Featured / MLS / Union

Designing the kit

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!

 

17 Comments

  1. All I want is a Jersey that I, as a grown ass man, can wear outside and not feel like a complete jackass.

    • I’m not sure that’s possible with the word “Bimbo” plastered on it and an uneducated public.

      • This takes me back to when Bimbo was announced as the jersey sponsor. Whenever someone someone (usually female) complained about the name they would get shouted down by shouted down by dudes saying they didn’t see the big deal.

        (apart of or separate from everyone’s favorite , the YOU DON’T KNOW THE BUSINESS OF SOCCER argument made by people who have nothing to add to any conversation and yet always feel compelled to type)

        Because of that I was determined to become rich (stock market, sell pet food made of ground down corpses, peddle drugs it didn’t matter) Just so I could offer the union an obscene amount of money so my company IMPOTENTe’ could be the jersey sponsor.

        I always wondered how those dudes would feel if they had IMPOTENTe’ on their chests.

    • DarthLos117 says:

      +1…I stocked up on pre BIMBO U gear.

      • as horrible as BIMBO is lets not downplay the Tron colors for their contributing horribleness. Between BIMBO and the Tron colors the away jersey looks like someone put our players in a candy wrapper.

  2. I would rather have a plain black jersey with a giant question-mark on it than the BIMBO logo.

  3. It really makes the Kit look cheap! Can’t they make it smaller and move it off to the side or on the sleeve. The New Jersey Pink Cows look worse though!

    • A Philly Union fan here living in NJ. The NEW YORK PINK COWS don’t claim NJ so please don’t give them to us we have enough shit from New York in this State. Wish all of it would go back.

  4. Sorry Huey01 nothing personal. I’m from Philly and I live and work in Manhattan. I get a lot of crap from NY Fans calling the Union the “Bimbos.” After this past season it was the only thing they hated hearing from me in response. Why NY didn’t just put the team in Queens is beyond me since they’re putting one there anyway. GO UNION!!

  5. I am not one who complains persistently about the actions of the team, and I do believe that I give fair consideration to the “business of soccer”. However, I sincerely hope that we do not watch the Union develop into a perpetual new shirt sales machine. Obviously, changing personnel will give a new opportunity to sell more jerseys, but changing designs every year is simply a money grab, and I would argue actually interferes with the branding process that would help the fans identify with the team. At every game, I am impressed by the amount of paraphernalia that the fans have bought from the Union licensed stock, and I think that the team has done a good job that way. Now, however, a third set of stuff with a new design, in the short history of the team is excessive. I can understand the need to re-design once the sponsor was located, but nothing changed this year to require the new kit. Let the fan base begin to identify with this stuff. You don’t need to take every last nickel off of the table to make this a success- if you allow the kids to form a connection with the jersey, you have a fan for life and a long term customer.

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      Tim and msklem, the kits – home, away, third kit – are on a two year cycle (as was discussed in the Q&A). So, home and away kits for the Union: 2010 and then 2012. The first Union third kit (the white one) came out in 2011 and so the new one will come out for the 2013 season.

      This is not a Union thing, Tim, it is a global cycle. Whatever you feel about it in terms of a “a perpetual new shirt sales machine” (and questioning the cycle is entirely valid) it remains a global cycle – whether it be the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, or MLS. It is a significant source of revenue for clubs and Union fans have put the Union high on the league list when it comes to merch sales throughout the team’s history.

      Also, recall that Bimbo became the kit sponsor in 2011 and their logo was simply added to the first generation of Union kits; their sponsorship did not force a new design.

      The key with new kit designs is remaining true to a team’s kit identity, which was also discussed in the Q&A. I think the Union started very strong in terms with their original kit identity and, in the end, the fan base will decide whether a new design is successful. After all, one of the simplest ways of expressing our connection to our team is by wearing what they wear, even if it costs some money to do so. That said, I don’t own any of the Union’s second kits because I don’t like them.

  6. Great article! As the uniform coordinator for a local club, its nice to hear what goes into the unifor,s for the Union. @Tim in general the jerseys Adidas produces for everyone have a life of two years – that includes your jerseys worn by the kids in my club and the pros. Each year the Union will get a new jersey – last year it was our away jersey. 2014 it will be our home jersey.

  7. What’s with the hate for the current away shirt? I think it’s the best uniform in the entire league. Wish they wore it every game instead of the navy and khaki/gold/whatever.

  8. Pingback: Talking the new Union third kit with adidas North America’s Mike Walker

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