We had the enviable opportunity to peruse the colors and crests on the racks of the Classic Football Shirts warehouse. Nestled in the shadows of Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, the aisles upon aisles of shirts and gear worn on the hallowed football pitches all over the world spark vivid memories tied to these historic pieces.
Each strip from the classic patterns down to the blood stains bring to mind moments cherished by footy fanatics far and wide. Moments that evoke a simpler time before every football fan had virtually every match from every corner of the globe streaming in their hands.
For Gary Bierton, preserving the moments and history before cell phones filled the stands, has been the mission for the passion project that first began in 2006 with the inception of Classic Football Shirts, founded by his older brother, Doug and friend Matthew Dale.
“It takes you back instantly, you know,” recounts Bierton as he sits in a warehouse with over twenty thousand kits ranging from the most loved to the most loathed, from well-known to the most unknown clubs around the world. “I’m looking at that France ’98 shirt. I can remember where I was when I watched the World Cup final in ’98. It puts you back in the room instantly.”
With Classic Football Shirts, Gary has been instrumental in buying, documenting, and providing the biggest collection of football shirts online in the world for fans and teams alike.
Looking for the 1999 kit worn by the treble-winning Manchester United squad? Take your pick: David Beckham. Paul Scholes. Roy Keane. It’s all there on their website.
The digital gatekeeper of football relics began in student housing his brother Doug and his partner, Matt, finished university studies in Manchester. More so a clubhouse with a few rails carrying product for passers-by, with the first pop-up shop happening in 2018.
Not long after starting Doug and Matt got things started, Gary found himself working holidays cataloging shirts as he followed his own path at the Manchester Business School.
“I don’t think any of us expected to be here in 2019,” laughs Bierton as he recalls moments from the store’s infancy.
As the de-facto leader of marketing and brand growth, he has leveraged the collection into pop-up stores across the UK and exhibitions showcasing kits from brands such as Nike, adidas, Umbro and Kappa.
Classic Football Shirts created their first exhibits under the brand ‘Fabric of Football’. The cataloging the shirts online had already started years before and the catalog just kept growing.
Around the same time the team at Classic Football Shirts was expanding their online presence they got ready to dive into retail pop-ups.
Bierton’s mother raised concerns about the uncertainty of a career choice as a glorified second-hand merchant. Friends too wondered about the sustainability of the idea and where this side project would take them next.
Bierton continued to see the growth even those around him questioned the career choice. The doubters turned into believers when they saw the hundreds of people clamoring to get a chance to purchase a shirt at a London pop-up.
“A lot of my friends live in London and they come to see what you’re doing. Then they’re like, ‘Why are people queuing down the street to look at this stuff,’”
His friends might have been slow to catch his vision but it did not take long for them to realize the influence Classic Football Shirts has on the culture.
The impact of companies like Bierton’s has been far-reaching. Today tastemakers and fashion-centric individuals outside of the game and culture are choosing to rock classic football kits with growing frequency. Players have cross-pollinated their influence into different avenues. Seeing Drake or Kylie Jenner showoff their favorite football shirts on the ‘Gram is commonplace.
Brands like adidas and Nike have geared their campaigns and collections to fuse fashion with sports as a way to be more inclusive of the audience they are marketing to.
From the avid fan to the casual enthusiast of the game entrenched in everything fashion, leveraging the influence of designer juggernauts such as Virgil Abloh and Gosha Rubchinksiy has blurred the lines of ready-to-wear runway designs for the pitch.
That wasn’t always the case. Bierton recalls the moment that his type of inventory transcended the hardcore football fans. “Not until maybe 2013, 2014 did it become a fashionable thing,” he says. “The moment we realized it had gone a little beyond from what we thought, was a post with Kendall Jenner wearing a Juve ’98 Kappa jacket.”
Celebrity influence has turned shirts that might otherwise be forgettable into hype-fueled items. The aforementioned Italian club Juventus donned rose pink Adidas kits for the 2015-2016 campaign. As soon as Drake and Snoop Dogg were captured wearing the shirts across social media, fans pillaged retailers to ride the trend.
But for Bierton, the affinity and passion for shirts will never fade. Beyond the trends and influence driven by the who’s who of music and design, he knows there’s someone looking for that vintage kit from his beloved Manchester United or the local Macclesfield Town football club shirt.
Regardless of the buyer, he’s thankful to play a part in connecting with fans and new aficionados.“It’s bigger than football. And we’ve come from the perspective as football fans, but then it becomes more than that. You can keep it quite rigid or open up to anybody.”