‘Is that Supreme?’ Are football shirts being taken a step too far?

The football shirt has become a designer’s playground and the 2020/21 kit release has been no exception. From ombre sunsets to cobalt paisleys, this season’s drop has cemented the football shirt as much more than a piece of sportswear, but rather a fashion staple.

Over the last few seasons, the kit release campaigns have partaken in a visual revolution and the message is crystal clear: the football shirt is first and foremost an example of style, not performance. No longer are these jerseys just an emblem of club affiliation worn by fans, they are a delicate blend of aesthetics and durability, created with style at the centre.

Not only has the appearance of the football shirt shifted, the conception in which it is marketed has made an unbelievable transformation. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to tell a football kit campaign from the next drop from streetwear giants like Supreme and Palace. The 2020/21 season has seen shoots in car parks, derelict buildings and aside graffiti-licked shipping containers to name a few.

The blending of sport and popular culture

A notable milestone in the evolution of the football shirt was the Juventus x Palace collaboration released for the 2019/20 season. This partnership marked the first time a skate brand had collaborated with a professional football club for an official game kit. The ingenuity conceived by this partnership meant not only did the kit become marketable to football fans, it also tapped into the popular culture market, gaining significant attention for Juventus and Palace alike. The concept of performance style is addressed here in a whole new manner, leading the future of the football shirt surely in a new direction.

The blending of sport and popular culture seems a no-brainer when searching for ways to increase desirability of a kit and boosting PR, but there is an obvious downside. Has the design of the shirt been compromised in placing cutting-edge aesthetics at its core, rather than fabric and its ability to do its job?

Are there perks to polyester?

Players are still being brought in to advertise their team’s kits but in unconventional ways.

Marcus Rashford is stood posing in the new Manchester United kit in front of some exposed brickwork. Apart from the badge gleaming on his chest, what other associations with the football pitch are being made here? 

In a bid to push the urban image of the football shirt further, numerous campaigns this year have featured models in jeans and bucket hats similar to something out of an ASOS catalogue. Making the football kit, and the sport in general, more accessible to the general public. It calls into question the contemporary purpose of the football shirt, which seems to be metamorphosing into a fast fashion garment with a nod to professional sport, rather than the other way around.

The most common fabric used to make football shirts is polyester thanks to its breathability and ease to wash. Whilst polyester has these excellent qualities, it is actually a type of synthetic petroleum-based fibre, meaning it is created from non-renewable processes and does not biodegrade. As a result, polyester products will sit in landfill for years. 

There are steps being taken towards reducing the environmental impact of sports kits. Nike’s Fast Fit Vaporknit Kits and their match jerseys are created from melted plastic bottles in a bid to reduce their impact on the planet. Whilst Nike is setting an example in how to be more environmentally conscious for their competitors, this in no way exempts them for propagating fast fashion within the industry.

Forgetting their roots

This bid for originality has prompted a flurry of kit developments this season and whilst some have worked, others are making pretty drastic faux pas. The 2020/21 Arsenal away kit for example has been experimental with a marble print, referring to the marble halls in the East Stand at Highbury. Instead of conveying this, the shirt has taken on the appearance of being blood-stained with what looks like droplets of red blood trickling down the chest.

Creating a positive performance style

Altering tradition is nothing to shy away from. Detaching people from the loyalty to their club colours is not either. Looking at this example however, it is apparent that creating unique, bold kits has taken design lead and simply failed to deliver in conveying its motives. 

There are moments, like with the Juventus x Palace collection, where style meets tradition and blends seamlessly. This can also be said for the 2020/21 Wolves away kit. Whilst the paint smear takes centre stage, there is a clear delineation of who the shirt belongs to through the elements of black and orange on the arm and neckline. This identifiability has been lost on shirts like the Arsenal kit, leaving the whole thing a bit lacklustre.

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There needs to be acknowledgement of how football clubs are trying to be innovative and progress with contemporary culture, yet retaining historic integrity must remain present. Fans want to be associated with their team when wearing their shirt, not struggling to understand what possible link a crocodile print has to the origins of their club.

Going forward, attention should be in the detail and curation of pieces with sustainability at the centre. Ditch the industrial backdrops and bucket hats; fashion can fuse with tradition.  

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage

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