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Come On England (1990 style)! How retro football shirts became fashion culture

World Cup 1990 vintage is officially in   (Classic Football Kits)
World Cup 1990 vintage is officially in (Classic Football Kits)

Last summer, I proudly delivered six 1990’s replica Chelsea football shirts to my son’s bedroom. Replica kits are cool, retro ones more so. “These will fit you now,” I told him. “Fill your boots.”

My son’s 15, growing quickly and, much to his delight, already taller than me. Over the last six months he’s more than filled not only his boots, but everything else, too. Hardly anything bought before June fits him any longer. He gave me the shirts back last weekend, already too small for him.

Fortunately, I haven’t lost him to the cause entirely. Instead, he wandered off to JD Sports, determined to “buy a new England shirt” ahead of the FIFA Men’s World Cup. He came back with a new-but-old one. World Cup 1990 vintage to be precise…when I was exactly the age he is now. Talk about making me feel old!

 (Contributor Matt Rogan’s son Conor in his ‘new old’ kit)
(Contributor Matt Rogan’s son Conor in his ‘new old’ kit)

Fellow 1990 authenticity geeks will notice something from the photo above. The Umbro logo has disappeared from the chest and sleeve. Umbro doesn’t have a deal with the FA any longer, those rights belong to Nike now. So why is my son being sold variations on a shirt from 32 years ago? What’s really going on behind the scenes in this polyester-clad part of the sports industry? Let me try to explain.

Firstly, replica shirts aren’t easy for brands to make money from. But how so when they sell for £50-£80 and cost peanuts to make? Well, the biggest teams ask adidas and co for a significant fixed payment upfront for the right to make and sell the shirt. Even if the brand manages to cover this payment through profits from sales (and there are no guarantees!) then typically pay a percentage of the surplus as a licensee fee.

Take my team Chelsea. They are reported to have sold 1.3m Nike shirts last year. Even if you assume Nike is paid £30 for each shirt by retailers (at best), that’s ‘only’ £39m in a season. Which sounds like good business, until you realise that Nike pays Chelsea a rumoured £65m a year for the rights to sell them.

 (Inside Classic Football Kits on Commercial Street in East London, where you can play Fifa in the cafe)
(Inside Classic Football Kits on Commercial Street in East London, where you can play Fifa in the cafe)

It’s also not business-changing amounts of revenue for the clubs, either. For a Premier League club like Chelsea, £39m is roughly a quarter of what they’re reported to have spent on transfer fees (let alone salaries) last summer.

The brands principally stretch to sign deals like this as they are very effective marketing. I interviewed Tom Beahon, co-founder of premium sports brand Castore at a SportsPro conference earlier this year. Castore makes a number of football, rugby and cricket kits (including the World Cup-winning England men’s cricket kit, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and London sides Charlton, Saracens and Harlequins). He told me that whenever Newcastle United feature on Match of the Day, they can immediately track a sales impact on their website, not only of the kit but also their Castore premium own-label gear. For a challenger brand, that’s powerful.

 (Replica shirts on sale in store)
(Replica shirts on sale in store)

So how typical is it that my son would plump for a retro shirt instead? Well, he’s certainly not alone. Sites like this Football Kit Archive are popping up regularly. Each Chelsea shirt is a memory for me, and the site is definitely a guilty pleasure!

Retro is smart business, too. England’s 1990 Men’s World Cup shirt will forever remain a classic, so there’s no stock risk there. Better still if you don’t even need to make the shirts in the first place – recycling is the ultimate sustainable business model. The team at Classic Football Shirts has built a serious business operation by re-selling retro replica. In fact, they have grown to the point of launching two retail stores, one of which is on Commercial Street, in East London . This year it brought things full circle by signing up as the 2022/2023 shirt sponsor of Championship table toppers Burnley FC.

Classic Football Kits’ shirt for Burnley FC (Kevin Hayden Photography)
Classic Football Kits’ shirt for Burnley FC (Kevin Hayden Photography)

Founders Doug Bierton and Matthew Dale chart the story behind the business in a YouTube documentary. It all began in the summer of 2006, when, just like my son this year, they were looking for a piece of history. We should have been revising for exams but with the World Cup on the horizon we had other priorities, namely searching for an original 1990 West Germany shirt,” says Dale, who has seen ‘’a massive rise in interest from a new generation of football fans who have instant access to view content from legends of the game via YouTube or social media. It’s really driven a big increase in the popularity of shirts from the 90s, as this was a golden era for kit design due to the bold patterns that were used.’’

The launch of two stores for Classic Football Kits signposts a wider retro culture. “The market has grown massively over the past four years as football shirts become a bigger part of fashion culture,” he continues. “[Our] retail stores showcase the collection and host events where the shirts can be enjoyed in-person.” The Burnley deal has been the next step for the business as part of that. “It was a deal we had to do. It was surreal seeing the players walk out for the first game of the season on TV, we watched it with all our staff in one of our stores, so it felt like a collective achievement. Hopefully this year’s Burnley kits will become classics of their own.’” It’s a beauty, so with promotion in sight, that looks a distinct possibility.

A replica shirt is the only thing to be seen in this World Cup. If you’re put off by the fact that the tournament is running during the dark and cold British winter, why not opt for a retro Christmas jumper in aid of Shelter instead. The pub will be warm, though, so I’ll stick with my new-but-old England shirt. It’s probably not coming home, but the long-sleeve red England Away shirt from 2010 is.