Tracing their journey from dress shoes and bootcuts to magazine covers and front rows, we pose the question: have footballers finally managed to break the cool curse?
The year is 2005. Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, and Paul Scholes are photographed on their way to Manchester United’s Christmas doo looking like unpaid extras from Green Street 3: Never Back Down. It is football fashion’s darkest day.
Fast forward to 2021. Phil Foden is a cover star for i-D Magazine, Dominic Calvert-Lewin flaunts a Prada skirt for Homme+, Raheem Sterling debuts his clothing line at LFW. This all begs the question: was this year that British footballers finally became cool?
First things first: what am I on about? You know, ‘cool’. That quality or essence. That attitude or pose. That certain je nais se quois that Harry Styles has and Harry Kane doesn’t. It’s slippery. It’s elusive. It’s Jack Grealish with his socks around his ankles just because.
Now, the beautiful game wasn’t always this beautiful. Cast your mind back to the halcyon days of the Premier League era – when the sight of a young José Mourinho prowling the touchline in an Armani trench coat is a news story. Yes, in the early years of the 21st century footballers and fashion went together like Diet Prada and Dolce & Gabbana; like Frank Lampard and Stevie G. That is to say: they didn’t.
Shite suits. Bootcut jeans. Dress shoes that your uncle would wear to your nan’s funeral. Crimes against taste. Crimes against the culture. And it wasn’t just in fashion where our footballers were wide of the mark.
John Terry, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney – three of the best players these shores have ever produced. Well, a quick Google search tells us that they respectively booked Lionel Richie, Ed Sheeran, and Westlife (really, Wayne?) to perform at their multimillion pound weddings. To put it in fashion terms, it’s like Richard Keys walking the runway for LV.
But who cares? Stick to football. Well, I do, and if you like nice clothes and nice tunes (you enlightened Basement reader), you do too. Let’s break it down. There’s a reason why Marcus Rashford can take on the UK government and win. Players have clout. Even ex-players. When England manager Gareth Southgate wore that waistcoat at the 2018 World Cup, sales of the sartorial garment went up 35%.
So you see, the sooner that our lads sharpen up, the sooner you’ll see the back of Peaky Blinders hats, Ed Sheeran (sorry Ed), and spray-on jeans. The early signs are good. Yes, there have been missteps along the way, but the current crop are trying – that’s the most important thing. David Beckham walked so Tom Davies could fly.
And look, I hear what you’re saying – isn’t football anti-fashion, anti-all that stuff? Sure, the tabloids would have you believe that your average footy fan is a beer-drinking Neanderthal in a replica England shirt. But look a little deeper and you’ll find that the game’s punters have always had a rich relationship with music, culture, and style.
Ellesse, Sergio Tacchini, CP Company – just a few of the Italian menswear brands that football’s hooligans (think of them as ‘superfans’, American readers) pioneered in the 1980s. The casual subculture was as much about looking the business as it was about kicking the fuck out of opposition fans. To put it in perspective, Britain’s hooligans were wearing Stone Island jumpers when Drizzy was still a sperm.
On the topic of American readers. Oh, you lucky American readers. You know the score USA sports fans, don’t you? Because you had 5-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman serving up iconic fits all throughout the ‘90s. You had Jordan. Even now American ballers walk into the game like runway models (check out @leaguefits if you don’t believe me). Yeah, every week is fashion week in the NBA.
So what do the yanks have that we don’t? Well, money. Lots of it. Only recently has English football got anywhere near to generating the kind of revenue that you see in American sports. The Premier League is twice as rich as it was ten years ago but still half as rich as Major League Baseball. Let that sink in.
But what does money have to do with cool? Everything… Cash brings commercial opportunities – just look at how many hot brands are moving into the game – Juventus x Palace, Napoli x Armani, PSG x Jordan – on our current trajectory, Sean Dyche will be unveiling the Burnley x Heron Preston away kit at Paris Fashion Week 2022.
And let’s pull it back to music. Forget that Stormzy, Aitch, and Dutchavelli are doing kit reveals for Manchester United. Last December, American rapper Jack Harlow dropped a lyric about Premier league journeyman Willy Caballero, on a track with Lil Baby. This is football heritage. We’ve come a long way from Gazza singing Fog on the Tyne.
But what does all this mean for the next generation of British ballers? Well, for one thing: it pays to be cool. These days players aren’t just players – they’re YouTubers, creative directors, fashion designers, and runway models – slick moneymaking machines with PR teams behind them – naturally they want endorsements from the world’s hottest artists and brands.
Call me a cynic: Phil Foden probably doesn’t subscribe to i-D, and Martine Rose might not throw a pint in the air when England equalize against Moldova – but who gives a shit? The next generation are dragging football out of the dark ages of flappy collars, middle of the road music, and Jeremy Clarkson jeans. And that’s something to cheer about.
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