In our quest for all of the best interviews here at Roker Report, we've gone a little left field with this one, and secured a chat that I'm pretty sure none of our rivals have had.
When you go and pick up that new replica shirt ahead of the new season, have you ever stopped to think about the work that went into developing it? The processes that take it from the head of a designer to a stadium filled with fans? No? Then we have just the thing.
We got in touch with Umbro, who kindly put us in touch with James Hanson, the very man whose job it is to design the shirts that our beloved team wear on a weekly basis.
How did you get into kit design?
James: I’ve always wanted to be in design in some way as I’ve always enjoyed being creative.
I aimed all my qualifications towards design – I didn’t aim at being a football kit designer specifically as I don’t think you can be as narrow as that in this industry, you need to be open and able to design anything.
I got a work placement at a small sportswear company and started designing kits and training product for cricket and rugby teams which gave me experience into performance apparel and designing for a function. I then designed fashion product for football teams which gave me experience into designing with club insight, before eventually working on football kits in the lower regions of the pro game. Since joining Umbro, I’ve been able to work on some of the bigger names in the game.
Is it something that you've always wanted to do?
James: I wanted to be a footballer! But I've always been into football and football kits from a young age – I used to draw up designs for various teams with my crayons at home.
How long have you been designing Sunderland's strip for?
James: I’ve been part of the team which has designed all the Sunderland kits since Umbro became the kit supplier in 2007.
Can you talk us through the processes in designing a kit, from start to finish?
James: The design process is a lengthy one. We start with an idea or concept which we explore as a team. Then we start designing for the players and what they need on the pitch to perform in comfort and to the best of their ability – this means visiting the club, watching training sessions, speaking to the players. With sketches drawn from the concept, work then starts on mannequins and tailoring the fit, so it’s fit for purpose. We work in this way so we can visualise in physical form how it’s going to look and fit – basically how a tailor would work on a dress shirt or suit. Umbro was founded by a tailor and this is our philosophy. We then work up a prototype which is used for testing.
The next step is to get insight into the clubs, visiting historians, fans whoever we need to get good club insight, from Sunderland’s point I met up with Rob Mason who creates the club programmes and is a life long fan. He has a great knowledge of the club which you can’t get from the internet or books. Stories from the likes of Len Shackleton which is were the 2011 home kit sock was inspired from!
When we get to a point where we are happy with the design, we start work on technical drawings which illustrating what the team will look like for the season. This is presented to the Club so we can communicate why and how we came to our design. The Club then signs off the design and we produce a prototype. The prototype kits can be tweaked if necessary before we go into final production.
How does it feel to see a stadium filled with people wearing the shirt that you designed?
James: That’s the best part of this job, it’s unbelievable and the closest thing I’ll ever get to being a player!
Do you only design Sunderland's shirt, or more? And if so, who?
James: Umbro designs kits for several teams all over the globe – there’s too many to mention!
If not, do you ever wish you designed shirts for a team that vary from stripes more?
James: Stripes can be restrictive in trying to make a kit different every season but its how you look at it. In one respect, the Home shirt in Sunderland’s case is in keeping with tradition even if the design is contemporary. The Away shirt provides more opportunity to try different things.
What guidelines do you have to work within when designing a shirt for a team like Sunderland?
James: We obviously have the club guidelines for things like the club crest and in some cases kit colour. We also have sponsors brand guidelines and then league regulations domestic and European competitions for things like how many colours we can have in a kit, where we can put names and numbers etc.
Do you have any allegiance to Sunderland?
James: Not personally but there are many Sunderland fans within the team here, including our CEO. When you work on a club and get underneath its skin you do grow affection for them and always want them to win [as long as it’s not against your own team!]. Whenever I’m asked this question I liken it to being a player: you might not support the team you’re playing for but you always give 100%.
Do you think if you did that would make your job easier or harder?
James: I have designed for the club I have an allegiance to, but in my opinion it makes it harder as you can’t always take yourself away from a fan’s point of view and look at it from another angle to create something new.
What is your favourite football shirt of all time?
James: I love football shirts so it’s hard to choose but I would say the England shirt from Italia 90 is probably my favourite.
It seemed with a recent England shirt that we were going through a 'retro' stage with football shirts, has this already died down?
James: It’s not a ‘retro’ stage but more of a reset. Many football kits have lots of things on them with no actual purpose; they appear cluttered. We’ve applied Umbro’s tailoring background to create great kits with modern construction using new fabrics and trend influences. This has made our current kits clean, modern and more contemporary than they were before.
And with that I'd like to thank James for taking the time to talk to us about what actually goes into designing our kits. I'm sure that you would agree that he, and the team around him, have done a cracking job on our strip this season, and it is nice to see something a little different, as the away shirt most certainly is.
For more information on Umbro, visit their website www.umbro.com. They are also on Twitter (@umbro) and on Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/umbro
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