Whetting the appetite
It’s been a long while now since I’ve been as excited by the arrival of a new kit as I have been by the new England outfit.
Like many I suspect, my interest was aroused by the ‘leak’ of what purported to be the new England shirt on footballshirtculture.com. With its red sleeves, huge outlined crest and the absence of navy – replaced by grey – it was a shocker.
I thought Umbro had gone too far and the idea that this shirt, which might work perfectly well as a training or leisure top, would be gracing the field as England attempted to qualify for the South African World Cup made me question Umbro’s sanity and taste.
Most people felt the same and it was only after Umbro denied the shirt was real and slowly but surely, hints about the new England strip were released (new Umbro logo replacing that incredibly dated elongated version and new England crest minus the unnecessary ‘England’ legend) that it became clear that the white, red and grey monstrosity was NOT going to be the new England outfit.
I suspected something special was afoot when Umbro’s marketing cranked into action with a new blog, increased publicity surrounding their magnificent archive of kits and teasers about the forthcoming England outfit. Something about ‘Tailored by England’? What does that mean?! A press release explaining a new way of sizing seemed to indicate that this was not going to be your normal, run of the mill kit.
When a further leak appeared (albeit briefly on footballshirtculture.com once again) with John Terry wearing a simple all-white, collared shirt my jaw hit the floor. I was stunned. With none of the flashes, red crosses and superfluous and some might say over-worked trimmings favoured by Umbro in recent years, this shirt oozed class and confidence.
All the signs indicated that the leak was genuine – a fact backed up by little slips included in the fascinating videos released by Umbro showing the development of the shirt. Plus, could it also be true that England would now wear a completely all-white outfit?
Umbro’s impressive marketing machine stepped up a gear in preparation for the kit’s unveiling against Slovakia on 28th March and as promised, and as anticipation mounted, the outfit was launched to maximum effect with the teams stripping off their tracksuits in between the national anthems to reveal the strip.
The new shirt itself has a much more fitted feel than other recent kits, not surprising given Umbro’s overall concept for the design. Jersey’s ‘silhouettes’ have been a primary focus for kit design for several years now and slowly but surely the baggy designs favoured in the 90s have been phased out for the 21st century.
The sleeves are much shorter than have been worn for almost 20 years – it’s a trim and elegant design.
The shirt features a non-contrasting collar with a neat single button neck. The only noticeable markings on the jersey are the new style red Umbro logo (very similar to that favoured in the 70s/80s) and the new England crest comprising of a lighter blue. Beneath the crest is a scroll revealing the name of the opposition – an idea influenced by legendary England kits from the past. Above the badge is an embroidered, but not coloured, single star representing the World Cup victory of 66.
Some people have criticised the shirt for being plain and boring (an argument also often fired at Nike) but the fact of the matter is that most supporters who are not specifically interested in football shirts prefer plain designs – not speckled shirts splashed with additional stripes, flashes, panels and swooshes.
The jersey fabric is a soft cotton with ribbed underarm panels and a handful of ventilation holes that appear just below the armpit and on the lumbar region at the bottom of the back. How this fabric will fare in hot temperatures will be interesting – will we see a jersey drenched in sweat after 90 minutes in the hot South African sun next year?
Interestingly almost every player has worn an additional layer beneath the jersey in the two games so far in which its been worn.
The white shorts for some strange reason feature the Umbro logo and England crest in non-contrasting white embroidery, making them barely visible. It’s a curious move and one that I confess I don’t really understand. Perhaps its designed to give extra emphasis to the minimal graphics/branding on the shirt or maybe it’s just a reflection of the fact that until the mid 70s shorts were generally bare.
The socks are also plain with no Umbro logo or England badge.
I suspect that the shirt might work better with the traditional England navy shorts and I am pleased to say that they will be available as change shorts should a clashing situation arise. There are also some rather bizarre half red/half white change socks that do seem to jar with the overall feel.
Acclaimed illustrator and fashion designer Aitor Throup was brought in to work on the shirt and his innovations have been key in the design. The whole idea of tailoring and honestly crafting this shirt is new to the disposable and flash world of football kits. And it is this thinking that I believe has helped lift this strip above the norm.
The impact of the kit
Umbro have really upped the ante for kit design with the launch of this outfit. In my view due to the increased frequency of change, the football shirt world was in real danger of becoming stale and something radical had to be done. With too many designs simply regurgitating previous very recent outfits; a new flash here, a bit of asymmetrical trim there and all neck designs becoming ever more intricate and yet not offering any substantial difference from one season to the next, there was a real need for a big shake up and an innovative rethinking of what a football shirt could and should represent and Umbro have cracked it with this design.
In a way it could be considered a retro look (its certainly inspired by the rich heritage and history of both Umbro and England) but it many ways its ultra modern. It is a kit of paradox – on one hand it focuses on the most workmanlike of all football strip attire: the white shirt. But by pairing it with simarly coloured shorts it embodies the entire kit with the other characteristic of white, namely heroism. Many of England’s important games over the years have seen the team sport all white strips and although photos of the side’s exploits in the 1966 World Cup finals inspired the change it is clear that the players look more classically heroic in an all-white ensemble. On a more practical level, FIFA’s increasingly stringent rules on colour clashes may see more teams adopt single colour outfits.
This paradox is extended by the complete absence of trim or additional colour. Clearly Umbro are saying the shirt and therefore the team doesn’t need these extravagances; it’s a plain, simple and functional football shirt, designed purely to ensure that one team can be clearly identified from the other and that the players are comfortable wearing it and perform to the best of their abilities. However this bold statement (completely bucking recent trends in football kit design) is also saying, look how special and wonderful this shirt, the England shirt, is. This fact is backed up by Umbro’s ingenious marketing campaign and overall design concept of fine tailoring, careful fitting and bespoke cut that is unique to each player that attempts to capture the psychological boost you receive when wearing a well-fitted suit. It’s a shirt of supreme confidence and self-assuredness – but NOT arrogance – and one that no doubt will inspire the England team.
Cast your mind back to the 1991 FA Cup final between Tottenham and Nottingham Forest. When Spurs appeared in the tunnel wearing what appeared to be throwbacks to the 1940s; knee-length and baggy shorts, the country gasped and then laughed. However, this brave design statement made Forest’s kit (also produced by Umbro but not due for a change until 1992) look very dated and within a year virtually all clubs were wearing longer, baggier shorts.
Umbro redefined football kits in the early 90s and they have now redefined them again in 2009 ensuring their reputation as arguably THE most influential and important football apparel firms.
It’s a rebirth for England, a rebirth for football kit design and a rebirth for Umbro. The company spent much of the latter part of the 90s and early part of the 21st century in limbo. The glory days of the 60s (the company provided kits for all but one of the 1966 World Cup teams) through to the early 90s when Umbro kitted out virtually the entire inaugural Premiership now long gone. Since then many of their contracts dried up leaving primarily the England team and Nottingham Forest as their main UK deals. Since 2005 however, more and more clubs have signed on with Umbro again and their designs are now much more common around the country. This revival, boosted by an appreciation and interest in their ‘back catalogue’ has culminated with this new England strip.
The new England kit is a ground breaking design and its implications and influence may only become apparent a year or so into the future. It blows recent designs out of the water, instantly making them appear clumsy, dated and old-fashioned. It will appeal to older and younger fans alike – once they have got to grips with its understated minimalist look.
Of course it will divide opinions and generate extreme views – but that’s what good design should do and anyway, when was the last time EVERYBODY agreed on a football kit design?
The important thing is that this outfit has breathed new life into and revitalised the football kit world. The fact that Umbro are now owned by Nike and that Nike acted as consultants on the design should be no surprise as the entire project has many of the hallmarks Nike employ when producing a kit. The thought, concept and meticulous execution of the design along with the marketing collateral that accompanies it has been nothing but superb and I have a suspicion we will see great things happen to the England side whilst wearing this strip – possibly one of the most important football kits in the modern era.