21 April ~ In issue 56 (October 1991) WSC took a stand against the worsening state of football shirt design
Now we enjoy a joke as much as anyone, but this is going too far. The steadily worsening state of football kit design seems to have reached its apogee. They're all at it: Spall, Matchwinner, Umbro, Ribero, Adidas, Hummel. A few are worthy of further mention. The Umbro-designed Celtic away kit, which appears to be based on a particularly unappetising vegetarian meal, has garnered as much attention as Liam Brady's arrival at Parkhead. (Umbro International, when confronted about this kit, defended it as being "well-designed".) But Celtic are not alone.
Port Vale, art connoisseurs to their bootstraps, have paid tribute to Jackson Pollock with their latest shirt statement, the whole affair topped off nicely by the sponsor's name, Kalamazoo, emblazoned diagonally across the chest. Luton and Ipswich have both opted for day-glo ensembles that make the players look like mobile Orange Mivvis, whilst Hull City have departed slightly from their traditional away kit of white shirts and amber shorts, plumping instead for green and white checks. More like a tablecloth than a Tiger. The Brighton team, with shorts as striped as their shirts, were described in the Observer as looking like "eleven Andy Pandys on acid," whilst Millwall players, keen to compete in the cultural reference stakes, will look more like characters from Peter Pan in their lemon winceyette-style away shirts.
We couldn't help noticing the remarkable similarity between Dundee and Rotherham's second strips and Reading's first team kit ("wavy, diagonal TV interference lines," according to the latter's Secretary). A Dundee spokesperson rather proudly informed us that Angus Cook, their ever-popular Chairman, had a hand in the design of the strips. So, we contacted the managing director of Matchwinner, David Links. Indeed it was true, Mr Cook had chipped in with some design tips: "He has an eye for fashion." So, does this mean that Angus Cook also had a hand in the design of both Reading and Rotherham's strips? Yes. Perhaps the three clubs are planning to merge.
Some manufacturers might seriously consider employing Bobby Gould as their design consultant. One of Bobby's first tasks in the close season was to re-invent the West Brom away strip. They will now play in Melchester Rovers' famous red and yellow stripes. Gould apparently wanted to introduce red into their strip because, according to colour psychologists, teams who play in red are more successful. Scant consolation for Crewe and Rotherham.
Of course, it's easy to poke fun at these strips (we just have and it only took a minute), but there are a number of questions that need to be asked. Firstly, who is ultimately responsible? The general feeling amongst many fans is that the kit companies are to blame. True, up to a point. We contacted all the major manufacturers as well as a number of clubs to find out exactly how the designs are chosen and who chooses them.
Most companies present a series of seven or eight design styles to their client. Often the club may be represented by the board of directors en masse, but it could equally be the commercial manager or, in some cases, the team manager. This is where the problems start, as David Links pointed out. The average age of the people who choose the new kit is around forty-five, whilst the punters who buy them are between fifteen and thirty years-old. Nowhere else in the fashion industry does that happen.
Cambridge fans who are unhappy with this season's design, for example, should know that John Beck is one of the culprits. Another major gripe of supporters is when a series of patterns (Jacquards) are interwoven into the fabric of the garments. A number of manufacturers claimed the reason they did this was to deter potential bootleggers from doing cheap imitations of the official merchandise. If so, then why not do what Diadora (or Joe Bloggs for that matter) do and include certificates of authenticity with the packaging? And as for the cheap and nasty polyester favoured by all of the firms... Tony Dorigo, in an interview conducted on the radio station, Kiss 100 FM, complained that the shirts were uncomfortable to wear and that many players did not like them.
In his defence, Simon Marsh from Umbro International said that, "We have never received a complaint from a club." The principal reason for the use of polyester appears to have more to do with its ability to take bright colours and retain them, rather than any practical assistance to athletes. It seems that the players are the last to be consulted. The main priority is to wring every last bit of disposable income from loyal fans.
When confronted with the argument that the outfits are of poor value or simply tasteless, the manufacturers' stock answer is that they sell. This is true. One of the most horrendous kits ever launched (we couldn't possibly say designed – genetically engineered, perhaps?) was the Manchester United away strip of last season. It is also the biggest selling. Arsenal's new second choice kit is causing major traffic hold-ups in Islington as the club's fans parade about of a Saturday afternoon. It is also clearly a commercial success. Even the new Scotland away shirt (white, with purple and red splurges on one sleeve) was, at one time, outselling the first strip, an unprecedented occurrence in the world of replicas.
So, tastelessness can be profitable, but wouldn't football shirts sell in even bigger quantities if they were well designed? With the current glut of "street" style designers on the market, it might have been reasonable to expect some of their ideas to have either been assimilated or nicked by the kit manufacturers. Not so. The Italian/British influenced clobber (is that what the young people call it?) by companies such as Mau Mau and Duffer has been ignored in favour of an Acid House nightmare of anti-design. The major kit manufacturers would argue that, because of the success of the away strips, the market is essentially consumer led and therefore any arguments against them are academic.
Nick Coleman, featured recently on an edition of BBC's Good Sport, designed and produced a one-off England shirt in plain white save for a couple of discreet stripes at the sides. Simple, stylish and the easiest way of refuting the smug platitudes of the replica conglomerates. Other designers are as critical as Coleman of the state of this art. Mau Mau spokesman, Nat, felt that they were "using technology because it's there rather than because it is good. The clubs are directionless, with sponsors continually eroding their identity." What about the nostalgia boom? "Nostalgia's not a particularly progressive thing, like everyone saying the England 1966 kit being the best ever is a load of crap. Whatever is being designed should have an historical basis, but that doesn't mean no change."
What are we to do? The major companies hold us in their thrall. They are in the unique position of enjoying a kind of brand loyalty that simply does not exist anywhere else in the leisure market. People wish to identify with their favourite teams, and football shirts are the best way of doing this.
There is one alternative, however. We wouldn't want to be accused of being all mouth and no trousers, so we are thinking about putting in tenders for some of next season's strips. Interested designers should contact us at the normal address. No checks please.