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Authoritarian Outfitters

German neo-Nazis’ favorite clothing brand is expanding throughout Europe

Juergen Schwartz/Getty Images; Hans-Christian Plambeck/Laif/Redux; Sebastian Willnow/Dapd; Theo Schneider/Demotix/Corbis

Around 2010, Pavel Klymenko started noticing a curious brand of clothing gaining popularity with Kiev’s upper-middle class. The hoodies and shirts weren’t especially fashionable. They were covered in garish Nordic imagery, like a wolf howling at the moon, and fit into the macho style favored by many Ukrainian men. But Klymenko, an activist who monitors the extreme right in European football, recognized the name often emblazoned on the clothes in Gothic letters: “Thor Steinar,” two words that, for the past decade, have been synonymous with Germany’s fascist fringe. “Previously it had been worn by Ukrainian neo-Nazis who want to show off,” he says. “Now it was becoming popular among wealthy people.”

Klymenko learned that Thor Steinar had just opened a Kiev store in Dream Town, an upscale mall co-owned by a flashy Jewish businessman. The mall features a large-scale model of King Kong and hosts popular global brands like Zara and United Colors of Benetton; to many shoppers, Thor Steinar seemed no different. “It was attracting random customers who didn’t have a clue about the history of the brand,” Klymenko says. Before long, he started noticing cheap Thor Steinar knockoffs in the city’s chaotic street markets: “You could see really bad fakes on people who couldn’t afford the originals.”

At a glance, Thor Steinar is easily confused with mainstream, pseudo-collegiate clothing brands like Aeropostale and Abercrombie & Fitch. But the company has often used in its designs what appear to be subtle Nazi references, such as Messerschmitt aircraft or Germanic runes. The label has helped transform the style and culture of the European far right and, in recent years, attempted something even more disconcerting—a shift into the mainstream of Eastern European fashion. Over the past decade and a half, Thor Steinar has gone from a small business patronized by German neo-Nazis into a multimillion-dollar clothing chain with a presence throughout Europe.

In the early years after German reunification, members of the extreme right were generally easy to identify—with shaved heads, bomber jackets, and military boots. They favored brands like Lonsdale, Fred Perry, and New Balance, whose logos—the “N” on New Balance sneakers, for example—could be repurposed as references to Nazism. By the early 2000s, these brands had distanced themselves from their far-right customers, and public blowback had made it harder for skinheads to function in everyday life. This created a dilemma for neo-Nazis: If the skinhead look was out, how were they supposed to identify each other?

In 1999, Axel Kopelke, a secretive man with no known connection to the extreme right, founded Thor Steinar in Königs Wusterhausen, a small town near Berlin. Like other parts of former East Germany, Königs Wusterhausen is sleepy and gray, with train tracks cutting through its center and a short main street lined with boxy buildings. The area has long been one of Germany’s hotbeds of neo-Nazi activity. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of its factories closed down, leaving a generation of men with few professional prospects. Many turned to right-wing politics, blaming their misfortunes on outsiders.

German law forbids the overt use of Nazi symbols, but Thor Steinar pushed the limits. Its logo, an upward-pointing arrow with a zigzag and two small dots, closely resembles two illegal Nazi symbols. A German court banned the logo in 2004, but Thor Steinar won a reversal four years later. Some of the company’s T-shirts flash slogans like “Ski Heil” or “Desert Fox,” both of which read like coy riffs on Third Reich terms. It also has an entire line called “Nordmark,” the name of a Nazi concentration camp and sports division. The company says its name refers to Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, but many observers also see an allusion to Felix Steiner, a former Nazi general who played a key role in the expansion of the Waffen-SS.

Other items of Thor Steinar clothing flaunt Viking symbols that feed neo-Nazi fantasies about a racially superior Northern European folk and reference the American Confederacy. “Thor Steinar has never been obviously political,” says Patrick Schroeder, a prominent German neo-Nazi, “but they knew that if you use Nordic designs, neo-Nazis could be a target group. It was an ice-cold political, economic calculation and it worked out for them.”

The company’s spokesperson, Rainer Schmidt, says that Thor Steinar was merely inspired by the need for “wearable streetwear that is suitable for everyday use,” and is motivated by “lucrative market shares, not politics.” Regardless, by the mid-2000s the brand had become a staple of Germany’s right-wing scene, with customers happy to shell out €40 for a T-shirt and €85 for a hoodie. “Thor Steinar was the first to commercialize far-right identity,” says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, an associate professor at American University who has studied the German extreme right. “It took it from something that would be homemade in someone’s garage to really expensive, high-quality clothing.”

Thor Steinar grew even as the ranks of Germany’s extreme right stayed relatively stable. By 2007, the company had several physical storefronts across Germany; that same year, hackers revealed it was raking in almost €2 million in annual revenue. “They ran their label very smartly from an economical standpoint,” says Manja Kasten, who works at a German anti-neo-Nazi organization, “so that they had a secure core of clients who use it to identify one another.” Soon regular Germans learned to recognize neo-Nazis by their Thor Steinar clothing too, spurring widespread protests—including frequent vandalism of Thor Steinar stores. Many football stadiums, government buildings, and schools banned the clothing, but the backlash only deepened customers’ loyalty to the brand. Attend a far-right event in Germany today, and you’ll often find yourself swimming in a sea of Thor Steinar.

On a recent Monday night in northeastern Berlin, for example, several hundred people gathered outside a shopping mall to protest a proposed refugee shelter, a reflection of Germany’s recent uptick in xenophobic hysteria. Many of the men were wearing Thor Steinar hoodies and jackets, and one muscle-bound marcher sported a notorious sweatshirt featuring a machine gun and the threatening slogan, “Home Visits.” For two-and-a-half hours, the crowd blasted rock music and peed on front lawns, as an organizer spoke via loudspeaker. Refugees, he said, were destroying the fabric of German neighborhoods.

Inevitably, a company chasing “lucrative marketshares” needs to attract new customers—and Thor Steinar has proven no exception. In 2008, in a development that caught many by surprise, the company was sold to a Dubai-based conglomerate and Mohammed M. Aweidah, an Arab man, became the CEO. The move was greeted with calls for a boycott on the xenophobic far right—further fueled by customers’ discovery that Thor Steinar manufactures its clothing in China and Turkey. According to Schmidt, Aweidah was “helpful because of his production contacts,” but in 2010, he was replaced as CEO by a Swiss man named Marco Wäspe.

Recent catalogs list Thor Steinar stores in the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as 13 locations in Moscow alone (though some belong to third-party vendors). “Those are logical places to go,” Miller-Idriss says, “if the company is looking for markets that they think may be interested in clothing with some sort of far-right ideological connection.” The brand also expanded its collections to include swimwear, children’s apparel, and an assortment of accessories, including jewelry and a stuffed elk.

These product lines have helped bring in new customers, many of whom are oblivious to the brand’s political overtones. One Czech anti-fascist activist, who, like many of his peers, asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety, says “the biggest share of the customers” in the Czech Republic is now older people and sporty types who wear it as a “cool, macho brand.” In Slovakia, he says, the brand has become popular among metal and hip-hop fans. This spring, the owner of the company’s first U.K. store, located in the largely Jewish North Finchley neighborhood in London, told The Independent that Thor Steinar wasn’t a Nazi brand, but merely one that is popular in Eastern Europe. The company has also registered its trademark in the United States, and, according to Schmidt, is “open” to the idea of expanding there. (In Ukraine, at least, Thor Steinar has faced setbacks: Klymenko says the company’s Dream Town store closed last year.)

As Thor Steinar looks to expand, the company faces growing competition for its original right-wing customer base, both in Germany and abroad. “Thor Steinar really had a trailblazing role,” says Joschka Fröschner, an editor at Netz Gegen Nazis, a Berlin blog that monitors the extreme right. While Thor Steinar still dominates the scene, a host of rival clothing companies—with names like Erik & Sons, Ansgar Aryan, Fourth Time, and Reconquista—have popped up in Germany in the last few years, with a similar, if rougher, look. Unlike Thor Steinar, most of these brands are overt about their political affiliations: Ansgar Aryan, for example, employs Schroeder, the prominent neo-Nazi, in a managerial capacity. In Eastern Europe, brands like Sva Stona, White Rex, and Beloyar have filled a similar niche.

In Germany, Thor Steinar’s mainstream appeal is limited by the fact that wearing its clothing in public remains the closest legal equivalent to wearing a swastika. This strange tension is palpable at Berlin’s only Thor Steinar store, which is located on a large thoroughfare in the city’s Weißensee neighborhood. Its windows are covered up, likely because of constant vandalism by left-wing activists, but inside, the store could easily be mistaken for a Gap: The wood flooring gleams and the brand’s sweaters are neatly arranged on white shelving. During a recent visit, the store’s one working employee was skittish while discussing the brand, seemingly wary of revealing too much. When asked where Thor Steinar comes from, he took a long pause. “Norway,” he said, before changing the topic to the weather.