Bunhill: Soccer's strip for all seasons

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The Independent Online
Britain's fascination with all things ancient - heritage as it is now popularly called - has spread to football. As the artists and artisans of the soccer field prepare to pull on their clubs' psychedelic kit for the new season, the big story in sportswear is the re-emergence of baggy shorts and button collars. Classic strips, using plain colours and straightforward stripes, have rapidly become high fashion for the man in the main stand, which seems to be worrying the multinational kit companies.

Two Northern companies dominate the heritage kit game: Leisureco from Leeds, trading as Arkwright; and The Old Fashioned Football Shirt company (Toffs) from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Toffs specialises in 1940s and 1950s strips and has only been trading since spring 1991. Alan Finch, who owns the company, had the idea, went to Arsenal with three samples and walked out with an order for 50 of each. A month later the club reordered. Now he produces 40 historic replica kits and says the company has turned over around pounds 250,000.

Arkwright came on the scene somewhat earlier, securing a licence from Leeds United in return for contributions to charity. It is now the market leader.

The established kit companies (which do, after all, pay hundreds of thousands for rights to make replica kits) are none too pleased at this encroachment on their market.

Toffs has been refused permission to produce historic kits by some clubs, who cite objections from their contracted kit supplier as the reason. Mr Finch says this is unfair and has written to the Prime Minister, who has passed the details to the Office of Fair Trading.

Finch thinks that the leisurewear companies only have themselves to blame for the position that they now find themselves in: 'People were fed up with their clubs' kits changing every year and they wanted something dependable and well made that they knew wouldn't change.'

Tim Gardiner, a marketing executive for Umbro, which produces kits for 11 of the Premier League's 22 clubs, was reticent about its position regarding old- fashioned strips.

Did Umbro have any plans to produce heritage kits? 'No comment.' Would it be seeking to negotiate new contracts with clubs that included rights to all the kits a team had ever worn? 'No comment.' Would it pay more for such a contract? 'No comment.'

The next couple of years in the replica kit market promise to be interesting. As any football fan will tell you, the multinational leisurewear companies are at their most dangerous when they've just gone one behind.

(Photograph omitted)