FAC 4-4-2: Peter Saville designs the England kit, Esquire, 2010

FAC 4-4-2: Peter Saville designs the England kit, Esquire, 2010


Esquire, 2010

[I was commissioned to interview former Factory Records’ visionary designer for bitter GQ rival Esquire when Umbro had drafted him in for the new 2010 kit. What with World In Motion and all that malarkey, this should have worked out nicely but I was disappointed with his result. To me, the home shirt looked like a baseball top with its Y-shaped neckline. The idea of tiny Saville Row-derived St George Crosses on the white background was a good one – that the St George Cross in different colours represented more than just English people, but wrapped its arms around a wider population. Umbro bottled it, though. Peter Saville’s original idea was to have crosses all over the shirt – and I was shown an example, which must be in the Umbro vaults now. But the finished product was just a few crosses on the shoulder – and the purity of the idea was lost. I believe this was England’s worst-selling shirt for years and was dropped before the Euros in 2012; it was never used at a major finals. Umbro should have gone with Peter Saville’s pure strategy. My intro was binned for Esquire’s one-pager on the new kit, but I’ve kept it here.]

It was the finest England home kit to date but in South Africa, Rooney et al didn’t do it justice. So Umbro drafted in Peter Saville, design’s George Best, to bring back some swagger to a subdued squad

It’s somewhat apt that petersaville.com is merely a white holding page with the words ‘coming soon’ in small type at the top-left of the screen. Manchester’s cult designer, revered for his techno/classical New Order sleeves and industrial Haçienda posters, is known for handing work in a bit late. In 2004, when Saville was asked if he began a project as a deadline was looming, replied: “Loomed.” 

Naturally, Saville is a little behind today, but only 30 minutes. As a central character in the Factory Records saga, if he’d turned up for our meeting 30 hours late, he’d have been instantly forgiven. Last year, Saville was headhunted to develop the new England home kit. Despite his creative credentials, he’s a startling selection by Umbro. There was the obvious danger of the shirt not being ready for the 2012 European Championship – if indeed England have the guts to reach Poland/Ukraine in the first place – and the small problem that this perfectionist might have wanted the inside of the England shirt finished in a hard-to-source silver and thus lose money on every unit sold. 

England’s last home shirt was a pristine piece of garment technology. Daz Ultra white, it was more in tune with Wimbledon than Wembley, but a peach nonetheless, and Umbro’s finest statement to date (almost equalled by Aitor Throup’s later red ‘Kasabian kit’). The new home shirt is a departure, a revolution of sorts, featuring tiny, multi-coloured St George Crosses weighty with symbolism and significance. There are two shirts on show to Esquire today, the pure ‘Modern England’ concept featuring Saville’s all-over graphic (available as a limited-edition buy) and the England jersey proper, only containing crosses on the shoulder, and obviously a compromise. Umbro should have gone whole-hog and made the limited-edition shirt the actual England kit, but that’s just our opinion (and Saville’s too). Saville, who could talk the back end off a Greater Manchester Buses’ Leyland Atlantean, provides the showroom patter…

1. PROVOCATIVE “Everyone liked the last white shirt; I liked the last white shirt. It was an interesting question as to how we might move on from the white shirt and still have a white shirt. So that developed into, ‘How might colour be introduced?’ A notion of a subliminal pattern out of the St George Cross was a way to do it. As soon as we said, ‘What if we change the colour?’ we knew that was a provocative thing.” 

2. IDENTITY “Designing the England football shirt is like doing a flag. It’s even more than a flag from a point of view that a majority of people will actually recognise, care about, or notice it.”

3. REPRESENT “I actually thought Umbro would go, ‘Fff… I don’t know if we could do that.’ But they were open to it. That was a pleasant surprise. The first palette of colours is safely derived from the Three Lions crest itself. The blue, red and green come from the crest, and purple is the first blending – red and blue creates purple. Obviously we looked at endless possibilities of that colour pattern. It’s a way to represent ‘modern England’.” 

4. SYMBOL “There were all the connotations that had developed around the St George Cross. One of the thoughts inherent in this project was a way of reclaiming that symbol, which is, in itself, a great symbol. It’s an extended plus-mark! It’s a classic and attractive symbol. I couldn’t help feeling annoyed how this great symbol had been appropriated by a particular mindset. The Swiss cross – people love it! You get on a nice Swiss aeroplane, the tailfin looks good, and it’s a nice symbol. Our cross, which was just slightly different, was tainted by associations. We began to think, ‘What if it’s green, or blue or brown or yellow or orange or black?’ I mean, that’s quite interesting and much more representative of modern England. I was quite comfortable with this pattern representing a fresh start.”

5. DIVERSE “My sleeve for New Order’s Power Corruption & Lies went to a tiny percentage of people initially and the influence was spread. The significant effect of Power Corruption & Lies and [New Order single] ‘Blue Monday’ is what other people then made of it. I had total autonomy with ‘Blue Monday’, with not even New Order seeing it, so there was complete freedom for me to do something in the studio and for it next to be seen in the shops. It didn’t go through any gatekeepers. With the England shirt, there are more gatekeepers than goalkeepers, but the difference is, this is going immediately to many.”

6. ADJUSTED “The medium of a sports shirt is not usually a platform for socio-cultural ideas. Normally you get two red stripes and the word ‘Turbo’. It’s just styling. Younger generations come from diverse backgrounds. That is the nature of the nation we live in. The St George Cross, the red one, I feel a bit uncomfortable with. It’s difficult to identify with. I’m English but I feel odd about that symbol. I find it a bit marginal. So the idea that it’s adjusted and that you can read it whichever way you want – cos it’s there for you – I think is interesting.”

7. INCLUSIVE “I watched the England players to see who sung the National Anthem. Some do, some don’t. Some just don’t feel it. If you don’t feel that allegiance, or the allegiance isn’t something you can identify with, then it’s a charade. So the shirt is doing something the Anthem hasn’t been able to do. This is a route-one way of doing it. It doesn’t reference historic associations of Englishness. I find it potentially quite inclusive. It’s adjusted to you. It’s not demanding that you adjust to it. It meets the new society halfway.”

8. OWNABLE “The pattern is not unlike a basting stitch, which you see on a bespoke garment as it’s being put together, so you think Savile Row. The crosses are about the same size as a basting stitch. I like the idea of the crosses being all over rather than just on the shoulder because that’s more the idea, but that was beyond my control. Nevertheless, the idea is ‘ownable’. The ultimate is to see the idea spread, escape from the context of just a shirt and become other things. We noticed at the World Cup that Everton supporters had made a blue Cross. You take the Cross and make it your own. So the idea is that this can transcend the football shirt and become a vehicle of identity for diverse groups.”

9. POLITICAL “In what’s actually just a subtle polka dot is a political idea which you can get people to talk about. That normally doesn’t happen with a sport shirt. We expect those kinds of ideas to enter our culture through marginal channels. So a provocative idea can be introduced through an independent record label, but if the idea has traction, it then takes a long time from that tiny starting point – it can take years. This is unusual in that it’s a provocative idea for mass exposure.”

10. BELONGING “This happens to be the England shirt, but how many Scottish, Irish and Welsh are in our English cities, living, working and pursuing their careers? The English football team is not the exclusive domain of the English. Let’s imagine that England hadn’t made it to the World Cup. What if Scotland or Ireland had made it, and reached the semis. We’d have all been supportive. I think, without doubt, there is an extended family idea to it. Those colours on the England kit are reaching out to the Welsh, Scottish and Irish as much as to Asians, Africans or Americans. It’s basically everybody’s.” 

11. PHENOMENAL “I didn’t expect Umbro would be happy making a potentially abrasive comment. We tried polka dots, squares and all sorts of other things. With the St George Cross as a vehicle for colour, we knew straight away we’d be pushing our luck. The notion that it’s made its way to here, and we’re sitting and talking about it, is in itself phenomenal. If people like it, then we may see more adventurous, courageous versions of it. It’s a big audience to disappoint, but I like it, and there’s an awful lot more that can be done with it.”