When he started re-envisioning football kits through the lens of high fashion, Marlon Feeney-Thompson, AKA SETTPACE, had no idea how big his designs would become. Juventus in collaboration with Gucci and Adidas; a Nigeria kit inspired by Dolce & Gabbana; the French national team in association with Dior – beautiful, busy and improbable, if not impossible, these were ideas which sparked the imaginations of both football fans and the fashion world.
"Basically, I started because I'd just finished college and I wanted something to do," says Marlon. "I had a graphic design A-level and all that sort of stuff, but I thought: 'No one's going to notice me if I just start doing random graphic design projects.' So I thought: 'What do I like? Well, I like football and I like fashion.'"
After posting a few of his designs on Instagram, things really started to take off. Marlon's follower count rocketed, people started to ask where they could buy his kits and, while he wasn't selling them, he soon discovered someone else was. "There's a Chinese supplier out there somewhere that is literally making my kits and selling them for hundreds of dollars," he laughs. "One of the Gucci kits I did, I keep getting sent pictures of people wearing it. I’m like: 'Where did you get it from?!' Someone, somewhere, is making money from it, but there’s nothing I can do about it."
Still, while someone else may be profiting from Marlon's ideas, his concept kits helped to launch a career as a designer, which he's since made into a full-time gig.
Andy Slater, AKA Xztals, has had a similar experience. His designs include dreamlike collaborations between European super clubs and cult brands like Barcelona and Supreme, PSG and BAPE and Inter Milan and Cactus Plant Flea Market, while he's also made a range of Juve strips based on Kanye West album covers.
Asked how he got into concept kits, he says: "I remember starting when I was a kid, literally just drawing kits – it was that basic. I remember drawing home, away and third kits, just sort of doodling. Then, a couple of years ago, I was online and saw a guy doing it. I thought: 'I'd love to give that a go.' I'd done some graphics and I knew how to use Photoshop, so I just started playing around. I've just gone from there, really. It's basically taken over my life."
With Instagram as his portfolio, Andy has also turned designing into a full-time job. Ahead of last year's Playstation FC final – a sort of alternative Champions League final including footballers and content creators, held at the Wanda Metropolitano, home of Atletico Madrid – he and Marlon were asked to design the kits. The pair got to see Yaya Touré and Andrea Pirlo walk out in strips designed by Xztals and SETTPACE, respectively. Concept had become reality, before filtering back into unreality again, when both kits were briefly made available on FIFA Ultimate Team.
Fuelled by improvements in digital design tech, along with the social media boom, concept kits as a phenomenon really started to gain traction midway through the last decade. As one of the minds behind Football Shirt Collective, a blog and marketplace for grassroots designers, Mike Maxwell has been following almost from the beginning. "I remember about five years ago there was a designer called Nerea Palacios, whose handle was @iwanttoworkfornike," he says. "She created these Game of Thrones concept kits, but she went from coming up with the concept to actually creating kits, and then she got a job with Under Armour. So she used it to build her portfolio, and that was one of the first times I really saw it blow up."
Not so long ago, football kit design was largely done in-house at big brands like Nike and Adidas. Now, anyone with access to Photoshop and a social media platform can display wild designs in front of an enormous audience and get instant feedback. For much of the last decade, it was a common complaint among football fans that the game had become saturated with template kits; strips which, year on year, would only see small variations, or different clubs and national teams whose shirts were drawn from the same boilerplate lay-out.
Many fans started to yearn for the busier designs of the 80s and 90s, but with a new twist. "The modern day football fan is bored of the same template kits from big manufacturers," says Rob Lacey, founder of the Concept Kits website. "Going back to the 80s and 90s, if you look at Holland's Euro 88 kit, Arsenal's Bruised Banana or even Estonia's 1997 goalie shirt – which is absolutely bonkers – a lot of those already had the creativity that has fuelled a lot of the designs today," adds Maxwell.
As someone who "never had an artistic eye or any interest in design whatsoever" growing up, having started as a kit collector, Lacey can testify to how much concept kits have democratised the design process. "The engagement we receive on our designs is truly staggering… never did I think it would grow and become what it has today," he says. Likewise, the reaction against template kits is certainly not limited to the Premier League. "Concept kits are so popular because, season on season, fans are often disappointed with the new jerseys of their clubs," says Clément Gouëset, concept kit enthusiast and one half of French design agency Graphic UNTD. "Fans who know how to make concept kits have a very open-minded audience."
While concept kits allow designers to break free of the regulated dimensions which brands and clubs are forced to work with, part of the fun is in bringing an element of the fantastical to familiar conventions. "Despite everything, we realise that a jersey must respect certain rules to be credible," says Gouëset. Though there is an element of freedom and escapism in mad designs, the popularity of concept kits is also down to their ability to reflect football's relationship not only with fashion, but wider culture. "Now, with FIFA – and even with Fantasy Premier League, where you can create your own little kit – concept kits have become a big part of gaming, for instance," says Maxwell. "It's becoming more and more mainstream and touching all different facets of society."
Looking at football kits this season, it feels as if clubs and brands are starting to take notice. Where a small pool of in-house designers, marketers and executives are more likely to reflect a brand's natural priorities – risk-averse or "safe" designs which aren't likely to threaten commercial potential – the popularity of concept kits has shown that many fans want something else entirely. This season, several clubs have released bolder, design-led kits which have been a marked change from what has gone before. Arsenal's Bruised Banana homage, Chelsea's Mod culture-inspired away kit, Roma's lightning-bolt away shirt and Nike's experimental third kit range: whether in their retro stylings, bold colours or graphic designs, the influence of concept kits is plain to see.
Several brands, likewise, have launched collaborations with football clubs which could have easily come from the imagination of an Instagram creator. The rise of streetwear undoubtedly played a part in Juventus' link-up with Palace last year and PSG's partnership with Jordan the year before, but concept kits broadened the horizons of what seems possible. "I think [clubs and brands] are paying attention a lot more than they'd like to say they are," says Marlon. "I've seen kits in recent years that have directly taken influence from some of the concept designers."
With more and more grassroots designers being brought in-house or given work in the industry on the back of their concept kits, the transition to bolder designs from big brands should be a natural process. As well as building a career on his kit designs, Andy Slater has been asked by a brand director at one of the biggest global labels to advise on where to go with their football shirts. "I think it really has got through to them… I was sort of thinking: 'Why are you asking me this?'" he laughs. Rob Lacey, meanwhile, has had one Football League club and multiple non-league outfits contact him about collaborating on kits directly.
But with brands and clubs now coming to the realisation that there is a huge demand for something new and that, after years of template kits, the trend seems to have moved on – or perhaps back – to design-led kits reminiscent of those which defined the 80s and 90s, have concept kits had their moment in the sun? If graphic designs, big colours and wavey patterns become commonplace, will concept kits have the same novelty?
Maybe, maybe not – though there will always be new avenues for grassroots designers to explore. They may take inspiration from the likes of Killa Villa and FOKOHAELA, who – while not just concept designers, in that they have always sought to make actual, physical kits – have made fantasy into reality. Scott McRoy, the man behind Killa Villa, has designed a series of football kits inspired by hip-hop culture, while Jason Lee, AKA FOKOHAELA, has collaborated on a range of merch with Ian Wright and made a one-off custom Arsenal shirt for football's fashion king, Hector Bellerin.
While grassroots designers have to be careful when creating and selling actual kits – use of club badges or brand logos has been known to attract cease-and-desist letters – brands seem to have tacitly accepted that concept designers have brought new life to the industry. As for where concept kits go from here, Andy Slater has one of the most striking visions for the future. "So many concept creators create their own clubs," he says, having himself created a shirt for Xztals FC. "It's almost turned into a load of clubs that people support outside of football, if that makes sense."
Reverse engineering a football club from a concept kit? That really would be a game-changer.