With the 2021 MLS season kicking off in a matter of weeks, shirt Twitter has been dominated with new kit releases and predictably frustrated discourse regarding plain white kits and adidas monopolisation.
Amongst the clamour, a special release of customised shirts caught my eye. The collaboration between Participation Trophy Studio and the organisation Black Players for Change has something of an MLS link, but in truth the collection tells a story far more compelling than just another American kit. The shirts, remixed in a blackout aesthetic, have been created to help tell the story of black players, coaches and staff both inside and outside MLS.
Far from being a purely creative initiative, the kits from The Black Out Collection are being raffled off to raise money for the charity FC Harlem, a youth development organisation committed to bettering the community of Harlem, New York City.
I caught up with my friend Zach Moore to dig deeper into The Black Out Collection, and find out more about the key threads running through the project.
Q: Hey Zach, thanks for chatting to us today. How did the project come about? Was this something that began in response to the events of last year, or something a long time in the making?
This project came about as the direct result of a relationship built last year following the Black Lives Matter protests. I had just released my first project (USA Mashup Collection) and managed to get in touch with Sirena Amarikwa, Brand Director for BPC, about the possibility of partnering on something I was designing for the fall's March On Washington. At the time Black Players For Change had also just formed, was assembling their leadership team, and was being contacted by lots of organizations who wanted to support them and their initiatives. So while the timing didn't align for that first project, I think both sides remained optimistic that something could be created together down the line.
As we turned the page on 2020, and transitioned to 2021, the group reached out to discuss opportunities to organize a charity fundraiser during Black History Month. Over the course of a few meetings we got to know each other, realized there was an alignment on interests and goals, and I ended up presenting them with several design concepts for limited edition jerseys. From there the players selected what they liked most and provided feedback to help refine some of the customization so the overall design fit their message voice and stories.
Q: Could you tell us more about the shirts themselves? How did you achieve the blackout look, and were there any alternative attempts left on the 'cutting room floor'?
Each one of these kits are player issued and provided directly from the players' personal collection. They're a mix of authentic and replica based on the goal of working with primarily white/light colored kits. Since there were two goalkeepers involved in the project, they provided custom replica field kits instead of neon authentic match tops.
To achieve the graphite look, each of the jerseys was individually hand treated in a dye bath that specifically catered to synthetic fibers. This locked in and permanently changed the color of each shirt.
There were a number of test attempts to identify the ideal brand of dye, shade of dye, and amount of dye we used, but I would say the first attempt was fairly close to the appearance of the final product. We played around with the type of graphics applied to the back to make sure we found the right shade of metallic gold that we were looking for and found a perfect match in just two attempts. The co-branded patch had four or five different designs presented but once we settled on a design it didn't require any reworks or edits.
Q: What is the significance and meaning behind the “Black Out”?
We decided to take the players’ jerseys and black them out as a representation of their presence in Major League Soccer as well as their presence in the world at large.
The graphite color comes from the black and white photography commonly used by BPC across their site/social. Carrying this over to traditionally white kits is our way of showing that #MLSisBLACK and that black players have always been, and always will be, an integral and valuable part in the history of MLS. These eye-catching jerseys help showcase how valuable they are.
The split in “Black Out” is actually a play on words referring not only to the change in shirt color but also how Black Players For Change formed during 2020 and created a unified voice for players to start speaking out on change needed in society. It started with the MLS is Black protest in Orlando, Florida, signifying the collective of players are unified in this fight to create paths to equity in soccer, it continued with the opening of mini pitches in Newark, New Jersey, leveling the playing field for black and brown communities to have access to the game, and now this collection is just a continuation of those initiatives and provides a touch point for those who want to be a part of the movement and uplift BPC. This is just the beginning of projects and causes people can expect to see BPC working on.
Q: Why #TogetherThereWillBeChange on the back of each shirt?
When we discuss discrimination, humans rights inequities, racial injustice, institutional racism and general social change, it’s very important that these issues don’t get labeled “black” issues, because they’re “societal” and human issues affecting everyone. These issues are not going to be solved amongst black people alone and the branded hashtag #TogetherThereWillBeChange is a reminder that everyone has an important role to play in the fight for equitable representation. No one person, or group of people, can do this alone, it takes a collective and consistent effort to create meaningful change.
Q: You guys have used shirts before as a vehicle for good, raising money for charities and driving awareness of issues. What is it about shirts that makes them such a powerful medium?
I look at shirts and consider them pieces of art. Sometimes they're more like prints when they're mass produced and other times they're more like artist originals when they're more limited edition. They're my favorite medium to use because they're not easy to modify and that helps the work stand out as unique and different.
In either case, there's an instant emotion someone feels when they pick up or look at a kit. A shirt can trigger memories that have accompanying emotions or it can be the design itself which communicates and makes an impression.
Shoutout to Zach for sharing the story of The Black Out Collection with us. You can keep up to date with the work of Black Player for Change by following them on Twitter and Insta. For Participation Trophy Studio, you’re looking for @PTrophyStudio on Twitter and @participationtrophystudio on Insta. And finally, you can support and follow the work of FC Harlem too on Twitter and Insta.