How Soccer Became Fashion's Latest Obsession
Versace, Virgil Abloh, and Burberry are putting soccer scarves and jerseys on the runway—but many brands are missing what the sport is really about.
Photograph by AFP for Getty Images.
Fashion and football—sorry, soccer—have always made uncomfortable bedfellows. It is a sport in which the star players are cocooned from an early age: no parties, no normal teenage upbringing, none of the elements typically crucial in developing one’s own sense of style. They don’t have time for that. Their reward, of course, is a life that many grow up dreaming of—adoration, glory and money. Lots and lots of money. The sartorial consequences of this have been, unsurprisingly, disastrous. For every Johan Cruyff—coiffed and debonair—there’s a glut of Cristiano Ronaldos—obnoxiously wealthy and utterly devoid of taste.
Many of them have gone on to dabble in fashion. Paul Pogba of Manchester United has his own adidas sub-label, his teammate Zlatan Ibrahimović—the Swedish striker who regularly refers to himself in the third person—has his athleisure wares, and Cristiano Ronaldo owns a denim brand called CR7. All of them are utterly terrible. This has been the traditional paradigm in which soccer and fashion have met, the vanity projects of the sport’s most vain.
But of late, soccer and fashion have found a new common ground. At fashion weeks in Paris and Milan, soccer scarves have adorned a host of editors and street style starlets—a trend sparked by Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia, of Vetements and Balenciaga. Both designers have included faux-soccer scarves in recent collections, like the kind fans would typically wear to show their allegiances on match day. As part of both its Spring and Fall 2018 collections, Parisian label Koché debuted a number of spliced and embellished soccer jerseys created in partnership with the city’s main team, Paris Saint Germain. This is one of the few cases where fashion’s current soccer obsession has resulted in an official collaboration with a team. Versace’s most recent FW18 menswear collection also included soccer scarves, while Donatella posted a picture of herself to Instagram wearing a “Versace FC” jersey in anticipation of the collection. And just last week, Nike unveiled the latest installment of its collaborative conquest with Virgil Abloh, in the form of soccer jerseys and “soccer-inspired” sneakers.
Abloh was also recently on a panel at Miami’s Art Basel, as part of former Supreme brand director Angelo Baque’s “Social Studies” workshop, about the cultural value of soccer jerseys. “Until I see these Art Basel types tackling a bottle of Buckfast at 8am on a bus to Aberdeen, I remain skeptical of their credentials to be discussing ‘football culture,’” I tweeted at the time. (NB: Buckfast is a cheap and highly caffeinated wine popular in Scotland, and Aberdeen is a very, very gray city, which takes around four hours to travel to from Glasgow, where I’m from, for a match). I was being somewhat facetious—but as someone who writes about fashion and has spent countless weekends going to matches since the age of six, the industry’s current love affair with soccer feels off. It seems overly focused on the mere aesthetics of the sport. Like any sport, it has its own dominant aesthetic, but that pales in significance to the culture which surrounds football fandom: kinship, tribalism, escapism, (an excuse to drink fortified wine at 8am) are all of greater importance to most. Other sports inspire similar levels of fanaticism, but soccer is unique in that the team you support is often passed down through generations, and inextricably tied to an odd mix of geography, politics, class and even religion.
In an era of fashion currently best defined by big logos and Instagram, tribalism has come to trump subtlety.
Fashion has always enjoyed mining subculture and sport for inspiration, and a sense of unyielding devotion and commitment to a certain ideal has an obvious attraction for designers and editors. From hi-top Nike Dunk-inspired sneakers to exceedingly slouchy shorts, Rick Owens has taken cues from the basketball court, while much of Ralph Lauren’s oeuvre has been built on referencing the pastimes of the privileged, like polo, rugby and skiing. Other times, a brand's adoption of a subculture has been more surprising—particularly when it comes to soccer. The recent collaboration between Gosha Rubchinskiy and Burberry, for example, had a heavy soccer and skateboarding slant, taking inspiration from the UK’s casual subculture of the 80s and 90s, which saw predominantly working class soccer fans don an array of designer garments. Elements of this subculture's aesthetic were present in an accompanying portrait series shot by Rubchinskiy.
Why this trend has occurred right now is maybe more interesting. It being a World Cup year is of course relevant, but in an era of fashion currently best defined by big logos and Instagram, tribalism has come to trump subtlety. A sweatshirt with “Gucci” proudly emblazoned on the front, for example, isn’t dissimilar to a soccer club’s crest, as we increasingly communicate our ideals through the brands we wear. For some, the sight of a fellow Supreme box-logo sweatshirt wearer might even elicit a similar sense of shared fanaticism as seeing someone in your team’s colors.
The notion of tribalism expressed through a soccer jersey was perhaps at its most poignant in the Fall 2016 Dolce & Gabbana Alta Moda collection, which saw the Italian design duo send a Napoli-inspired jersey down the runway, emblazoned with “Maradona” on the back. In Naples, Maradona remains a hero for his exploits of 1987, the first time the city’s team won the league championship. Murals of him fill the walls of the city, his name still revered. “Maradona was my first girlfriend,” one Napoli fan told a recent issue of Mundial Magazine. “He made me feel fear, he made me feel anger and he gave me so much adrenaline.” (Maradona's feelings towards Dolce & Gabbana are not quite mutual: in September 2017, he filed a complaint against the brand seeking compensation for use of his name.")
Last summer, my uncle passed away. He didn’t care about fashion, but he was one of the first people to ever take me to see my team, Celtic. I didn’t know until the next day that he had passed—it happened only a few hours after Celtic had clinched a historic cleansweep of all domestic trophies, for only the fourth time in its history. I was in the stadium, as Tom Rogic strode into the penalty box in the dying seconds of the game to score the winning goal. Lightning flashed overhead as he struck the ball, an occurrence that would seem like a bad movie cliche if it weren’t true. The back of the net rippled. Limbs everywhere. Grown men in tears, from a city where men have an inbuilt sense of stoicism from birth. I think I managed to hug most of them. And in the following days, it came to be of genuine comfort that my uncle had held on to see that.
More than simply soccer or sport, it was a moment of pure ecstasy and true spectacle— something unforgettable in an era where that is a rarity. Isn’t that what all good designers are aiming to capture anyway?