As publicity stunts go, it had the perfect backdrop: how much easier could it be to mingle incognito with a group of men all wearing identical grey suits than to simply wear the same suit? Last weekend British comedian Simon Brodkin (best known for his alter-ego Lee Nelson) tried it with the England football squad at Luton airport, and loitered awhile before being spotted by captain Steven Gerrard and escorted away.
Was the stunt a comment on the squad’s attire? Opinions on England’s official World Cup suit – the one in which they disembark from aircraft and pose for team portraits – have not been lacking. Created by Marks and Spencer in conjunction with the Football Association, the £199 ensemble is not the designerwear extremely well-paid twentysomethings might choose.
They are perhaps more likely to opt for the Dolce & Gabbana suit that will be worn by the Italian squad, or the Hugo Boss attire chosen for the Germans – although they might be less tempted by South Korea’s more practical choice from menswear brand Galaxy.
“But then footballers are very used to endorsing products or being associated with those they wouldn’t necessarily choose themselves,” says Jonathan Swartland, M&S’s buying manager for men’s tailoring. He adds that the suit – a classic charcoal mohair-blend two-piece, made to measure for each player – has been designed with accessibility to a buying public in mind.
Indeed, there is more than fashion to the tailoring that players will be spotted in over the coming tournament – at least those players representing the wealthier nations. An official suit can be a piece of upscale football merchandising, for the man who feels out of place in a replica strip.
“We’re proud to be associated with such a big event but it is, of course, a commercial opportunity as well,” says Swartland. “It would be easy to take the players to Savile Row, but then few football fans can buy into that.”
“I think England has got it right – we’re saying we know you don’t have to pay much on a suit to look classy,” says Dave Hewitson, a football fashion commentator and author. “It’s about being able to look like a million-dollar football star without the million dollars to spend.”
Certainly it’s good for business. Kitting out a football squad might cost a manufacturer £250,000 and some time – “Football players are a lot easier to dress than rugby players, but they can still be difficult body shapes to work with,” says Timothy Everest, who designed the M&S England suits for the 2010 World Cup – but considerable sales can be expected. Everest says that 7,000 units of his design flew off the shelves, making it M&S’s bestselling suit to date.
Tie-ins between football clubs and fashion off the field are already the norm at league level: Lanvin, for example, dresses Arsenal, while Trussardi works with Juventus; Giorgio Armani, who along with Paul Smith has dressed the England team in the past, has just signed a three-year deal to dress Bayern Munich.
Fashion brands are also making the most of other opportunities presented by the tournament’s hype. Armani Jeans, for instance, has a collection of World Cup-themed T-shirts, and online retailer Yoox has tied up with football fashion magazine Sepp to create a series of limited-edition sweatshirts, each with a design evoking the national team of its designer.
But might a team suit have deeper significance than moneymaking? Domenico Dolce of Dolce & Gabbana says there is a degree of expectation because “football players are style icons now”. But, adds Stefano Gabbana, the suits are also showcases for a national style – “and since we are an Italian fashion brand and are keen on the Italian tradition [of tailoring], it was a pleasure to design a suit that represented that for our national football team. It’s a blend of tradition and national pride.”
That is why tailor Charlie Allen, who co-designed the England squad’s suits for the 2010 tournament, expresses surprise that for this World Cup the Japanese team has chosen to be dressed by Dunhill, as huge as the British brand might be in Japan. “I think it’s important that national teams wear the clothing of their nation’s makers. Why aren’t the Japanese in Issey Miyake or Comme des Garçons?,” he asks.
Allen even suggests that a team might be putting itself at a psychological disadvantage by not going with homegrown talent. “Dressing a national football squad is, ultimately, a business decision,” he says. “But wearing a suit that is in some way patriotic is a lift for the psyche. It’s like the feeling a good suit can give you – it makes you stand taller, and feels like armour against the world – only this time it also represents your country. You wear a suit to go to work – which is precisely what these footballers are doing.”
Read more on the World Cup in this week’s FT Weekend Magazine special
More of this week’s Style stockists