Why The Era Of Boring Football Kits Is Finally About To End

After a decade of dull design, clubs are regaining their sense of adventure. Esquire talks to the men behind the kits

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"If Chelsea or Manchester United win the Premier League trophy next year, will we remember the kit they held it up in?"

According to Neal Heard, author of The Football Shirts Book: The Connoisseurs Guide and curator of the new exhibition 'The Art of the Football Shirt', that's the true test of a great strip – and if you ask him, it's one that most champions over the last decade have failed to pass.

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"The jersey should go hand-in-hand with the memory," says Neal. "Without meaning to offend anybody, I am so sick of paired down, old school, colour-blocked kits. Plainness has gone too far."

Take one look at the upcoming crop of Premier League kits, and it's hard to disagree. No amount of VIP launches, grime montages or pissed-up Ray Parlour live blogs can distract from the fact that we've reached a design nadir ­– and it's been a long time coming.

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So why is it that brands like Nike and Adidas, creators of the most iconic and innovative kits in football history, have spent the best part of ten years all-but replicating the same basic templates? "Ultimately I think England spawned the trend, when they went back to the plain white shirt with a button down collar in 2009," says Neal. "That kind of heralded the beginning."

John Terry in Umbro's 'Tailored by England' home kit

Around the mid-noughties, after decades of garish patterns, massive trademarks, medieval collars and errant swooshes, supporters were crying out for something more understated and traditional. The rise of polyester in the eighties encouraged an newfound experimentation that piqued in the abstract-inspired nineties and finally fatigued around the millennium. Fans were sick of their football kits being treated like a blank canvas.

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"I was one of those voices at that time," says Neal. "I thought a change was due."

Former Umbro staffer Stewart Scott-Curran was part of the much-loved England strip's design team, fine-tuning the kit for 18 months following a takeover from Nike. He says that in order to satisfy supporters' demands on the international and domestic stage, the brand needed to pay homage to the past.

"We were very much aware of the desire from fans for product that really reflected their favourite club's values and history. Inevitably that leads you to scouring the archives for moments that really resonate with the supporters on an emotional level."

As supporters became increasingly alienated by a new breed of flush, foreign-owned, apathetic super clubs, fans took refuge in nostalgia – and when it came to design inspiration, manufacturers knew exactly where to look.

Unburdened by brand or sponsor, kits from the sixties and seventies occupy a timeless space in football culture, synonymous with some of the game's most iconic imagery. When we think of England, we envision Bobby Moore holding the World Cup aloft in his Rupert the Bear best. Brazil conjures Pele pumping the air in gold and green. George Best marauding in red. Charlie George spread-eagled in yellow. Simple kits that live like paint strokes in the minds of football fans everywhere.

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Our collective wistfulness has proved fertile ground for designers. Even now, Chelsea's main selling point for their new kit, surely one of the plainest designs in living memory, is that "an original shirt from the early 1970s was used to define the desired blue." These throwbacks act as proof of legitimacy. That increasingly unrecognisable clubs haven't forgotten their roots.

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But if the upcoming season symbolises a high water mark for the trend, then Neal is excited about what's coming next.

"I've had off-the-record discussions with Nike and Adidas designers. They were kind of semi-apologising [for the current template]. And they said, 'Oh, you're gonna love what's coming in two years!' Apparently the next Nigeria one is going to blow our minds."

Brands are now beginning to aim for the future rather than the past – and when it comes to design inspiration, there's only one place to look.

"Nike and other sportswear companies pay a lot of attention to social media, and one of the brands has just taken on a 17-year-old streetwear lad from Instagram, " Neal tells me. "They just liked what he was doing, and now he's designing football shirts. It's a revolution! Some people are getting old jerseys, cutting them into two or three pieces and sewing them back together again. People are just playing at the seams of the all this and brands are savvy enough to notice."

It's not just on Instagram that fashion-conscious kids are taking an interest in the game. En vogue streetwear brands like Palace have reinterpreted classic jerseys, and for the first time ever football has infiltrated high fashion through Stella McCartney and Gosha Rubchinskiy.

Left: Gosha Rubchinskiy X Adidas collaboration, Right: Stella McCartney's first menswear collection

"I saw an American rapper in the papers the other day with an Arsenal track-top on and a Man Utd hat on," Neal laughs. "The teams love that – they've been pushing it that way for a while. Redesigning crests so that they don't have the word 'football' in them,, à la the NBA. They're life-style choices now."

The fact that the fashion world has taken a newfound interest in football kits adds a new level of pressure to the process. So how easy is it to actually get innovative, risky designs on to the pitch?

"It depends a lot of the club to be honest," Stewart explains. "Some are very much open to doing new things and some are more conservative. For example, PSV Eindhoven insist on having the same number of red and white stripes every single year. It can be tricky to bring freshness year after year in that situation."

Left: Manchester United away kit, Right: Arsenal 'stadium shirt'

If Neal is to be believed, clubs are now more than ready for the change. Even this season, Manchester United eased their way back in with a homage to their nineties snowflake print, and Arsenal are dipping their toes in the water with a Wavey Garms -worthy 'Stadium Shirt' (whatever that is).

Regardless, the wheels of progress are in motion. "There's a revolution coming any time now," assures Neal. It can't come soon enough.

Jacket Required presents the exhibition 'The Art of the Football Shirt', curated by Neal Heard, at the Old Truman Brewery. 26 July (10am-7pm) and 27 July (10am-5pm). Follow Neal Heard on Instagram.