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THE MAKING OF THE NEW ENGLAND KIT
FIRST PUBLISHED: Four Four Two, May 2009
By Chris Hunt

 

In February 2008 England played their first match under Fabio Capello. In the build up to the game there had been much talk of a renewed discipline about the squad: players were to wear lounge suits for meals, nicknames were to be banished. It was all part of a plan to put the pride back into wearing the England shirt.

 

Behind the scenes at the head office of Umbro, a similarly ingenious plan was being discussed to achieve the same goals through innovations in sportswear. Without prior knowledge of Capello’s vision, the company had started an internal debate that would trigger a radical rethink of the way they approached the design of the England kit, one that they hoped would not only revolutionize the future of the football strip, but would reinvigorate the company.

 

“I was asked to conceive a bold new move for England,” says Umbro’s Senior Designer David Blanch, a veteran of the design of every England kit since 2001. “One that reflected the FA and what they stand for, the team and their ethos, and also one that reflected Umbro.”

 

The end result of that process was unveiled on the pitch of Wembley Stadium on March 28 in the game against Slovakia, revealed not on the catwalk in a puff of smoke, but thrown into action in the suitably high performance environment of an international football match.

 

Its all-white style is a first for England’s official home strip and its sleek ultra-modern design allows players far more freedom of movement. Stylishly tapping into a tradition of tailored English sportswear, it is the perfect antidote to decades of polyester replica football shirts, while through its lovingly re-crafted three lions badge it emotionally reconnects with England’s past. But how did the design team arrive at this innovative new strip?

 

THE CONCEPT

For a vision of the future, Umbro went back to its past. A company with a rich football heritage, it had been founded in 1924 and in the days before mass produced sports apparel, football kits were tailored, a skill that Umbro prided itself in and even boasted about on the labels of its garments: ‘Tailored By Umbro In England’.

 

It was this simple message that caught the imagination of the creative team working on the new kit and ‘Football Tailored’ soon became the concept that evolved, giving Umbro a chance to embrace its past while developing something truly modern for its future. Says Blanch, “We did quite a simple thing, looking at both where football has come from but more importantly where football is going.”

 

THE PRESENTATION TO THE FA

Umbro took this concept to the Football Association very early in the process. “When creatives present to you, if you don’t get sweaty palms then it’s not good enough and it’s not challenging enough,” says Simon Freedman, Head of Marketing for the FA. “I had that moment during the Umbro presentation, thinking ‘How are we going to sell this in?’ It’s different, it’s innovative and it just breaks new ground.”

 

The Football Association were impressed by the ideas pitched to them, ideas that echoed thoughts they were already having about the redevelopment of their own Three Lions crest. All that remained for the Umbro design team was to develop a kit that lived up to the hype. “The label ‘Tailored by Umbro in England’ was fundamental to our history,” says Blanch. “That’s what was on the label of the 1966 England shirt, but how could we use that?”

 

With all the talk of the England team needing to rebuild its fragile confidence and adapt a winning mentality, the shirt now needed to play its part. Traditionally Umbro had always attempted to improve the team’s performance through fabric innovation, now the challenge was to see if it could find a way to help improve the team’s confidence too.

 

THE INSPIRATION

For inspiration, the designers went back to an iconic image of Bobby Moore from 1966. Not the one in red, with Moore clutching the Jules Rimet trophy, but another eye-catching picture of the England captain, immaculately dressed from head to toe in dazzling white as he leads his team onto the Wembley pitch for the World Cup quarter-final clash with Argentina.

 

“There’s an absolute visual confidence associated with that strip,” says Blanch. “Everyone talks about 1966 and the first picture that comes to mind is Moore in a red shirt holding the trophy up, but it takes effort and skill and style and craftsmanship to get to the final and that’s where this all-white outfit just epitomised the confidence we were looking for. It’s one of the strongest images in football and communicates complete self-belief.”

 

If drawing on images of the past was proving an inspiration, so was Capello’s vision for a smarter, more disciplined England team. His belief in formality, attention to detail, and team unity over personal flair seemed to chime with the values that Umbro were trying to build into the kit, and both Capello and his General Manager Franco Baldini were given the opportunity to give their feedback throughout the process.

 

“What we were doing fitted seamlessly into his approach to the England team,” says Blanch. “He was starting from scratch, he was not interested in who had played before and who had done what, and that’s exactly what we’ve done with the kit. We’ve consciously not been encumbered by the past – we wanted to start again and create something iconic from the offset.”

 

BUILDING THE DESIGN TEAM

Having arrived at a groundbreaking concept, Umbro knew where to look for the kind of inventive thinker that this project required. Inspirational young designer Aitor Throup had first come to the company’s attention when winning an award annually sponsored by Umbro at the Royal College of Art. Very early on it was apparent Throup was the person they needed to work with David Blanch.

 

His fascination with anatomy led him to work from the inside out, innovatively creating anatomical sculptures that he would drape his fabric around to progress his designs. His graduate collection from the RCA, entitled ‘When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods’, also demonstrated his keen interest in the culture of the beautiful game, while his biggest influences included the stylish and functional terrace-wear of CP Company and Stone Island

 

The initial concept team was completed by Devon Burt, a Design Director at Umbro’s parent company Nike and the man who had restyled Andre Agassi’s Wimbledon outfit to such global impact in 1991. He came to the project as an outside pair of eyes and a valuable sounding board.

 

THE DESIGN PROCESS

The designers started working on how a football kit could be crafted to fit the body. In an era when most projects begin on the computer, Throup took the process back to square one, draping and taping the fabric onto the body to work out how best to meet the needs of the athlete. “We didn’t design it,” says Blanch, “we built it – from the inside out.”

 

The first incarnation was a crude patchwork focusing on just the moving joints and how the shirt could be designed to aid performance. The designers began with a base layer, the undergarment worn by many footballers, designing it to work in tandem with the shirt. In an attempt to replicate the movement of the skin on a joint, they used ‘rib’, the most basic of stretchable fabrics. The end product was a two-layered prototype – undergarment and shirt – that actually moved with the body, one that could give the players the feeling of more control over their motion.

 

For the outward appearance, a quantum leap in design was required. “We knew that we didn’t have to use the ideas that make every football shirt look the same,” says Throup. “What we wanted was something crafted, something unique to our English heritage.”

 

In keeping with the desire to give this ultra modern garment a classical appearance, the new shirt uses a fabric that has the outward appearance and feel of cotton. “You do tend to steer towards technical-looking fabrics but that doesn’t have to be the way,” says Blanch. “The biggest challenge was to find a fabric that delivered the technical properties we needed but with a look and feel that suited the concept.”

 

TAILOR MADE

In keeping with the ‘Football Tailored’ idea, Umbro invited Savile Row tailor Charlie Allen to bring a traditional English tailoring perspective to the project. One of his first suggestions was a more formal collar, when the designers had been toying with a crew neck. He also brought a craftsman’s eye to the seaming of the shirt, helping to streamline the garment.

 

When it came to the fit, Allen’s traditional experience helped in one other sizeable departure. “One of the biggest surprises for me was finding out the players wear exactly the same shirt as the ones the fans wear,” says Allen. “I had imagined the England team must have specially made shirts. It made sense to me that a player’s shirt should fit properly.”

 

After spending so long developing an impressive new kit, the last thing wanted was for the England team to turn up on matchday and be offered either a small, medium or large. This England kit would be bespoke, and the players would be measured for it as if for a finely crafted, made-to-measure suit. “We did fitting sessions with the players very much as you would in Savile Row,” says Blanch.

 

THE PLAYER REACTION

Being fitted with a plain, unbranded shell, the players initially seemed uncertain about this new approach, but with Throup explaining the technology and Allen justifying the measuring process, they soon took to the idea. “Rio Ferdinand got into it straightaway,” says Allen. “I used to make suits for his dad, who had actually modelled in one of my shows, so he was right into it. And David James and Joe Cole were too, while John Terry wanted to get some suits made. They loved being fussed over and this time they’re getting a kit crafted to fit them.”

 

It was during the fitting sessions that Charlie Allen came into his own. Says Throup, “I wanted the shorts to fit in a specific way but Charlie knew the players wouldn’t even fit in them. He had this tailor’s instinct and he kept it in line and really uniform.”

 

The fitting sessions also enabled the designers to explain the thought processes behind the kit to the squad. Many of the players, for instance, had a preference for baggier fitting shorts, believing that it would give them more flexibility. But when it comes to garments, that isn’t the case. “You actually need it cut close to the body to allow you to move,” says Blanch. “Think of the skin under your arm – it’s close to your underarm, therefore you can move your arm about without anything catching, similar to a wetsuit. When it’s close to the body your freedom of movement and your range of motion have increased. When I put the players into the new shorts, they didn’t want to take them off – they wanted them there and then.”

 

With the designers aiming to give the players a newfound confidence, the reaction to the fitting sessions was everything they could have hoped for. The players pulled on the kit and their shoulders went back immediately, standing straight and proud. “The difference when they wear the product is instant,” says Blanch. “Visually it has a power to it but this is much more than a visual, the feel of it when it’s on – you just feel amazing.”

 

THE FINISHED PRODUCT

In keeping with the image of Bobby Moore that had proved so inspirational, it was decided the kit should be all white. Aside from the badge and an unassuming Umbro diamond, there is no other colour, leaving it a pure statement of confidence. With just a white crest on the white shorts, and nothing on the socks, the overall effect of this striking image is to drive all focus towards the FA’s new three lions crest.

 

“Clearly what we’re trying to do here is develop a kit that is different from the norm,” explains Umbro’s senior vice president of football, Martin Prothero. “Football replica has become a little tired, so I think it was critical to evolve and move that along at a pace. I think this is not just a move along, it’s a complete departure.”

 

With the concept of ‘Football Tailored’, Umbro has acknowledged its long tradition of sports tailoring whilst utilising all the benefits that modern technology can offer. For the England players this means a bespoke service that will see them take to the field in their own made-to-measure strip; while for the fan this means a tailored shirt, sold by chest size for the first time to give everyone the chance to look their very best.

 

“Think of how confident you feel when you wear a suit,” says Blanch. “If you can take that thinking and put it into a football kit, then you’ve got a garment that performs on a psychological level. If we can help improve the team’s mental approach and also add to the technical performance, then you’re looking at something really special.”

 

A resplendent new all-white strip created in the great English tailoring tradition, this marks a pivotal point in the history of both Umbro and the Football Association. “We’ve seen some wonderful kits in recent history that Umbro have supplied to us,” says Sean McCorliss, the FA’s Head of Business Development. “But this kit is different as it really does tell a story, looking at the history and the heritage and the journey of the England team and the Umbro brand over the years. There’s an element of confidence about the shirt and about those that wear it.”

 

“This kit is going to turn heads,” says Martin Prothero. “When the players walk onto the pitch, people are going to say ‘That is special, that is England’.”

 

 

Words copyright Chris Hunt 2009