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18 September 2000

Growing into silk boxer shorts

In a working-class suburb of Manchester, Val's made-to-measure boxing outfits inspire local lads to

By Geoffrey Beattie

It is a hard, tough place. Red metal shutters like cages cover the shop fronts; they stay on during the day. Most of the shops are closed down, even behind the iron cages. There are large chunks of uneven rock positioned on the pavement, presumably to stop ram-raiders.

I sat in my car looking out, almost hesitating. The graffiti written in what looked like tar was a yard high. “Jimmy L- is a grass”, it read. I watched the kids on the bikes watching me, sitting in my car, watching them. They looked at my car and then at me, as if they were trying to work out if either one or the other was worth rolling. I got out to walk around.

The small supermarket nearby had a very large, shaven-headed security guard with a malevolent stare. I noticed that one sad-faced woman in the supermarket had a black eye, and then I noticed a second. It seemed to be more than a coincidence. I heard something that sounded like glass crackling beneath my feet, and I looked down to see the bits of a smashed LP scattered on the pavement.

One kid on a bike stared at me with an expression that was a blend of curiosity and menace.

It turned out to be a Cliff Richard LP, lifted, I imagine, in some burglary and dropped because, first, it was Cliff Richard and, second, it was some obsolete form of playing music. There were yards of yellow tape, the kind used to cordon off dangerous buildings or to mark out some threatening hole in the road, just blowing in the gritty wind. There was some guttering lying on the road. Passers-by just stepped over it, as if it wasn’t there. This is where Val decided to set up her business last January. Right here.

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Val makes made-to-measure sportswear for boxers in Ordsall, Salford. She calls her business “Val to Victory”. She was going to call it “Val’n’U” – because it sounds like “value”, she explained. Silk shorts, satin tops, shiny dressing gowns shimmer and glisten in the artificial light.

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I worked my way through some of her samples out front in the shop. Red flashes of lightning on a white silk background; red, white and blue chevrons on cream silk; shiny purple shorts with long gold tassels and the words “bounty hunter” at the top.

“Why bounty hunter?” I asked Val. “That’s just what this heavyweight likes to call himself,” she said. “It sounds threatening. A lot of the boxers like a really hard nickname and then the names of their kids further down on the same pair of shorts.”

Every pair of shorts is made by hand, every strip of coloured shiny material is sewn on slowly and meticulously. One pair of shorts can take Val a week to make. Plain, made-to-measure shorts start at £25, a plain poncho costs £35, a gown £60 and a boxer’s jacket £75.

“Don’t forget,” she said, “a boxer’s jacket has got very wide sleeves, which means that there’s a lot more fabric involved in it.”

The boxers, however, know that they are starting to make it in the fight game when they come to her shop to choose something more elaborate, something designed for them personally. Val said that she likes to watch her clients box before she decides which costume to make for them.

“Their outfits,” she said, “should reflect how they box. They should tell you whether they are hard boxers or fancy boxers. An outfit should tell you a lot about the boxer, what he is really like.” She went to watch Ricky Hatton fight and decided that he was a really big hitter, so she wanted his shorts to indicate this. “As soon as I saw him,” Val said, “I knew that I wanted to do something with really long tassels. I knew that the tassels would reflect his punching power. The harder he punches, the more the tassels whip around his body. So I gave him 12-inch tassels. You wouldn’t want much longer than that. He loves them, but his grandad apparently hates them. Richard has had me do four pairs since then, all with the same long tassels.”

I asked whether the tassels ever distract the boxer. “Oh no,” she said, “but they can be very distracting for his opponent. Once the tassels start flying, they know that they’re in trouble.”

I asked Val how she got into this business. She told me that her husband, who died recently (“of emphysema, heart failure, diabetes – you name it, he had it”), was a keen fight fan. “He liked going around boxing gyms during the day. He met one young boxer who had rung up a company that made outfits for boxers for some shorts and a poncho, but the company asked him to measure himself and he hadn’t a clue how to do it, so he asked me. He didn’t know how to measure his inside leg, his waist or anything. So I measured him up and then made the outfit for him. That’s how it all started.”

Now Val has between 40 and 50 clients, and she has even had orders from abroad. “Well, it was a guy working in a bar in Tenerife, actually,” she said. “He was a relative of a boxer, but he wanted his own individual shorts to give him a bit of credibility on the street, so that everyone would think that he had been a somebody in the ring at one time or another.” Prince Naseem Hamed’s shorts have been a big talking point in and out of the ring. “Everybody wants something a little bit different now,” said Val. “That’s where I come in.

“I also have fans coming along as customers,” she told me, “wanting the same outfit as their boxing hero.” She showed me a satin-backed, crepe towelling poncho in blue and white for a supporter of the super featherweight champion Michael Gomez. “He’s a keen Man City fan,” she explained, pointing at the coloured sections. “All of his fans wear sombreros at his fights, and those with some cash to spend get the same matching tops.”

“Is Michael Gomez Mexican?” I asked naively.

“Oh no, he’s just a local Manchester lad. But everybody needs a gimmick these days, as well as their boxing ability. Michael has got his well sorted now.”

A woman came into Val’s shop with a green-and-white checked shirt with a hole in the front. This is Val’s daily business, repairing clothes for the local people and washing bin bags of dirty laundry for a fiver a throw.

“Can you fix it so that you can’t tell?” the woman asked anxiously. “My son won’t wear it otherwise.”

Val inspected it carefully. “They were giving something out next door,” the woman said. “I thought that they were giving out something for nothing, but it turned out that they were giving away leaflets with ‘Jesus loves you’ on them. It’s just as well somebody does around here.” Val looked at the shirt carefully and then told her that she couldn’t do anything with it except turn all the fabric inside out, and that would take for ever.

The woman looked crestfallen. The incident was a reminder, if one were needed, that this is a very poor area.

I looked around Val’s work area and noticed that there was a message pinned up that read “Visualise and Actualise”. The one beside it read “If it’s to be, it’s up to me”.

Val observed my line of regard. “These are inspirational messages from my business manager,” she said. “He’s provided by Salford City Council to help me get my business off the ground. He’s really excellent. I visualise at the start of every day and then I actualise.” But not with the checked shirt brought in by the woman who clearly couldn’t afford anything else.

Two young lads came into the shop rather sheepishly and asked Val if they could look at her boxing pictures. They were two of the young lads who had been staring at me earlier from their bicycles. Pinned around the walls of Val’s shop are pictures of Michael Brodie, whose outfits are paid for by a local security firm, of Ricky Hatton with his tassels flying, of Michael Gomez with his fans, all in their matching sombreros and their blue-and-white tops: the lucky ones from around here.

Val talked to the boys quietly. She showed them the pictures on the walls. I listened in to what she was telling them: “Wait until you can order some of these outfits,” she said, “then you’ll know you’re really on your way.”

Her dream was to open a local Kwik Save as a boxing gym. “The kids around here deserve more than they’re getting,” she said. “They need something to aspire to. My silk shorts remind them of what they could achieve one day.”