Back to the Future: The Rise of Retro

From fans dripping in Sergio Tacchini and Adidas Sambas through to Everton’s Dominic Calvert Lewin and Tom Davies popping up at the New York Fashion Week, fashion and football have been closely intertwined since those first Casuals burst on to the scene in the late 70s.

Fuelled by the likes of Copa90, Mundial, and Scotland’s own Stonewaller Magazine, fashion, music and football are colliding, and football culture seems more popular than ever.

Stone Island jackets and bucket hats are once again becoming a mainstay in the stands (at least before the pandemic slammed the turnstiles firmly shut) and retro is on the rise.

We sat down with Carl Sewell, director of football culture retailer The Terrace, to find out why retro has become such big business.

“We saw a gap in the market with regards to merchandising in the sports world, football especially. We’d noticed football merchandise was very stale and very static, club badge, step and repeat. You go in to a club shop and it’s just a club badge slapped on hundreds of products. There’s no real thought, or connection with fans. They have to appeal to a really wide audience, and the safest way is through the club badge.

Football shirts, and retail merchandise, it doesn’t need to be boring, and clubs have allowed it to become boring and templated and mundane.”

Football clubs are now global commodities, and many feel there is a disconnect between supporters and the commercial entities that these clubs have become.

“People ask me, ‘why retro?’ all the time” says Sewell. “We use a website called oldfootballshirts.co.uk and it is the Holy Grail, The Bible of football shirts. When you look at the kits on there, when you hit about 2000, you can see it in front of your eyes… it goes from all these unique designs and crazy patterns and just drops off the face of the earth.

I don’t know what happened in 2000 to spark that change but everything got really boring. Plain red-and-white-stripes isn’t enough to connect to a club anymore.

Back in the 90s there was more of a connection between fans and the club and the shirt. It was an identity. In the last 10, 20 years there’s been no identity there in the shirts, so people look back to retro in search of that identity.”

The commercialisation of the game has led to football becoming a game of the few. Money talks, and outside of Leicester City’s shock title win in 2015-16, leagues and cup competitions across the globe have been dominated by a small number of big name clubs. 

Sewell feels this has also played a key part in the rise of retro, especially for fans of clubs lower down the leagues.

“When you’re an Oldham fan, a Scunthorpe fan, and Ipswich fan, a Sunderland fan, what have you had to celebrate? What accolades, promotions, FA Cup finals have you had? People revert to retro… we did a shirt for Exeter City from their last honour, their only title win in 1989… it’s a case that you have to go back that far to remember the good times. To tap in to fans nostalgia… that’s why retro is so popular.

There’s a fashion side of it as well. Retro football has become cool, it’s as simple as that.”

Licensed sports merchandise is worth just shy of US$30 billion worldwide, and shirt and merchandising sales make up a massive part of clubs commercial revenue streams.

Football clubs are so often forward thinking when it comes to their commercial offerings, but the retro trend has seemed to pass them by for a long time.

Instead, the demand for retro has been met by third party companies peddling unlicensed merchandise to fans with a hunger for days gone by…

“I don’t know why football clubs have missed the retro trend.” Says Sewell. “What retro has proven is it’s given a real opportunity for third party brands and artists and designers to get creative and it’s shown fan power is more important than ever. Some of these artists and businesses are selling more stuff than the clubs are.

He feels that it took the Covid-19 pandemic hitting clubs match day revenue that made them finally take notice.

“They all turned to it during the first lockdown. All the matches got cancelled, and they turned to retro… showing re-runs of classic games… this seemed to be a big turning point when they cottoned on to it and started approaching us.

The first ever club we licensed with was Exeter City. They saw a mug we mocked up online… we knew nothing about what we were doing.  One thing we learned pretty quickly is that all the football clubs are watching each other.

When we did a deal with Ipswich Town, and from that we had two Championship, a League 1, a League 2 and a Premier League club pop up in our inbox to see about doing a licensed deal, and it’s because they were all watching what Ipswich do.

We do so well in the market, and connect with fans so well now, that it’s no longer a case of us approaching clubs, but them coming to us. We’ve had cease and desist letters… but a lot of clubs are now saying rather than take this down, how can we work together. It’s a case that they’ve missed the boat on retro and are late to the party, so they’re better off working with companies that have a foot in the market.”

Last year, The Terrace broke in to the Scottish market, signing a deal with Hibernian to make the Edinburgh side their first club partner in the country.

“I was buzzing for Hibs, as it was our first Scottish club. That led to doing a deal with Clyde and there are a couple of other clubs interested in working with us…

Hibernian has probably been one of my favourite clubs to deal with. They are so on the ball, they know that club inside out, and that’s one of the biggest differences we’ve found with Scottish clubs…the people who are working at these Scottish clubs… if we ask them about legends for illustrations… they’re just bang, bang, bang, they know them all instantly. They know results, they know anniversaries, they know everything and it makes it such a joy to work with Scottish football clubs.”

There are huge opportunities for expansion in to Scotland, with so many historic clubs with classic shirts begging to be turned in to mugs and phone cases, and with The Terrace making the move in to kit production, we may yet see teams across the country taking to the pitch in fully bespoke kits in the next few years.

The popularity of The Terrace and the recent 90s inspired offerings from the likes of Man United and the Nigeria national side show that fans are fed up of the “cut from the same cloth” kits and merchandise that have become the norm.

Fans are looking to the history books in search of connection.

While there is certainly an element of searching for the “good old days”, this is also a visible reaction to the commercialisation of the game and loss of connection between clubs and their fan bases. A deep dive in to the archives not only presents a great opportunity for fan engagement, but a chance to capitalise on the retro trend to really up their commercial offering.

Football clubs are so often accused of being stuck in the past, but they now have the chance to capitalise on their heritage, securing a much needed financial boost in a present that has seen their revenues slashed astronomically by the on-going pandemic.

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