FSC Interview – Rob Warner
As a football shirt enthusiast, I’ve long been fascinated by the people behind the great kits of the past. Names like Drake Ramberg and Ina Franzmann won’t resonate outside of our bubble, but inside the kit world they are the men and women whose handiwork is legendary.
Many of you will be familiar with Rob Warner, if not by name then certainly be portfolio. Rob is one of the few people in history to have designed a World Cup winning kit (more on that later), and his tenure at both Puma and Umbro yielded a succession of quality designs at an important juncture in kit history.
Rob is also an active member of the community, and excitingly he’s taking things to the next level by starting Spark Design Academy. The academy is offering the chance for people like you and me to go ‘behind the curtain’ of the professional kit design process, learning all the tips and tricks of the trade from Rob and his long-term partner Craig Buglass.
I sat down with Rob to talk about some of his favourite career and shirt memories, and what his plans are for Spark Design Academy.
From Roy of the Rovers to Puma HQ
Q: Hi Rob! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background before working in football?
Hi Phil! Thanks for the opportunity.
So, despite the glamorous Californian accent I’m originally from Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham. Grew up as a Villa fan, fairly ordinary upbringing. Dad was a milkman, Mum worked as a clerk, it was a really standard upbringing, but I was always keen on football and football kits.
Keen is a bit of an understatement if anything! I’d have copies of Roy of the Rovers delivered every week and when I finished reading them I’d tipex over the kits and draw my own designs on top. I kind of always did ‘kit design’ but never thought it was something I could turn into a job, it was just a bit of a hobby at first.
I went on to study design at school, but still fashion designer wasn’t a typical career path at the time.
One day a guy from Barnardo’s came in wanting to sell pin badges to raise money for the charity, and the story of the kids suffering hit me quite hard. In response I organised a fashion show, (probably a bit like the one in The Inbetweeners to be honest, with less testicles on display!) and we raised over £500. Through the show I got to know a local designer and I later started doing a bit of work with him at his studio on Saturdays, and it was there that I started to gain a real interest in the fashion part of design.
By the time I came to apply for courses at University I thought sportswear might be an opportunity for me, and sure enough I went on to do Fashion Design with Technology at Manchester Metropolitan University. And that was about the size of it. Before I knew it I was graduating, working for Puma initially on some of their UK-based accounts. Very quickly I was moving to Germany to go and start working on the football kits.
Q: Were there any particular footballing memories or shirts that inspired you to pursue the career path you did?
As I mentioned before, Roy of Rovers was one for me. I loved colouring that stuff in, and speaking of colouring I also remember drawing a number on the back of my first Villa shirt, the incredible 87-88 home shirt from hummel that Denmark also wore!
So there wasn’t necessarily a particular shirt or moment that inspired me, but it was something that was just, there. I was quite into the idea of being a part of it somehow, though even then I didn’t really realise it was something I could do for a job until my first visit out to Puma HQ in 2001.
Q: Tell us more about your break with Puma. How did that come about?
When I was coming up towards graduating I saw Puma advertising for a job and got in touch with a guy who knew someone at Puma to put a word in for me. I thought I’d missed my chance after I missed the letter inviting me to a second interview (I was on holiday at the time!), but thankfully they gave me another opportunity and I got the job.
My graduation ceremony was on the Thursday and on the Monday I started the job. Then I think I flew out to Germany on Tuesday to meet the international team, and the following Monday I was told there was a vacancy in the football team. It was just amazing.
Let the drinks (and designs) flow
Q: What sort of things did you get up to at Puma?
A lot of heavy drinking, you probably won’t be surprised to learn! Living in Nürnberg there was always somewhere to have a drink and someone to have a drink with. It was like a party for 6 years, though there was a lot of hard work to do. I think the share price was €18 when I joined and by the time I left it was €370, so the growth of the business was exponential. But the lifestyle and the people I was mixing with, it was just incredible.
My first ever business trip for the international team took me to Rome to watch Lazio, it was crazy. I got to travel to meet Pelé, Hristo Stoichkov, Roger Lemerre when he was coach of Tunisia. One time the Cameroon coach Winnie Schäfer taught me the proper way to eat mussels at a little gaff in Paris!
Loads of stuff doesn’t seem real talking about it now. I think from a work perspective, it was a lot of hard work especially as the business was signing up so many teams. After the World Cup in 2006 I got promoted and ended up overseeing all the performance apparel side of the business basically looking after anything you could get wet in or muddy in.
Q: Could you make us all jealous, and talk about your favourite Puma shirts that you designed?
I think I’ve probably boasted about them already on social media! But one of my favourites was a Stuttgart shirt, I wanna say in 2003. It was some random anniversary like 120 years or something and it was a super simple design, well executed with a honking great big badge on it that was the biggest we were legally allowed at the time. The sponsor was dead simple, I think it was debitel. Just a really nice shirt, I loved it.
Stuttgart were kind of the first big team I did a bespoke design for, so that meant a lot to me. And they obviously went on to win the title in my kit in 2007.
I think my overall favourite was the Italy away shirt from 2006 though. The concept around the kits was that the Italian players were superheroes. So the home shirt had navy details to make it look almost like a comic book in photos, like the players were in motion because of the blurred colour coming off the shirt. The away shirt was more of the ‘Clark Kent’ character with the home shirt and a white t-shirt over the top, as if the superhero outfit was hidden underneath. I really enjoyed that from a concept perspective and how it ended up looking, and obviously what they achieved with that particular collection was amazing.
Q: What teams did you particularly enjoy designing for?
Bordeaux were always amazing because they were so flexible with what they wanted to do. The home kit would always incorporate the chevron on the front but they were open to it being reinterpreted. And then there was always an away and third shirt and they wanted one to be really youthful and graphic and the other one to look good with jeans. Looking back they had quite a forward-thinking approach.
Cameroon were great because to get their kits signed off you had to present to the players first. We had a particularly fun night out one night in Hamburg where, after a friendly we presented to the players and then ended up walking into a local African nightclub. Obviously walking in there with the Cameroon national team, we were treated like superstars!
Your Dad did this
Q: Does it get any better than designing a World Cup winning shirt?
I dunno, I think in terms of loving football kits and being a designer, no. Other than if I designed a Villa shirt that won the Champions League, but otherwise no. In the same way as being a player, it’s the biggest accolade that you can get.
When my kids are old enough to understand it and when they have children of their own, there’s something there that I can show them and say “your Dad, your Grandad did this”. All the other ‘normal’ clothes I’ve designed are probably in charity shops now, but the kits are in the history book switch which is absolutely amazing.
There was other stuff in my career which I was super proud of as well which perhaps wouldn’t capture the headlines, like coaching people and mentoring people and watching their career grow as they now lead design teams of their own. That other unseen part is as rewarding as doing the shirts.
Q: Is it true you nearly ended up at Nike instead? What persuaded you to stay at Puma?
It is true and a big part of what persuaded me to stay was Craig, who’s now my business partner.
He’d arrived at Puma as the new Creative Director at the same time as I was having interviews with Nike, but I had a really good conversation with him and ended up staying and working closely with him. We got on really well, and we continued working together setting up a design agency and now a design academy.
Q: What sort of a legacy do you think you and your team left?
I think probably what I’m most proud of having studied at Manchester Met was setting up a placement programme between the University and Puma. That’s still running now and coming up to something like 17, 18 years. I go in to the Uni a couple of times a year, and it’s amazing that the placement programme is still going strong.
All in all, part of the legacy we left was just a way of working. We had a bit of a motto that ‘work made fun gets done’, and I’d say that culture is one of our biggest legacies.
Q: Talk to us more about your relationship with Craig Buglass. Who is Craig, and how did you both work together at Puma and beyond?
I knew of Craig before he came into Puma. He was Designer Director at Nike Football for a while, kind of a competitor. And we worked really well together. Although I reported in to him, we had that level of respect for each other that we could take on each other’s viewpoints whilst still being able to be pals at the weekend and not cross the boundary into work or bring that back into the office on a Monday. It was quite a rare relationship, and when I left we remained good friends.
Craig joined me at Umbro for a while and was my best man at my wedding in 2014 and a couple of years after that (when I had finished working at Lululemon) we were both in a place where we were thinking of doing our own thing, and we ended up setting up a design agency together.
Q: You mentioned Umbro, how did that move come about and what did you do there?
I was hired by Nike to go into Umbro not long after the acquisition [of Umbro by Nike], initially overseeing performance apparel before going on to oversee all performance product. After Nike sold the business, my final role was Creative Director overseeing design and development across all product categories.
I had an amazing time there, working with the likes of Manchester City and New York Cosmos. There were loads of incredible projects, but it was much harder working with Umbro compared to Puma, partly due to the value of the contracts. But I still loved it, we had an incredible team there and it was sad when Nike sold the business.
Thankfully I was able to build a small team under the new owners, and some of the people who I brought in are still there now. There were really good people and talented people at Umbro.
Q: And now let’s talk about Spark. What is Spark Design Academy?
Since setting up our design agency nearly 5 years ago we’ve had some amazing clients including McLaren Automotive, Warner Bros., adidas and VF corporation (who own a number of big brands including The North Face, Timberland and Dickies). We’ve done some stuff in the esports world too, so we’ve been really fortunate with the amazing clients we’ve had.
Something we’ve missed though is being able to develop and mentor young designers. That throws up all sorts of amazing opportunities, and I’ve always enjoyed taking the opportunity of going back to Manchester Met and doing the odd lecture. So we thought, if there’s an opportunity to give back a bit and help mentor the next generation of designers, let’s go for it.
That was the inception of Spark Design Academy, and the idea has grown and grown. Now we’re looking at building a big community, with things like a series of podcasts and a discord server. The courses are not only going to focus on design but more so how we approach things through design.
Q: What sort of person is Spark Design Academy for? Do you need any sort of prior knowledge or background to take part?
We’re looking to people from all sorts of backgrounds to get involved. I’ve spoken to one guy who runs his own business but has always loved football kits and kit design. Other people who are part of the kit concept world are getting involved, and there are even some designers who are currently working with smaller brands in football at the moment.
So there’s no real necessity for prior background or knowledge. Through the course we’ll be covering the steps we’d follow to design kits at a professional level, from the history of kits themselves through to the regulations, the cost of applications, and design tips and tricks.
The courses are not only going to focus on design but more so how we approach things through design.Rob Warner
Q: How can we sign up and when does it all kick off?
The course launches at 4pm UK on 18th January, initially launching in English. We’re planning to get it translated into Spanish too as soon as we can. Best way to sign up is to visit sparkdesignacademy.com, sign up for the newsletter and get the latest information through there. When we’re ready to go live, there’ll be a link to sign up.
There’ll also be the opportunity to sign up for some 1-on-1 tutoring from Craig and myself through the Catalyst programme. I should mention too that, in keeping with football teams, the first 18 people to sign up will get an 11% discount.
I think what’s really useful for people is the fact it’s not a time bound course. You can sign up and go through it at your own pace, including those in the Catalyst programme. We want to make it as easy as possible so that you can fit it in around everything else.
Q: Thanks again Rob. Before I go just a couple of questions. Do you have any favourite shirts from the past couple of seasons?
It’s hard not to like what adidas have done with Arsenal. Having said that, I’m interested to see what they’ll do next after largely drawing on their first relationship in the 90s. The marble halls of Highbury-inspired away kit this year was a nice move on, but I’d like to see where else they could take things by being more forward thinking.
I’ve really enjoyed some of the stuff that Le Coq Sportif did for Fiorentina in recent years. hummel continue to do some really nice work as well, and I’m always intrigued by St Pauli also.
That’s one club I’d love to design for. Everything they stand for is amazing, and of course they’re ditching their Under Armor contract to design everything in house. I’d love to get involved with designing their kits; they’ve shown in the past they can be quite adventurous with their kits and merchandise.
Q: And finally what sort of developments would you like to see in shirts over the next few years? Are there any areas crying out for innovation, or trends that ought to be explored?
One concept I wanted to have a go at was looking at either specific kits to suit different positions on the field, or specific kits to suit playing styles.
So a tough central defender might have a different type of shirt, whereas a quick winger or striker might have a different one that’s more suited to their individual needs.
You could have the same visual identity, but be able to change the neckline, material, maybe even the construction. The level of interest from fans would be awesome, to be able to look at different variations on a kit, but that feels like such a punt compared to where the rules are at the moment. Still, that’s something I’d be intrigued to see, trying to make things that are a bit more bespoke to the needs of individual athletes rather than the team as a whole.
Thanks again to Rob for taking the time to chat with us. For more on Spark Design Academy check out the website.
See you in class.