Soccer and fashion may have sounded like an unlikely match until recently, but players worldwide are increasingly being noticed by fashion brands and, for their part, are embracing the fashion game more openly.
To be sure, soccer has long been associated with strong masculinity and an interest in fashion — beyond uniforms and sweats — wasn’t really considered appropriate.
In the late ’90s and early Aughts, players including David Beckham contributed to cement the “soccer look” that was glitzy and oftentimes cocky, too — think creative hairdos and logoed attire. But conservatism soon took over, stalling early fashion experiments, which were traded for no-effort activewear.
How things change. Social media and the constant exposure of players — very much linked to lucrative deals on and off the field — now appear to be as important as the marvel they perform on the pitch.
Although marketing-savvy fashion companies with a viable menswear business — from Paul Smith and Thom Browne to Diesel, Boss and Armani — have long known the advantages of dressing sports champs, the fashion folks have recently jumpstarted partnerships that tend to skew more personal and focused than in the past.
They reflect both the players’ openness to express themselves creatively and to affirm their attitudes toward social and cultural issues as well as fashion’s need for value-driven ambassadors.
For some observers, in fact, fashion’s renewed interest in soccer leans on the values the new generation of players embody rather than the popularity of the sport itself.
“Sports have become vehicles for promotion and single players are currently higher in demand than whole teams, and niche disciplines are gaining momentum versus sports that would typically attract a huge following,” says Alessandro Maria Ferreri, a luxury consultant and owner of consultancy The Style Gate.
Fashion brands are seeking to spotlight the personality behind the athlete and looking for values that align with those the brands promote, he believes.
The conformist mentality of the past that led players to skew conservative in their fashion choices to align with the then-hyper-masculine environment of the sport would present a risk for brands now as they seek to celebrate inclusivity and open-mindedness.
However, that’s no longer an issue.
“I feel that the next wave of representation in the soccer community will shine a light on the voice of a more inclusive generation in sports,” says Rachael Gentner, director of activewear at trend forecasting firm Fashion Snoops.
“We used to view athletes through a lens of unattainable perfection — and now that focus is softer, offering a chance for us to connect with our heroes in a more relatable way,” she adds.
Indeed, the sport’s dynamics have changed for good and soccer players seem to enjoy toying with fashion, as much as athletes from other disciplines have been doing for much longer.
“Marketing strategies in sports, once reserved to soccer, have broadened across disciplines, it’s more about the athlete as a role model than the sport itself,” Ferreri says.
Examples can be found in Gucci tapping into a diverse roster of sports to pick its athlete ambassadors, including tennis stars Jannik Sinner and Serena Williams.
These ambassadors across disciplines — think Lewis Hamilton fronting Valentino’s latest Pink PP campaign — come with huge followings and soccer is the one sport amassing the biggest. According to FIFA, it counts 5 billion fans across the world.
“When luxury brands and high-fashion designers approach these players to model for their collection, they recognize that they are not just receiving an athletic spokesperson, but their massive fan base as well,” Gentner says.
Cases in point: Soccer players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi regularly top the list of the most followed celebrities on Instagram and they both have ventured into fashion with lounge- and activewear-leaning lines.
“These soccer communities are truly global, offering a unique opportunity to connect across thousands of teams and clubs while allowing individuals to identify as a fan in a more communal and inclusive way,” she notes.
At the same time, soccer has increasingly trickled down to the fashion collections and not just because brands linking with soccer teams offer themed capsule collections. Wales Bonner’s spring 2023 runway at Pitti Uomo last June offered a fashion-y reinterpretation of the Adidas Samba, a classic indoor soccer sneaker, while Aimé Leon Dore and New Balance have tapped Arsenal champion Bukayo Saka to front the “Made in U.K.” campaign spotlighting soccer-inflected gear.
Here, WWD Weekend highlights the most recent fashion moments happening off the soccer pitch.
Real Madrid’s player Karim Benzema, an avid eyewear collector, has recently forged ties with Jean Paul Gaultier to unveil a reedition of the signature oval-shaped metallic sunglasses known under the code 56-6160. Popularized in the ’90s by such personalities as Tupac, they are now available in three colorways. Benzema fronts the campaign imagery and a video where he is seen strolling around Parisian landmarks amid a gold-tinged sunset.
Adidas’ friends of the house Paul Pogba, Jude Bellingham, David Alaba, Serge Gnabry, Trinity Rodman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all fronted images as part of a content creation activity featuring the Adidas x Gucci collection. According to data crunching firm Launchmetrics, the entire Adidas x Gucci campaign generated $75.8 million in media impact value, or MIV, with its online component amassing $167,000 in MIV. In particular, Real Madrid’s Alaba has been toying with fashion freely, showing a dress-up penchant and gravitating to brands such as Dior, Maison Margiela, Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta. He has appeared on the covers of GQ Hype and penned a curation of fashion items for Matchesfashion.
Dior tapping Kylian Mbappé late last year as global ambassador for the French fashion house’s men’s division and its male fragrance Sauvage generated $2.8 million in MIV, according to Launchmetrics. Mbappé’s appointment came after Dior kicked off a two-season collaboration with the Paris Saint-Germain club, where the French soccer player has been its star striker since 2017. In addition to boasting 72.4 million followers on Instagram alone, Mbappé embodies modern players’ values. He is involved in a number of charity initiatives, sponsoring the “Premiers de Cordée” association, which provides sporting initiatives for hospitalized children and founding “Inspired by KM,” an association that aims to inspire children to reach their goals. Among his other fashion gigs, the soccer champion is a Hublot ambassador.
Soccer athletes now aspire to couture, too. Last July at the age of 19, Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga walked the Balenciaga couture runway show, the house’s 51st and the second since creative director Demna rebooted it after a 53-year absence. He shared the catwalk with celebrity models including Kim Kardashian, Nicole Kidman, Dua Lipa and “Selling Sunset” star Christine Quinn. Launchmetrics estimated that his appearance generated $585,000 in MIV. He followed in the footsteps of current FC Barcelona wing-backer Héctor Bellerín, who made a surprise walk at the late Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show in Paris for the men’s spring 2020 runway show.
Although it maintains strong ties with the sports community at large, Gucci conscripted Manchester City’s Jack Grealish as its ambassador this year. The wonderboy of British soccer, often referred to as a modern Beckham, is frequently seen sporting Gucci items off-duty and for special magazine features and cover shoots, such as a cover of The Face magazine last May. Launchmetrics estimates that announcement has generated $2.3 million in MIV to date.
In late 2021, Burberry teamed with international footballer Marcus Rashford, a frontman of its campaigns in the past, to support children’s literacy programs, linking with organizations working with disadvantaged children, and helping them develop their skills. As part of the partnership, the brand also donates books and funded the creation of libraries across the U.K., U.S. and Asia.