Everyone loves when a new Union kit is released. Over the past few months there has been some talk on various social media sites about the soon to be released new Union third kit which, while revealing no details of the design or the release date, have suggested that the design is really something special. PSP talked to adidasAmerica’s Mike Walker, who oversees all of the MLS kits, about the design process.
Philly Soccer Page: First off, can you tell us a little bit about your soccer background?
Mike Walker: You bet. I have been playing soccer since I was 4. So 30-plus years. I grew up watching the NASL and have loved the sport for as long as I can remember. I’ve been lucky enough to see games all around the world and truly get a sense of the impact this sport has.
PSP: How did you become involved with kit design at adidas? Is design something you’ve always been interested in?
MW: I’ve been with adidas for almost 13 years. I was in a different business unit—I’ve been in Special Mark Ups (SMUs) and Training as well—and was asked if I would like to go over to soccer. I thought it was a practical joke at first. Of course I would love to work in soccer!
I have always liked soccer jerseys and the way they looked on the players. So much so that I HAD to have No. 14 my first year of soccer—just like my favorite player at the time. Even though it was two sizes too big and no way I’d grow into it. The design part has come to me a bit later in life, but that is also why I work with a great design team.
PSP: Who was that No. 14?
Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, Keith Weller—don’t ask. I think maybe I just liked the number more, but I think he was the player that came and ran my first soccer clinic for my youth soccer team back then. And Ray Hudson was No. 4 so that was in there with the 14. Oh, and Gerd Muller was No. 15, so always next to him.
PSP: Have you led the design of all of the Philadelphia Union kits? What other team’s designs have you been involved with?
MW: I currently manage all of the MLS kits—all 19 teams. And all of the Training Wear that each team must have as well. We also handle soccer in general here in the US and Canada.
It’s a good amount. We don’t just badge up an in-line jersey. Each one is custom. Even if we were to do a solid color jersey with the team crest, it would have gone through the entire design process with the team to end up there.
PSP: With new kits being released on a two-year cycle, does the design process begin immediately after the launch of a new design?
MW: Almost. 21 months to be exact, but we have already been thinking about what the next technologies or ideas are before we have even finished the previous kits. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out how to actually make something physically from scratch if it has never been done before.
PSP: How many people work on a design? I imagine it must be a fairly collaborative process.
MW: It depends on the team, but we have a group of people here at adidasAmerica that handle the design and development work for each style. We also work very closely with our colleagues in Germany on how adidas looks as a soccer brand overall every year; be it new design language, technologies, or simply color.
I then work with each team directly to bring about a design that they want to have as well. Sometimes it’s one person as a contact, sometimes it’s the entire ownership group. The number of people that work on a design can vary a great deal, but it is very collaborative. The team always has the final say on what the design will be. There is a lot of back and forth with the teams on the design. Then three rounds (or more sometimes) of prototypes before we finish the design. It is a process, that’s for sure.
We talk to the players and see if there is a need that we can incorporate, for them, as we make the jerseys for the players first and foremost.
I also ask the fans to get their thoughts as well. Most of the time they don’t know who I am, but I tend to roam the games looking at the fans and will chat them up a bit. Sometimes they ask who I work for and that always gets a shock from them.
PSP: What do the fans tell you?
MW: Oh, I’ve heard all sorts of things that should be in the jerseys. One of my favorites was at the All-Star Game in Philly:
Fan: “I wish the New England jersey could have a snake on it! Don’t Tread on Me!”
MW: ”Oh? You don’t like the Flag of NE on it?”
Fan: “Oh no. I like that. A lot. I just think it would be cool to have a snake on it.”
MW: “You mean like Philly’s?”
Fan: “Oh yeah.”
PSP: Can you tell me more about what the players are looking for in a kit design?
MW: Players are always worried about comfort. Be it the fabric on them, the weight of the jersey or where seams and thread rub. Luckily we are at the point where the jerseys are so advanced that it’s more about aesthetics now than fabric. I don’t know how the guys who played in the 70’s and 80’s could wear that heavy polyester stuff. Since adidas has such high standards for our products, I don’t have a fabric that doesn’t wick moisture. So I have no choice but to use materials that will help the players play the game better with moisture management and heat retention/cooling technologies.
We have a standard at adidas from our founder: “Only the best for the athlete.” That’s one of the reasons why there are Authentic on-field jerseys and the way those fit versus the replica jerseys for the fans and the way those fit differently. We start with them in mind first and then go from there. Also why the Authentics do not have the team crest, MLS logo or Country flag stitched on anymore. They are heat applied for the players comfort and to reduce weight of all that thread. Things like that is what they are mostly concerned with.
PSP: Can you tell us a little about the design process? Do you begin with some specific concepts or is it more of an evolving process?
MW: We start with an overall design direction for the year the jerseys will launch. There is always some form of design inspiration there to start from as a blank slate. We then ask the team what their thoughts are and show them some of our ideas. Depending on where the team is it can either be an evolution of their look. Philadelphia is a perfect example of this—they know what they want be and how they want to be seen. Or it can be a theme of how the team wants to be seen. Seattle is a good example of this—they want to be seen as always looking forward and their designs reflect that.
Sometimes we push the teams’ comfort zone, but for primary jerseys we try to stay true to the team, what they are and want to be seen as.
PSP: How many versions of a new kit design do you typically prepare to present to a team?
MW: It varies. We always show options that are variations on themes to get the conversation going and then narrow down with more options. So on designs that are spot on from the initial brief, at least two versions just to see what happens if we change something. I’ve done at least a dozen rounds with a couple MLS teams to get it right for them.
PSP: I imagine it can be easy to become pretty emotionally invested in a design that ends up being shot down by a team. Does dealing with that get any easier?
MW: Never does; especially the ones that I know will speak volumes to the fans and players would love them. Sometimes the front office just has a different feeling about how they want things to go and I respect that. They will be the ones playing in it.
Now the fan comments are another story—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and just said, “I know. I showed that.”
PSP: Some MLS teams have been around for a while, others have been in other leagues before joining MLS. Others still, like the Union, were brand new when they joined the league. Can you say something about the process of creating a team’s kit identity when they join the league?
MW: Team Identity—we don’t always do the Identity work. Most of the teams will have an outside agency do that. I will work with that agency to make sure they know what can actually be produced physically and what can go on garments. Then we work together to get that turned into the final product.
PSP: The Union kit design is pretty emphatic: Navy blue with a single strong vertical line in gold down the middle. That must present a challenge when it comes to designing new versions. How much can you change without breaking from tradition?
MW: It is a strong look. But it is a great example of a team that knows what it wants to be so that gives us the frame to work in. You can still do something new while respecting the tradition the team has already built.
If we try to go too far away from that, the team will pull us back and say that is not the direction they want to go in. We do not force any design onto a team. We will bring ideas, but allow them to guide us to where they want to go with the design.
PSP: Several Union players have talked about how excited they are about the soon to be released new Union third kit. It supposed to be really something special.
MW: Have they now? Who was it? I need to have a chat with them then about this.
PSP: I know you can’t reveal specific details but can you tell us something about the concept behind the new design?
MW: Well. It’s… uh. Sort of like…You know anything I say would give it away. Even saying nothing might give away details so I’m just going to go now. We all like a good surprise!