From Gucci and Off-White to Balenciaga, just why is fashion falling so hard for football?

Written by Beccy Hill

Ahead of the controversial World Cup which kicks off in Qatar later this week, writer Beccy Hill explores the never-ending love affair between football and fashion. 

From as far back as the 1950s, football players have been as renowned for their off-pitch style as they have their on-pitch skills. And with the sport ranking as the most popular in the world – approximately 265 million people play football around the world – it’s no surprise that brands and fashion houses continuously jump at the chance to book its hottest talents. From Manchester City’s Jack Grealish and Gucci, USA’s Megan Rapinoe and Loewe, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé and Dior, the stars of today are defining luxury fashion ideals. But how did we arrive here?

“The story starts in the 60s with the abolition of the maximum wage, which meant that there wasn’t a cap on what footballers could earn. That’s when the money started to explode in the game,” explains Felicia Pennant, founder of the football and fashion platform, Season Zine. She notes how during that era, Mike Summerbee and George Best – two of arguably the biggest players in the 60s – owned a clothing store in Manchester called Edwardia. “Footballers are the biggest influencers in the world, and that’s just a fact,” she adds.

Winnie Harlow wearing a Pirelli football jersey during Paris Fashion Week.

The most notable, for many, is David Beckham, former England captain and face of H&M. Despite the current uproar surrounding his reported £10 million deal as a World Cup ambassador, there was nothing throughout the Noughties that Golden Balls couldn’t turn into, well, gold. “From the beginning when he was doing all those really cool Arena Homme Plus shoots, there was always this kind of homoerotic charge which interrogated the idea of masculinity,” says Pennant.

Sarongs, jewellery, highlights – it’s undeniable that Beckham pushed the boundaries of what it meant to be a football-playing man in his heyday, and others followed suit. “Footballers have always been happy to experiment with their style and image. Think Alan Ball, the first player to wear white boots, Liverpool’s Spice Boys, or Ronaldo’s triangular wedge haircut. The focus on image and style makes sense – imagine your working day being streamed into the homes of millions of people worldwide,” says Adam Steel, strategic foresight editor at consultancy The Future Laboratory. 

At the height of his footballing career, David Beckham bridged the gap between football and fashion.

Following the continued success of the Lionesses and women’s football as a whole – two in five members of the general public and two thirds of football fans say this year’s Women’s Euros have made them more interested in watching women’s football in the future – the marriage of football and fashion is reaching the women’s game too. 

“Women are more visible and involved,” says Pennant. “Now you have Megan Rapinoe and Leah Williamson on the cover of GQ in a well-styled shoot on par with how a male player would be styled, and that hasn’t always been the case.” Ayesha Brown, the founder of Offside Outlet, nods to the influence of designer Martine Rose, who is known for referencing football in her designs and collections in, what she describes, as “a slightly different, unexpected way”.

Pennant, in fact, believes that fashion is embracing football more as a source of inspiration because its female designers and CEOs are feeling more empowered to do so. “There’s Martine Rose; Sofia Prantera, who runs Aries; Donatella Versace, who’s a big Inter Milan fan. There are more women unashamedly saying, ‘I’m really into football and where I can make that intersection with fashion, I will,’” Brown is clear the reason that we see so many football inspired designs on the runway is because “Football is more than sport – it is culture”. 

England captain Leah Williamson and former Arsenal player Alex Scott pictured at the GQ Men Of The Year Awards earlier this year.

One element which has permeated the fashion world in a stratospheric way is the humble football jersey, which has been reimagined by brands from Koché to Off-White, and features in two of the biggest collaborations this year: Gucci x Palace and Balenciaga x Adidas. Brown, who designs original jerseys, says: “Traditionally football fans would buy shirts to support their own team, but it’s much bigger than that now. I’ve had people request custom designs from me where they just want a specific colour.”

With a Gucci x Palace version currently being sold on eBay for around £1,900, could the jersey’s current ubiquity be viewed as commodification? “It depends on how authentic it is and where it’s coming from,” says Pennant. “If the designer is a football fan, then why can’t they express their passion in this way? But to make any football jersey is the same price and often the same material, so if people already complain about how expensive a club jersey is and they can be over £100, and then you take a Balenciaga x Adidas one which is £750, the question is: who is this for? Is it for the football fan? Nine times out of ten, I don’t think it is.” 

Martine Rose joined forces with Nike to design a supporter’s strip in 2021.

Whatever your thoughts are on the Qatar World Cup, an element of football mania is undoubtedly set to tighten its chokehold over the next few months. While the relationship between football and fashion has always been strong, we’re simply not used to being this exposed to it. “I don’t think it’s changed, I just think it’s become more visible. It’s become more mainstream, and people have realised that they can monetise it in a way which they never could before,” adds Pennant.

The true shift ultimately though will be when football finally becomes the more inclusive space it’s started to become, which will hopefully lead into different conversations, interpretations and innovations. As Steel points out: “There are very few arenas that speak to so many people in a way that’s both universal and personal at the same time. These feelings only enhance the aesthetic of football fashion and wider football culture.” 

Images: Getty; Nike

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