The relationship between fashion and football is nothing new. First it was the fans, the so-called casuals who became style pioneers in the 1970s and ’80s, importing of European luxury brands like Stone Island and Fila before anyone else, and inventing terrace fashion in the process. Then there’s fashion itself – which seems to find an evergreen source of inspiration in the game, as Martine Rose, Liam Hodges and just about every other designer with half an eye on the wider world has shown us. Even footballers themselves, so long anti-Midases of fashion – prone to trucker hats, bootcut jeans and anything else from the bad taste section in the Trafford Centre – have gotten in on the act. Post-Beckham, it’s Arsenal’s some-time full-back Hector Bellerin leading the charge, perhaps spending as much time on the front row of Fashion Week as he does in the Emirates dugout.
However, when it comes to the clubs, the kits, the official end of football fashion… the results have traditionally been lacking at best, downright upsetting at worst. Football gear is easily recontextualised by Dover Street lads, high-end designers and streetwear brands – but as clubs are largely run by normie marketing execs and ex-players, we’ve rarely seen kits and training wear that match the stylistic pull of the game itself. For every Fiorucci-sponsored Milan kit, every Balenciaga-esque David James jersey or Wavey Garms-friendly retro football shirt – there has been many a dud, deadlock or disaster. People have started entire blogs about terrible football kits, where they can lament the infamous Hull City ‘tiger’ kit, Coventry’s dirt brown number from ’78 and Chelsea’s ‘broken TV grey and Tango orange’ away offering from the ’94/95 season.
There is still an ongoing disconnect between what fans think looks good and what clubs do. Despite the hugely hyped social media announcements, the massive sponsorship deals, the staged drops, a lot of modern football kits are still major disappointments – victims of both over- and underthinking. Arsenal’s ’19/20 ‘bruised banana’ away kit being just one of the most recent examples. But there are real signs of change out there. Sportswear dominates men’s fashion, and football culture is fashionable again. Magazines like Mundial are dedicated to it. Loyle Carner wears football shirts on stage. Drake wears them all the time. All of which means the shiny suit brigade who tend to run things have started to hand over some aesthetic power to a younger generation, who in turn look high fashion and streetwear for inspiration.
One of the great kit successes of recent years, one that you’ll probably find in almost any conurbation larger than 500 people on earth, is the home kit of Paris Saint-Germain – the gold-standard bearer for trendy football tops. This shirt, from a little-loved team, in a little-watched league has become something of an iconic garment in recent years. It isn’t the most beautiful or flashy number, but something about its simplicity, and its prominence in music videos by rappers like PNL and MHD has cemented it as a must-have piece. Most recently it was seen on ‘Alex from Glasto’ – who, being from Somerset probably doesn’t follow Thomas Tuchel’s boys home and away, but finds something in the connotations it provides. It might be hard to define why that shirt has become so popular (and it definitely isn’t the team itself), but it’s a standard that many clubs and even national sides are clearly trying to emulate: an instantly recognisable, collectable kit that goes beyond traditional local allegiances, in a way that American basketball vests often do.
Following on from the accidental success of its home kit, PSG has now created something of a diffusion line, its very own ‘X’ collaboration with Nike Jordan – who interestingly, are very much pioneers in the field of sportswear as streetwear. Looking at the pieces, it’s not too hard to imagine that they might become the official PSG kit one day. Also looking for credibility (not to mention a Champions League) is Juventus – which has formed an unlikely allegiance with Palace Skateboards. At first, there was a rumour Palace was actually going to be doing the official kit, but Adidas quickly quelled that by releasing probably the worst Juve kit in years. Cristiano Ronaldo might not be wearing Palace just yet, but the collaboration shows the ambition of both Palace and Juventus, both in their own sectors and in the global market of cool where a football team can now be as hip as a brand or rapper if they want to be.
There are other examples of a kind of growing ambition in this field keep coming: Chelsea’s latest away shirt pays homage to the club’s association with the Kings Road, paying tribute to its mod/ska history with a Fred Perry-esque collar. Reactions are mixed, but it certainly beats some of the recent offerings which seem to have been aimed at 14-year-old chat stream nerds in Atlanta and Kuala Lumpur. It’s a shame that the home kit, with its borderline deep-V neck and lame pattern effect doesn’t look half as good. Then there’s the 2018 Nigeria World Cup kit – which became a real hot piece for even the casual fan, far more so than any of the more established team’s efforts – most likely because it wasn’t scared to be bold, on-trend, and understanding of the culture of the team it was worn by. Resellers went crazy for it and it’s already been re-released a number of times, like the best Air Jordan shoes.
And don’t forget the tracksuits and training wear – once upon a time only worn by club physios – but in the age of athleisure, deeply fashionable. Naturally, PSG seems to lead the charge in this.
Football is starting to broaden its aesthetic horizons. We might be a long way off seeing the Virgil Abloh X Stoke City home kit we all really want to see, but clubs are certainly looking towards the streets and the catwalks for inspiration, and that can only be a good thing. As long as it stays interesting and collaborative, rather than hackneyed and cynical, we might just be looking at a new golden era of football kits. Or those ‘worst kits ever’ blogs might have a few more entries yet.