...but what do footballers know about fashion anyway?

Marion Hume, Fashion Editor, says football purists should get real and learn about the marketplace
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The Independent Online
Football and fashion are inexorably linked. Traditionalists may bang on about the "Golden Days," when Manchester United only had one change of kit for away games. But the sad truth is, lads, that those days are long gone. The football world, like the fashion world, has discovered that the changing of clothes as often as possible generates big bucks. And no amount of nostalgic prose - or intervention from Tony Blair for that matter - is liable to turn back the clock.

For the business of football is now tied to the consumption-led business of fashion. Manchester United, leaders in merchandising, are now up there with the biggest fashion designers in this country. The megastore and mail-order business did £14.2m worth of business in the United Kingdom alone last year (that's not counting a huge international business). Paul Smith, Britain's biggest menswear name, did £23m in the UK, while Giorgio Armani's UK figure is £34, but as this includes the womenswear business too, you could pretty safely half it.

It had to happen. Back in the 1970s, when maverick football players were the supermodels of their times, everyone wanted to look like them, or at least to live a little of their glamourous lives vicariously through the tabloids. By the late 1970s, every boy I didn't want to talk to had a Kevin Keegan-inspired poodle perm and a battered Adidas hold-all. Because in those days, that was just about all that was available to the football fanatic. It is no surprise that clubs woke up to the merchandising potential of team clothing and associated products. What is surprising is that it took them so long to stitch up the market.

For it was wide open - and labels such as Fila, Ellesse and Giorgio Armani were getting the profits. Or not. I was a Saturday girl at Browns, London's poshest fashion shop, at the start of the 1980s. Back then, Browns, which had introduced the Armani label to Britain and was then the only stockist, became the focus of an unwelcome attention. Football fans following their teams abroad picked up on the fact the Italian spectators looked better. Armani became a terraces label. Extra security guards had to be laid on at Browns to stop the most disreputable of the Casuals from charging in and pinching the stuff. Sticking a security tag on each garment didn't help much. Armani kit was deemed particularly attractive when it had small holes in it to prove that it had been knicked rather then purchased, at which point these tags could be removed without damage.

It took another decade for football to really get to grips with clothing as a means to profit (and it isn't always, as Spurs' link with Hummel shows). But it had not taken nearly so long for footballers to discover fashion. What did every footballer of the 1970s do off the pitch when they weren't being photographed with a big cigar and a bird? They went shopping for wall-to-wall flared trousers and the most outrageously ugly jackets; they opened boutiques or they "designed" lines of clothes.

The pattern has not changed. Cantona, Giggs and Wright are rare to that breed called footballer because they are relatively well-dressed. But those of us who spend as much time watching fashion shows as sports reporters spend watching footie have a term to describe the worst aberrations we see: "Football players' clothes". The more vulgar and loud, the more likely these are to turn up on the racks of certain independent menswear shops in Manchester, Newcastle and N4.

As for football players becoming fashion designers? As far as I can discover, none of the Brits are currently indulging. But Italy's Franco Baresi has his own label, which is consciously macho and features lots of zips. It is not inconceivable that Franco Baresi the label will eclipse Franco Baresi the player. Andre Courreges, who was a professional rugby player, went on to become the fashion designer who - along with Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin -defined the styles of the 1960s.

As for fashion designers who have toyed with football, well, Giorgio Armani, much worshipped on the terraces, designed the formal clothes for his home team, Piacenza, and for the Italian team in the last World Cup, but he has not included anything that looks like on-the-pitch gear in his collections. Menswear designers, particularly the Belgians, Dirk Bikkenbergs and Dries van Noten, have. They tend to be attracted by taking football kit as a starting point for clothes, because this offers the rare combination of colour (often deemed dodgy in menswear) and tough, graphic, macho shapes. The British designer Joe Casely Hayford uses the drip-dry nylon of football kit in a range of shirts.

Perhaps surprisingly, football is better represented in women's fashion - and in some strange ways. Vogue has long used the association with football to spell out archetypically British style. Back in the 1960s "model girls'', as they were then called, were frequently photographed in groovy gear jumping around on the pitch. And much more recently, the magazine chose to introduce the supermodel Kate Moss in an issue titled "London Girls" that showed her looking chilly against a background of lads in stripes kicking a ball.

Stranger still is the use of football kit by two of the world's cutting edge fashion designers, who both happen to be British. John Galliano, now deemed as "huge" in the fashion firmament as Ryan Giggs is to the world of football, showed authentic football shorts and slinky, tiny football shirts mixed up among his 1990 "African Queen" collection.

The attempt was to make the point that in fashion, anything, even tacky football kit, is now OK. The next year, he had his own football strip of burgundy and lime woven up and cut clothes from it. Meanwhile authentic shirts, particularly Brazil versions, became fashionable club wear.

Then there is Vivienne Westwood, famous in the fashion world for doing things first and, in the case of football, before Manchester United. Back in 1985, she showed her own spin on nylon football shirts, except they fastened with pop studs between the legs, which she reckoned was awfully practical. That hasn't caught on. But something else has. Westwood smothered her version of a baby blue and white strip with sponsorship. She was, yet again, prophetic, even if it did take Man United and the like some time to notice.

"The Strip Show", a collection of national teams' home and away strips, is currently running at the Fashion Works Gallery in Newcastle Discovery, the city museum. Vivienne Westwood's 1985 football shirt is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum.