with an earlier estimate of $6.05 billion.
Despite Fuller’s protestations, Skins seems to be on the same ‘inside-to-outside’ trajectory as its much larger rival. “We’re spreading beyond compression [clothing] right now,” he says, adding that Skins has just launched a “loose-fit running apparel” line. There’s a simple problem with being a specialist sports underclothing supplier, as Under Armour found out first, and that is that it’s mostly hidden from view. “I got frustrated with watching people who love Skins pull on Nike or Adidas shirts or running shorts [over their Skins],” says Fuller. “In terms of brand visibility we need to be on the outside.”
I don’t sit and say, ‘how much should we spend on a Fifa [criticism] campaign?’ This is brand-building
Now aged 51, the very Australian Fuller was actually born in Hastings, England and holds a UK passport, although he and his family moved to Sydney after six months and he regards himself as having been “shaped in Australia.” He was an enthusiastic but inexpert sportsman in his youth (“it doesn’t matter how c--p you are, you can still have a lot of fun,” he says). He dropped out of a computing course at Sydney University after six months and joined his father’s print company in 1984, helping build it from six to 400 employees before it went into administration and was eventually sold to a rival.
Next he “got into property development” but that “never gave me a sense of fulfilment.” Then, in 2002, “Skins came up. I was looking for something different and the opportunity to make a lot of money, have a lot of fun and learn. This ticked every box, and a lot more.”
The company had been founded in 1996 by Brad Duffy, an Australian physiologist and ski enthusiast, but at the time at which Fuller joined it, “Skins was one product – a pair of long tights,” he says. “It was about to go into liquidation; I stepped in six days before bankruptcy. I saw the potential, but for two and a half years I just kept writing cheques.”
How could he afford to support it single-handedly for so long, I ask? “I did very well out of print broking and property development,” Fuller replies, “but there was a lot of shakiness along the way. There was a lot of looking into the mirror and thinking, oh my God, what have I done?”
Fifteen years after he joined Skins, the company is still small fry compared to its multi-national rivals: so much so, that with just 90 employees globally and a turnover of A$50 million, it is arguably better known than it ‘deserves’ to be. “We’ve always acted bigger than we are,” is Fuller’s explanation.
Skins’ reputation, unlike those of most of its rivals, has been built almost exclusively on the supposed performance benefits of compression clothing – but on those benefits the literature remains equivocal. For example, under the headline ‘They look cool but do they really help?’, the verdict of Choice, the Australian consumer service, is: “The rationale for wearing compression sportswear is solid, but the evidence is weak. There are many studies that have been done on compression wear, many linked to from places like the Skins website, but the findings are mixed. While some studies find physiological benefits, such as increased blood flow, increased muscle oxygenation, decreased lactic acid build-up and decreased muscle movement, the theoretical benefits don't translate to noticeable performance benefits.
“For the average fun-runner and keen amateur sportsperson, there are probably more effective ways of improving performance, preventing injury and enhancing recovery than wearing compression tights.”
For someone who has staked his reputation and that of his company on transparency and an ethical approach to business, any suggestion that what Fuller is actually selling is snake oil could obviously have serious consequences.
But pointing to 25 peer-reviewed articles on the Skins website (the same ones referred to by Choice) supporting the performance benefits, Fuller is careful to limit his claims for compression wear. “You don’t run or cycle a distance, then pull compression on and do it again quicker,” he says. “It enhances recovery significantly. That means you can do more [exercise, over a given period], get fitter, and then your performance improves. It enhances circulation, and minimises injury. If you look at a super slow-mo of a tennis player sliding to get a point, it can minimise muscle movement, and minimise micro-tears.”
Asked directly if he has any concerns that he is selling a lie, Fuller says: “No. On our website we publish everything. There are 25 studies that verify what we do, including one from the strength and conditioning coach for the All Blacks. Some of the finest sports scientists and academics have done studies and shown what they [compression clothing items] do. This is built on medical technology that has been around for 80 years.”
One of the problems Skins faces, Fuller says, is other manufacturers marketing cut-price tight clothing as compression wear, when actually what they offer has no performance benefits. “There’s a lot of confusion about what is the compression market,” he says. “I can put my wife’s T shirt on, but that’s not compression clothing. We define it as products that give a physiological benefit. The perception of the tight-fit market is different. In our opinion, others have no right to claim they’re offering compression clothing.”
Why is the IAAF an issue for Adidas, and not Fifa? At what point is a principle not a principle?
Fuller’s ethical crusade against the iniquities of the Qatar World Cup is spearheaded by a campaign he calls the ‘Hypocrisy World Cup’, featuring a video fronted by Andrew Jennings, the veteran UK sports journalist and integrity campaigner, who has been a particular thorn in the flesh of Fifa, with Skins cheekily describing itself as an ‘official non-sponsor’ of the World Cup.
Pointing out that rival sportswear giant Adidas declined to renew its sponsorship of the IAAF, in an apparent response to the doping scandal that swept athletics last year (although the IAAF denied that this was Adidas’s motive), yet it remains a Fifa sponsor, Fuller sayss: “Why is the IAAF an issue for Adidas, and not Fifa? At what point is a principle not a principle? When there’s too much money involved? You don’t get to claim the moral high ground with the IAAF, and yet continue with Fifa. When we did the Hypocrisy World Cup [campaign] we took aim at Adidas. They’re protecting the workers who produce their products [from exploitation]. So what’s the difference between them and the people building World Cup infrastructure?”
Other campaigns Skins has run include Pure Sport, an anti-doping initiative, and supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign which aims to tackle homophobia in sport. Fuller has little time for the IOC and its Agenda 2020 reforms, saying: “In Sochi, what did the IOC do about non-heterosexual community prejudice? They made sure the games wouldn’t be prejudiced for 20 days. What have they done about Trump’s ban on refugees? All they looked to do for the games was make sure refugee athletes can compete.
“Look at [Fifa president Gianni] Infantino and slavery. He’s trying to define the World Cup as stadia only, and looking at workers’ conditions only for stadia. But a whole city is being built on the back of the World Cup. He’s trying to do the bare minimum to create a perception of care. [IOC president Thomas] Bach is as guilty for not using his power to do the right thing. I would have sat down with Putin and said, ‘I’m going to get all Olympic sponsors to condemn [your policies], slaughter your reputation’. If he’d done that, there would have been a different outcome.”
Fuller recently told another interviewer: “If anything, I want to push the challenger envelope, explore even riskier areas.” Even riskier areas? What did he have in mind? One possibility he has been discussing is an anti-doping campaign with Ben Johnson, the former Canadian sprinter at the heart of the first, and perhaps still the best-known, athletics doping scandal of the modern era, despite all that has followed. Aligning Skins with one of the world’s most famous drugs cheats would certainly be risky. Fuller says: “The brand stands up and advocates against any form of cheating. Yet we do a campaign with Ben called ‘Choose the Right Track’: four weeks together going round the world taking about the truth of doping.
“What we’re specifically talking about is still rife. Six of the eight [athletes in the 1998 Olympic 100-metres final won by Johnson] have been done for doping. The ‘lone cheat’ story was a misdirection from the IAAF and the IOC. Still, it would be hugely risky, in terms of aligning the brand with Ben Johnson.”
Then - and remember he was talking before issuing his statement about Under Armour and Trump - Fuller reflects: “Taking on Donald Trump would be interesting. Everything we’re talking about is anathema to Trump. Everything he stands for, we stand against, and vice versa. But we can’t do it unless it’s sports-related.”
So he must have whooped with delight when Under Armour’s Plank declared his support for Trump. Perfect: a chance to have a crack at Trump and, thanks to a rival, present it as ‘sports-related’.
Skins itself is not a sponsor of Fifa, or of the IAAF, or of the IOC. Doesn’t this kind of interference and criticism by a brand with no association with the event – meddling in what doesn’t concern it, some might call it – risk alienating those whom Skins seeks to influence, including potential allies? “We’re a sports brand with a set of values, and we have every right to call people out and hold them to account when they’re acting corruptly,” is Fuller’s uncompromising response. “We also have the right to challenge the ‘autonomy of sport’ [the subject of much campaigning by sports organisations, including the IOC].
“Who wants it [autonomy]? Those that don’t want to be held accountable.”