Peter Saville and the story behind that England shirt

The football shirt as a vehicle for ‘socio-cultural provocation’? The full story behind Peter Saville’s involvement with the new England kit

The football shirt as a vehicle for ‘socio-cultural provocation’? When Umbro invited Peter Saville to contribute to the design of its new England home kit, it was always likely that there would be more on the agenda than a few stripes.

Last night, England played Bulgaria in the first of their qualifying matches for Euro 2012. They did so wearing a shirt that, although appearing to be a pretty standard plain white from a distance, also attempts to use graphic design to make a statement about the nature of modern England thanks to a pattern of multicoloured crosses of St George which features across the shirt’s shoulders.

Reaction to the new home shirt when it was revealed on this website earlier this week was forceful and, on balance, negative. Saville’s graphic was described variously as resembling confetti, hundreds and thousands and a particularly exotic strain of dandruff. Commenters derided the design because it would not be visible from ‘row z’, declared confidently that the ‘average’ fan (although who knows who the ‘average football fan’ is these days) would not get it and suggested that Saville’s contribution was so minimal as to be pointless.

Shortly before the shirt’s unveiling, I interviewed Saville to get the full story on his involvement in what he describes as the most “potent” work he has ever done.

He was originally approached by Umbro, the shirt’s manufacturers, in November last year. At that stage, the basic design of the shirt – the cut, the collar and so on – had already been finalised. It had also already been decided that the shirt must be predominantly white, something that was introduced with the 2009 shirt design.

Saville’s brief was simply to suggest ways in which some colour might be introduced to the design while keeping it predominantly white. Doing something that would be ‘visible from row Z’ was never an option.

He was given “a few days, no more than a long weekend” to come up with a range of suggestions, which he did with the help of long-term collaborator Paul Barnes and Matthew Robertson, designer and author of the Factory Records book.

They came back with what Robertson remembers as a 50 page PDF of ideas, including patterns that incorporated the outline of England, patterns featuring the shapes of English cities and some that involved coloured piping down the sleeves. Umbro chose a small selection of these ideas to go forward with, one of which was the coloured piping, another an idea involving a pattern of tiny, multicoloured crosses.

This latter idea partly draws on fabric designs that Saville had seen while working for menswear label Kilgour, for whom he had been art director, ‘creative confidante’ and even model. Kilgour’s designer Carlo Brandelli had begun experimenting with using micro patterns in traditional fabrics. “So, says Saville “I knew that a pattern could be introduced to a white shirt while still keeping it a white shirt: that could be a vehicle for colour.”

Saville may have come at it from the direction of Savile Row but it’s an idea that, actually, has been fairly common in football shirts since the 80s where jacquarded synthetics incorporating club badges or geometric patterns have long been a design staple. He and his team experimented with various shapes, including squares, diamonds and plus signs. Barnes suggested turning the plus signs into crosses of St George and they realised they had something, particularly when tied in with Saville’s other notion of using a rainbow of many colours instead of just one. “A minimal field of the cross of St George in different colours – I knew what that meant,” Saville says. “Yes it was minimal, yes it was discreet but it still meant a big thing.”

Of all the ideas presented, Saville believed this one was among the least likely to gain approval. “My initial thought was no, that will be a step too far. But let’s show it,” he says. “I was pleased they liked the piping idea but that was just styling. This was potentially much more than that. Football shirts are not about anything – this was about ‘something’ and it’s reach is massive. But I didn’t see how it could go the distance.”

In fact, it hasn’t quite gone the distance. Saville originally wanted the pattern to cover the entire shirt. In the final version, it just covers the neck and shoulders, much of which will be obscured by the players’ names. Umbro are to bring out a limited edition version with the pattern covering the entire shirt. The full pattern also appears on the black goalkeepers’ jersey, but without the colours.

After presenting the ideas, Saville’s involvement in the approval process ended. He has no idea of how the FA or the England team or management reacted to the idea, he never got the chance to talk to them. But, he says, “the amazing thing is that Umbro picked up on it, were prepared to show it to FA and they didn’t veto it – except we saw it recede”.

And that is how, somewhat unbelievably, England’s footballers came to trot out onto the Wembley pitch wearing a shirt that Saville, in his inimitable way describes as “a vehicle of cultural provocation” – which is not necessarily what you expect to see on sale in JJB Sports for £49.99.

“It’s beautiful but it’s very loaded,” Saville claims of the design. Taking the cross of St George and rendering it in a rainbow of different hues is, he says, about acknowledging difference and promoting tolerance of those differences. “I was frustrated, along with many others, by the marginalisation of the cross of St George. It has acquired connotations that some of us don’t associate with and I find that frustrating because there is nothing wrong with it as a symbol. [The design] is a provocation. It’s not negative, it’s not aggressive, it’s not critical and I think it feels like England 2010. This is a country of lots of different people, get on with it.”

Saville likens the commission to being asked to design a stamp or a flag. “The England football team is a default national identity and the shirt is a sort of civic, national symbol. A generic for the society I live in.”

He was honoured to be asked, he says “how could you not do it?”. Similar requests in the past – whether to come up with an idea for a new flag or Olympic logo – have always been speculative proposals for magazines. This was for real.

It was also to be the second new England home shirt in 18 months, even though fans were originally told that the current design would last until 2011. Did he have qualms about getting involved in the cyclical, cynical business of selling replica shirts?

“I chose not to martyr myself on the cycle of their shirts,” Saville says, tongue firmly in cheek. “As commercial artists we do have to accept a certain amount of the culture we exist in. It is only because these things happen that we get to do things. There is a very clear delineation here between the different things I am doing. In my creative consultancy to Manchester I get to contribute my opinion – maybe to influence things, if you’re lucky, a little bit, sometimes. That’s one way of working. In the context of art, I can have and do have 100% autonomy to introduce something that I believe is worth introducing to a very limited and marginal audience. With art, if you are lucky, through a trickle down process, you might get to a larger audience. The England shirt was going to enable a direct route to a bigger audience than I ever had, even with a record cover. Part and parcel of the cycle of renewal is the fact that you get the audience, so you have to accept the reality that brings the opportunity to bear in the first place.”

The shirt, he claims, “is probably the most potent thing I’ve ever done, because other potent things I’ve done worked in a way not unlike art, by a process of osmosis. This is route one, direct to the pub. What else could you do that would have an equivalent potency of provocation? I don’t think a stamp would do it, I doubt even whether a flag would do it. This goes directly into the fabric of the nation, into pubs and housing estates and on televeision – it goes everywhere.”

But when it arrives, will many people ‘get’ it, or will they just think it’s a pretty pattern? “I looked at some of the comments on the Creative Review blog,” he says. “‘Saville’s done nothing again”. It’s a white shirt, that’s the brief, it had to be a white shirt, but I think it has more meaning than people realise. In context, this is pushing things and some people will not care, some people will like it, some people will be annoyed or offended by it. Great.”

Judging by the comments, a lot of people are struggling to equate what is a minimalist, seductively beautiful pattern with the grand claims Saville is making for it. But, says Saville, this is his style of operating.

“I used to worry that I was not iconoclastic in a Jamie Reid sort of way,” Saville says. “Jamie was taking a sledge hammer to the status quo, I was going via the coffee table. But, in the longer term, it’s the seductive, coffee table approach which has had a more profound effect on the way things are. It’s a very seductive form of subversion that questioned how things had to look, so that does tend to be the kind of complexion my work has taken because that is what I am like. I like people to like me and I like to get my own way and I tend to do that seductively or diplomatically rather than by shouting about it. Partly it’s the result of being the youngest of three brothers – you don’t get what you want by shouting about it, you have to find another way.”

And you have to wonder whether a more aggressively provocative approach would ever have got through the FA – not an organisation known for wanting to take a stand on, well, anything much.

I have now seen the shirt and the limited edition, all over-patterned edition. Reducing the area of the pattern is a compromise, but it’s not an unsuccesful one. As TV viewers will have seen from watching the game last night, England to all intents and purposes still appear to be playing in an all white shirt. Up close, there is a little bit of suprising detailing. Which seems wholly consistent with Umbro’s positioning of aligning itself with English tailoring – think of the Paul Smith formal shirts with illustrations of 50s pin-ups hidden under the cuffs for example. Saville says he prefers the all-over version – on a football shirt, I have to say I disagree.

Some commenters have declared that, because Saville ‘didn’t do much’, the work somehow fails to justify its fee (a fee, incidentally, that is probably about a tenth of what is being jealously imagined). I’m intrigued by this. What are we suggesting here? That the value of a piece of design should be equated with ink coverage? That the fee goes up in accordance to the number of typefaces used? Bizarre. He also seems to being criticised simultaneously both for being too obvious and too subtle in the pattern’s symbolism.

Commercially speaking, Umbro appears to have its bases covered with an idea that, as it is applied to point of sale, further merchandise and all kinds of other materials, will demonstrate that, in the parlance, it has great ‘scale’ and is eminently ‘campaignable’. If some fans don’t like it, most of it can be covered up by adding a favourite player’s name across it. And for the more conservative there is the retro/modern red away shirt.

More significantly, and much more interestingly, is the fact that the England football shirt is now being used to promote a message about tolerance and diversity. A lot of readers will roll their eyes at that, but surely it’s an admirable step? Think back to the 80s: Pre-Italia 90, pre Skinner and Baddiell, pre the social rehabilitation of football in England. This was a time when the England shirt and those who wore it were predominantly associated with a very ugly brand of nationalism. The very idea that, 20 years later, that same shirt could be used to challenge those ideas, however minimally, would have been inconceivable. Football has been a focus for those who believe in intolerance: surely it should be applauded for challenging that?


England home shirt, 1990

England Away shirt, 1990

England Alternate Away shirt 1992

How many designers, when given the brief to, effectively, add a bit of decoration to a white shirt, would have attempted anything so ambitious? I suspect that most would have concerend themselves merely with styling. The marriage of football shirts and graphics has not been a happy one (as shown above). Ever since the introduction of synthetic fabrics we’ve had a horror show of hideous zig-zags, crests and assorted nastiness. Finally, here’s something that is a step away from the standard graphic language of football, but which is stylish, considered and, yes, provocative.

Rather than deriding Saville, designers should be applauding him for this. And Umbro and the FA too. Work that attempts to convey something meaningful, to start a debate, work that challenges rather than panders to prejudices, that is provocative, that wants to be more than just styling, work that is done with style and wit, that says ‘to hell with convention and the Daily Mail mindset, let’s try something new’, that opens a door for others to follow and that tries to push a previously bland area into exciting new territory while still answering the brief: sounds like a result to me. Yes, alright, it’s only a few coloured crosses but it’s the context of the use of those crosses that is unprecedented and admirable.

For a full visual history of England shirts through the ages, go here




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