UMBRO, it’s a name that’s synonymous with the heritage and culture of English football since it’s creation in 1924. After the companies takeover by Nike in February 2008, many people speculated what impact the American juggernaut would have on the historic brand. To find out just what the future holds for Umbro and English shirt manufacturing, I spent a day with the company in Manchester.
Upon entering the building, I was whisked away to what could be considered Umbro’s footballing library. The room was filled with a range of shirts that spanned many decades. I carefully leafed through the jerseys and considered how diverse the styling has been over the years and how far technology has come in a relatively short space of time.
As the premiere name in shirt manufacturing, Umbro has always had its eye on new technology and the evidence was in my very own hands. A 1970’s Sheffield United shirt first caught me eye. The all-white layout resembled something of a cricket top however the material was far different from the thick cotton that I would associate with kits of that era. The texture was bobbled and far stretchier than I had expected, leading me to realise that this may have been an early foray into ‘tight’ shirts which adapt to the body’s movements to enhance performance.
I then glanced upon a Peterborough United top from the early ‘80’s. The look was classic, with a bold white collar & cuffs with a plain-blue v-neck finish. An initial glance might not catch your attention but a primitive form of modern technology had once more been woven into the shirt. The garment, rather than being a solid stretch of cotton, was in fact covered in tiny holes and was made of two layers. Once more I was impressed with this early example of ‘breathable technology’, exhibited a full 20 years before this aspect of design became almost mandatory in all football kits.
After an hour gazing at the collection, it was time to start the main attraction of the day. This would be the unveiling of the new England Away shirt, and a chance to meet it’s designer Aitor Throup.
It was immediately noticeable that Throup was different to your normal football shirt creator. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, his background is very much dominated by fashion rather than sportswear, and that aesthetic appreciation was evident in the shirt from the second of its unveiling.
The design was a bold red, as we’ve come to expect from England, however their top included three varying tones of red on the front, side and shoulders. Though this was a minor detail, the slight differences enhanced what could have seemed an otherwise one-dimensional approach. The neckline and cuffs too; were out of the ordinary. The cuffs were a normal solid white, yet were overtly large and did not match the collar. The neckline was round, yet was very steep at the back, reaching high up to the edge of the hairline.
These elements of styling were minute on their own but combined to create a new and fresh approach to a classic look. Throup was clearly influenced by Umbro’s famous Aztec design, but he had managed to incorporate unique touches of his own. This allowed the kit to feel familiar yet individual, a difficult challenge when dealing with such a basic initial outline such as the Aztec’s.
Throup had impressed me with his styling credentials but I was hit for six by his knowledge and level of interest in the technology behind the shirt.
Amongst Umbro’s kit collection were some hideous examples of shirts that time had long since forgotten. They looked stunningly ugly and were hardly the type of garment that aided a player’s performance. Witnessing the pride and passion Throup demonstrated for the new England shirt’s technology, made me realise just how far Umbro’s designs had come.
The kit has taken a bold approach that aims in the words of Throup to “move with the player”. This means that the ‘baggy’ designs and straight line seams have been consigned to the rubbish bin. In there place come tight fitting tops which aim to increase the players suppleness and ability to change direction at a seconds thought.
The technology doesn’t stop though at simply what you can see. Throup showed us some of his designs and explained that even the simplest of modifications can show dramatic results. The seams of the shirt played an important part in his updating of the kit. The tradition of having straight-line seams across the side and shoulders are actually inefficient, reducing flexibility and creating a barrier for ‘free movement’. Throup had thus built a shirt based on three layers, all with twisted seams. These layers were the front, the back and the shoulders. The sewing is minimal and is only across areas in which the players use little movement. With this new approach, Throup hopes that the England team will feel free in the shirt, that they won’t notice that they are wearing the garment but instead feel as if it’s a natural attachment to their body, thus not hindering them on the pitch.
Overall then, the combination of Umbro and Throup seems to be an exciting match. Throup takes a look at the shirt from a fashion point of view as opposed to a purely sportswear one. This relates the kit more to the fans – people will want to wear it because it looks good not because of how much sweat and moisture it can wick away.
Umbro on their part have been bold in approaching somewhat of a sports novice as their designer. This attitude of change is impressive and commendable given that the England shirts are without a doubt their biggest selling kit and therefore an important earner for the company.
Nike seem to take a minimalist approach. Though you can see their brand influence in Umbro’s latest design work, I doubt that you will see a tick on an England shirt anytime in the near future. They have allowed Umbro to keep and even enhance its own identity, something that without their financial input, might have suffered. I personally feel that keeping Throup as the designer on future products only has foreseeable benefits. His enthusiasm is contagious and, to quote and overused cliché, he ‘thinks outside the box’ when it comes to design. It is very possible that at the World Cup, England will have not only the most unique and arguably stylish shirt, but also one of the most technically advanced kits at the tournament. Umbro deserve a pat on the back, the new shirt is definitely a job well done.