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  • by Matt Leslie February 05, 2022 15 min read

    As is customary with any new shirt release, the drop of Humanrace jerseys from adidas and Pharrell - through the Grammy-winner and fashion designer’s Humanrace design collective - lit up the timelines and filled the notification boxes of those in the football shirt community.

    It was easy to see why; the shirts, designed for Juventus, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and grassroots team Romance FC were all reworked versions of iconic adidas shirts worn by the clubs in past years. So while being instantly recognisable, these shirts were also clearly something fresh, original and carrying a message. 

    To find out more about the shirts, their design processes, and what it was like to collaborate with Pharrell, we spoke to adidas’ Inigo Turner again. Inigo is a design director at adidas, and as well as working on Humanrace alongside Pharrell, he and his team have produced some of the best adidas shirts of recent years, including the bruised banana revival and that Manchester United third shirt.

    Q: Inigo, thanks for sitting down with us again, and giving us some insight into the Humanrace jerseys. So, what was the idea behind the shirts and how has the launch gone?

    Humanrace is a creative movement from Pharrell, who I know we’ll come onto later, and he is, himself, very interested in the world of football. I think because there's quite a unique culture around football globally with the tribalism of fan culture, and its wider impacts, it's a global sport, you know, it's really a sport for everyone. And from that you can say it's a true symbol of the human race. So while I think it's a surprising collaboration, it’s also a logical one too. I think it's a really positive message and it's one which stands for the sort of creativity which we as a brand strive for, but also for unity, humanity, and health and I think it's a really big message when we bring it together in this collaboration.

    This project obviously came as a surprise to many people, and we're really happy it did that because quite often a lot of rumours and details get out into the open and it can take away that sort of surprise element. One of the things I always remember is seeing new kit launches back before the days of social media and mobile phones and it was about that excitement of seeing something new. I’m really glad we were able to bring that with this project too.

    Pharrell's involvement

    Q: What impact does someone like Pharrell have on a project like this, and what was it like to collaborate with him on the Humanrace jerseys? 

    Amazing! I mean, we knew he would be a good fit as soon as the idea was born. He's one of the biggest names in the world and I think when you bring that together with the biggest clubs in the world, you've got a really loud voice!

    The team worked together with him four times during the process. He was super involved throughout and he's been there every step of the process as the project director. He was highly creative during that process and a really inspiring person that injected more energy and creativity. It felt like a very natural process bringing his aesthetic together with these designs and these iconic shirts, and I think it produced something really, really unique. He had full respect for the design team and the knowledge of the team, and that was obviously reciprocated with him and what he brings to the table too, so it was just a great collaborative approach to making the shirts and that is borne out by what you see in the products. It’s the result of a brilliant coming together of our team and Pharrell. 

    Q: Given that the shirts’ designs were hand-made, how different was this entire design process for you and your team, compared to usual shirts? 

    Yeah, it was a completely different and really, really interesting process. Our football creative direction for 2020 was football through the lens of art, and how those two worlds fit together. And I think that was obviously something which we had in our minds, for pretty much the entire creative process on all products which we made in 2020. But the process for Humanrace was really different. We literally got a lot of white t-shirts, and we basically had an art studio, which has got all of the materials readily available. The team went down there and literally, we used paint brushes, we used stencils, spray paint, water, tie-dye. It was like an art house, really messy. For us it was really important that the shirts were created in a really artistic way, a really different way. And that gives you that aesthetic. I think that a lot of people look at it, and they'll go “the whole thing has been done on the computer” but that couldn't be further from the truth.

    We literally got a lot of white t-shirts, and we basically had an art studio, which has got all of the materials readily available.

    Inigo Turner
    Design Director, adidas

    Pharrell described the design process as ‘reverse engineering’. We usually build high performance football shirts digitally, beginning by using advanced adidas technologies in our laboratories, with high tech performance materials, science and computers. But the Humanrace shirts began as physical t-shirts and were then turned into that digital product at the end after the designs had been created. It was actually like doing things in the opposite order, which was a great challenge to the way we work.

    The approach itself was like having perfection within imperfection. You look at all of the graphics and things going on with modern football shirts and it's actually quite often a digital line or something very sharp, you know, and that didn't feel very human to us. So for us, we thought that we needed to do this differently. It needed to feel more human, it needed to feel like it was done by human hand. So the only way to achieve that with integrity was to do it with the human hand.

    Artistic techniques

    Q: So how did you achieve that blemished and distorted aesthetic for the shirts by hand?

    The United shirt was done using tie dye and, you know, we just learned as we were doing it. Arsenal was a heavily watered cotton T-shirt and then we used the bruised banana stencil which bled into the material, then the water made it bleed even more which is why it has that sort of very warped bleeding effect, which I love the look of.

    The Juve one was similar. We dipped a plain shirt into this trough of pink dye and then watched it bleed down the shirt and then had to turn it round so that it bled in different directions and you still had the white bar in the middle while letting the pink bar bleed in the middle again. That was a really complicated process. 

    Bayern Munich was done using red acrylic paint that was really, really thickly applied on the shirt. We still have the original shirt in the office and it can stand up on its own! But the effect was really nice.

    With the Real Madrid shirt, we had a glass baking tray filled with water and oil. We placed it over the artwork of the dragons on the shirt, which we'd already manipulated and blurred and changed. The mixture of the oil and water blurred and distorted the image on the shirt even more, so we then photographed that, and it became the artwork on the final shirt. That process was really, really different to how we usually work.

    Once we had the shirt’s designs painted on we had to scan these crispy, paint-covered shirts full size so we could get their digital layout. Then we used digital printing on the shirts which you see now because we really wanted to make sure that every single bleed and paint fleck and imperfection was apparent on each shirt. That was something Pharrell and I, personally, really wanted to have: that visible realness. And that’s why when, you know, people say it looks ‘fake’ or whatever, it’s like, well, it really wasn’t!

    Q: And why was that particular aesthetic chosen for the Humanrace shirts

    We wanted to obviously have the story of bringing Pharrell into the world's biggest football clubs via Humanrace and he has used a similar aesthetic with his products in the past, so it made perfect sense to do these shirts through this interpretation and through this aesthetic. I think that sort of fueled a lot of the initial idea. 

    Also, we were just interested in sort of the naivety of the design as well. It's something which we really believed in and thought will stand out and look different to what's been done before and I think that's always the aim, to take shirts into a new place and to do something which has not been done before, because just repeating the past will be boring, and not really moving things forward, because that's what excites people.

    And, you know, the clubs as well were super on board with the approach and it was amazing to get these shirts on the field of play as well. We're just really happy with how the whole thing took off.

    Seeing the shirts on pitch

    Q: It’s interesting that you mention the shirts being worn on the pitch. Does seeing Juve wearing the shirt for a whole match, or Arsenal and Manchester United using it for their warm-up add something more to the shirts, in your opinion? 

    Definitely, I mean, we know that when the shirts are worn in a real game, they obviously take on a different meaning. When you launch a new design, until it's worn on the pitch, I think sometimes people don't really accept it. So the perfect example is from this season's Manchester United third kit, where I think the moment fans saw how it looks on players, I think they started to warm to it and it grew on them. And I would say this is no different. We do our best to get the message and the stories across, but I think everybody loves watching football, and the spectacle of football, and I think when you see these shirts on players on the field of play, in the arena. they take on a different life, and a different meaning.

    I grew up watching really interesting football shirts on the field, so that's just such a motivating factor from a personal point of view. I think that it's just more interesting to look at more diverse designs. 

    Q: Given that a number of the Humanrace jerseys take their inspiration from the ‘90s, what do you think that says about that era of football shirts and how we view it today?

    The Humanrace shirts represent a journey through football history and those shirts of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s are absolute icons. They are design classics, they're expressive, they're instantly recognisable. There's this huge zeitgeist for that era, for these shirts, and that nostalgia is as big as ever. And certainly, I think, we wanted to tell the story of the history of those huge clubs with adidas, and how that journey has looked through the history of football. So we looked at the histories we have with these clubs, and then the shirts almost pick themselves because they're so iconic.

    But those shirts were in an era when people in shirt design didn't have any of the strict regulations we have now and I think that they were done in this highly creative way. They weren't influenced by anything going on within the football industry at the time, so they were highly cultural shirts, they reflected much more fashion or art at that point, and were really expressive, really bold designs. The UK ones were affectionately coined as being the acid house shirts for what was going on with the music scene at that time and the youth culture. It’s a really interesting period and these shirts stood for a bit more than just being football shirts. And, you know, Pharrell is also a musician and connected to fashion and many of the things in these shirts are the same so they sort of reflect a bit more than just being a football shirt. I think It is also an important ingredient as to why these shirts were the ones which were selected.

    I think those shirts will never not be iconic and it’s really interesting for us to be able to play with them and give them a different life and a different identity. We wanted to give them their own reasons for being, in their own context. I think we definitely did that with this approach.

    Q: And on the flip-side of that, is it encouraging - or even rewarding - that two of the collection’s shirts (Real and Juves’) are inspired by recent shirts designed by adidas?

    We looked at the timeline and wanted to take quite a big chunk of history. We’ve got early ‘90s with Bayern, Arsenal and United and then we jump to more recent shirts of Madrid and Juventus. We wanted to definitely have that kind of depth to the history, but obviously it’s cool that we can choose shirts which we've done fairly recently which also sort of stand for that bit more than just being a football shirt. 

    And there was a rationale behind choosing these shirts. Pharrell has a strong connection to Japanese streetwear, and the Real Madrid third shirt we chose from 2014 was designed with Yoshi Yamamoto and was one of the most successful third shirts we have done. It was very unique and obviously appealed to Pharrell because of that connection to Japanese culture. Also within the look of the Humanrace range, you want to have a variety in terms of the look and colour too so that obviously came into our thinking as well.

    The Juventus one was a shirt which was used as streetwear, especially in the USA.  It was worn by some rappers, it was worn by Harlem Globetrotters and so became appropriated as streetwear. Streetwear brands themselves were doing versions of that shirt - though not necessarily legitimately - so it seemed to transcend sport and went into different realms and different worlds. 

    So I think that we again wanted to have a shirt which would not just transcend sport, but also sort of step into Pharrell’s worlds as a musician, as a creator. I think that's a good reason to go for those recent history shirts because, for whatever reasons, they really, really resonated with different people and in different countries. So, yeah it was really cool to be able to include those shirts, and, you know, I think that's what's so interesting: that those shirts are now becoming the next vintage shirts which are seen as being cool to wear.

    Respecting grassroots

    Q: As well as the powerhouses of Arsenal, Man. United, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Real Madrid, Humanrace jerseys were also created for the London-based grassroots team, Romance FC. What drove that decision? 

    The range is about the human race and so we wanted to celebrate the human race and it’s diversity. Therefore, just to go for the elite clubs wouldn't exactly reflect that. We didn't want to ignore grassroots football, because that's the most important part of the sport, that's where most people are playing and the plan from the very beginning was to make sure that while obviously we have these powerful clubs, it’s equally important to have a grassroots and community football club involved in the project.

    Romance FC is a great example of all that. As a community club or collective they offer really different and inclusive perspectives, with a team of creative people promoting women's football and football for non-binary individuals. adidas stands, and Pharrell stands, for inclusivity, promotion of and participation in sport for all, and if we can enhance that message then we're going to do that as much as we can, so I think the fit of the project with a club like Romance FC was a really, really good addition to all products which we've created.

    The design of those shirts are based on the Holland ‘88 shirt and the Germany away shirt from the 1990 World Cup, where they unfortunately knocked out England. They’re iconic graphics as well, and we wanted a design that triggered this collective memory from within the sport and to go for designs which people are really familiar with. They’re really nice shirts and I think they bring a roundness and holistic perspective of football to the entire collection. 

    Q: Do you have a particular favourite from the collection, or one that was especially exciting to work on? Last time we spoke you mentioned that the snowflake shirt was your favourite growing up, so does that shirt get your pick?

    That’s a really tough question, because I love them all. They're all unique and individually creative and literally each design was done in a different way. We had the entire team working on everything, and everyone was beavering away trying to execute these designs in different ways and it's really interesting to see how each one came out, and how each one sort of adopted a different approach. Each shirt has its own brilliant characteristics and uniqueness from a fusion of football, science and art.

    Although yeah, like you said, I probably have to choose the United shirt just because that shirt is, for me, one of the most important shirts, and the one which got me interested in football shirt design from a very early age, when I was 10 years old. But I really do love all of the shirts!

    Q: And now that these shirts are out in the world, what is the goal behind the release of the Humanrace shirts for the brand, and can we expect more from Humanrace moving forward?

    I think first and foremost, we're highlighting a message of unity and diversity. We want to say as a brand that through sport we have the power to change lives. It's our obsession. And while these shirts won't do that on their own, what we're saying is that we can use them to promote messages and highlight these causes. Humanrace is the perfect message of positivity in these uncertain times, and we really want to stand for something which is good and promote diversity and the bringing of people together.

    Humanrace is the perfect message of positivity in these uncertain times, and we really want to stand for something which is good and promote diversity and the bringing of people together.

    Inigo Turner
    Design Director, adidas

    The shirts have allowed us to shed light on issues, and we've been able to take up space within people's feeds and show diversity, positivity and creativity. In doing that we're hopeful that we can bring these truly global reaching voices together, but also highlight the grassroots level because we do it for communities, we do it for everyone, and that's our aim going forward. 

    We've had a fantastic process, and a brilliant relationship with Pharrell. He also massively enjoyed it, and all the clubs really, really loved being a part of this. We'll have to see what the future holds for Humanrace, but watch this space.

    Q: We definitely will be looking out for future adidas x Humanrace collaborations. Inigo, thank you for taking the time to talk to us and take us through the fascinating design journeys of these shirts. 

    Thanks for reaching out and asking. It’s nice to have the chance to talk about the shirts, and we’ve been working on this project for a year, and worked really hard on it. As you can imagine it was complicated, but highly, highly rewarding at the end to see everything come to life. And so it’s great to be able to put those details and the story of the project in people’s hands.

    We don’t really do anything without having a story behind it, and I think this project goes further than football shirts because of the other elements involved, so I think it’s cool that we can share the stories, so thanks!

    FSC will definitely be watching to see what is next from the adidas x Humanrace collaborations! We want to thank Inigo and adidas for taking the time to speak with us about the Humanrace shirts collection and its processes.

    Pick-up your own Gunners shirt in our store, including classics from the 90s & 00s. Browse all Arsenal shirts here.

    Matt Leslie
    Matt Leslie