Origins Of The Denim Kit: Adidas Product Manager Who Helped Create ’94 US Jersey Talks Tie-Dye, Design Process, And More

Alexi Lalas fights off a Swiss defender in World Cup '94.

Hosted by the USA, the 1994 World Cup came at a very interesting time for pop culture in this country. The country was gripped by anti-establishment fever, with hip-hop and grunge dominating the airwaves, as well as the cash registers.

Naturally, major clothing and footwear companies tried to tap into this alternative movement, but often with disastrous effect. How do you concoct a design that says life has no purpose when the company creating it has, in fact, a very specific purpose? Make a lot of money.

It was into this world that the quirky “Denim Kit” was born.

The stony, acidic blue kit with white stars didn’t stand out too much at the time of its release, if only because the underwhelming US men’s national team didn’t garner much media attention, and, to be honest, the design wasn’t particularly garish compared to other wares at the time. But as time wore on, and tastes — especially when it came to soccer attire — became more dignified and understated, the Denim Kit developed a bit of a reputation as being a classic American misfire.

Seventeen years on, however, it’s possible to see the uniform in a different light. While wholly inelegant, it has actually aged decently due to its design adhering to two simple colors, blue and white (we dare you to compare it to some of the multi-hued monstrosities of the time). And while admittedly cartoonish, the playful energy behind it can be interpreted as an age of innocence in American soccer. Our squad and its players were babes in the woods on the global stage at that point, so in that sense, the Denim Kit can be likened to a clownish pair of overalls that a parent will dust off from time to time to remember the child behind the adult.

That’s our belief at least — after all, we named this damn site after it. So does this theory hold true? Was the uniform the innocent offspring of a place where commerce, culture and sport collide? Or was its inception and design far more calculated than that? To find out — and on the eve of the uniform’s 17th birthday — we spoke with Drew Gardner, who was the product manager for the Adidas team that created the Denim Kit. Drew was good enough to speak to us at length over the phone in order to give us the full story behind the creation of the Denim Kit.

TDK: What was your involvement with the Denim Kit?

DG: I was product manager for the soccer business unit for Adidas and I had just recently moved over from Umbro to Adidas and it was my duty to plan the various lines, one of them being the World Cup venue line; we had the responsibility of outfitting 26,000 across the various venues here in the US. The US team line, the National team line and the related retail lines, all those came under my jurisdiction in regards to product management.

TDK: Where did the idea for a denim jersey come from?

DG: It was a long evolving process over a probably two-year span. We started in late ’91 and it kind of evolved. It started at a meeting in Germany at the Adidas headquarters; I flew over and met and started working with two old Umbro designers: Wendy Cope, who had just moved over and another designer (Ed. note: Drew couldn’t remember the name of the other designer). They started the Adidas London office so they were kind of working on design ideas.

So I started working with [Wendy] in a meeting and we’re looking at ideas and a lot of them were great ideas at first, but they just struck me as distinctively Umbro. Umbro had a very distinctive English look and it just didn’t look like it would come out of the Adidas. We kind of went back and forth and worked over designs and worked from a design brief; and one of the things that came out of the design brief was design elements that were truly American inspired and one of the cloud words was denim, because denim was so indicative of American culture and street.

We kind of played around with that and how can we incorporate this because it does have a distinctly American look. We didn’t stick with one look or one kit; we had many that we worked up. There was a lot of discussion of what the team would like and what their chances were, in regards to their match play and quality; should we go with something very low-key because we didn’t expect the US team to go very far. And a lot had to do with others things: the marketing aspect. Adidas paid $7.5 million for the national team and some other sublicenses, so unfortunately a lot of it down the road came down to dollars and marketing. They wanted to tie back into a sellable active wear street line so that the two would work hand in hand. That had a lot to do with what went forward and what the team approved.

Things kind of changed half way through the program, when Rob Strasser and Peter Moore interjected.

Rob Strasser and Peter Moore actually developed Air Jordan and Nike Air, while they were at Nike. Nike started to grow so much and they kind of worked themselves out of a position there; the ideology changed, their personalities clashed with other people, so they left the business and started their own company called Sports, Inc. Their game plan was to go out and build sub-collections, like ACG, and all these other things for all these big companies like Nike, Adidas, Brooks and so on.

And that’s what they were going to do but that didn’t really work out because one of their first big projects was [Dikembe] Mutombo. They thought they were going to be another Air Jordan but that died on the vine.

Mutombos Shoe

The Mutombos

So halfway through the process they came in, and they were very market-driven, so Strasser wanted to make sure that whatever was done got a lot of attention; whether it was right, wrong, or indifferent.

I remember one time he kept pushing and pushing tie-dye. That’s kind of how the away jersey kind of came from … they were first playing with a tie-dye look when you twist the t-shirt before you dye it and rubber band it up; the stars were going to open up like that.

The bottom line was they wanted to be able to sell a retail line and tie it back to the uniform and they wanted it to be financially successful and they were able to convince the powers that be that this was the kit that we needed to push forward.

Drazen Petrovic in the New Jersey Nets' tie-dye uniform

In the 1990-1991 season, the New Jersey Nets wore a tie-dye type uniform.

TDK: Was US Soccer involved in the process?

To a certain extent, when you sell the license to that sort of thing, there’s a bit of you have to let the partner push the ideas forward … We had multiple lines with various looks, for various reasons. We worked it through internally first in the US and in Germany and then presented it to the various powers. Again, what it tied back into, which was another long discussion, was the venue look. There were certain design elements for the World Cup venues in regards to everything that we did –- from the parking attendants, to the dignitaries, to the officials that wore the jackets, and everyone that was involved. In all the graphics from the light polls in the streets and all the advertising and the marketing there was a certain design element that was a red line through the whole program to the apparel.

Originally, we were playing around with fabrics that had a denim look that would perform, that may hint that this is something different and American; and we kind of at one point abandoned the denim shorts because we couldn’t get anything that we liked the feel and the look and we were running out of time and it kind of made its way into the away jersey.

TDK: In several friendlies leading up to the 1994 World Cup, the US wore denim-looking shorts. Why didn’t they wear them during the World Cup?

US Soccer wearing denim shorts in a friendly before the 1994 World Cup

DG: We were testing things. We were testing them for playability: Is this something that works that serves a purpose, not just a certain look? We wanted things to perform and we wanted people to really like them … We had various renditions of it; some were sublimated, some were true, cotton, poly-cross dyes, it was a little bit of everything we were trying and we also wanted to keep it to a certain price point because we wanted this to translate to retail, as well.

TDK: The design of the jersey stands out as a unique uniform and speaks to a time of innocence in US Soccer; something unfiltered and uniquely American. Looking back how do you think the uniform turned out?

DG: Well, it’s hated and it’s loved; in what percentage I’m not really quite sure. It’s hard to say, it was a very difficult process, if there was less people involved and a much more streamlined proces it may have gone a different way. At a certain point, Strasser and Moore got involved and I was really scared to death that Strasser was just pushing and pushing tie-dye. He just thought — he’s West Coast, Grateful Dead — he just thought that’s going to make noise; 50 percent good talk and 50 percent bad talk is 100 percent, he always said. God, I was just thinking, well it might be OK for some t-shirts, but not in a uniform. Or maybe if it’s just in one game to bring attention — in one of the friendlies, but not to push it as the uniform. I’m not sure if Moore got involved but eventually it died on the vine.

The Lithuanian basketball team wore tie-dye shirts and warm-ups at times in the '90s; as a tribute to the Grateful Dead, who provided financial backing for the newly liberated country after the fall of the Soviet Union.

TDK: Were denim socks ever considered?

DG: I don’t remember anything like that.

TDK: What was the feeling like at Adidas when the denim uniform came out? Was there concern about how the public would receive it?

DG: I think everything was pretty positive; there may have been people thinking, “I wonder if they will accept that or push back.” We came up with some real clean looking kits but for a host team they felt it was just too quiet and just didn’t make enough of a statement and the higher-ups said we need publicity; we need something to send to the media, something to talk about. I think everyone realized it was a slippery slope. You think about the team and you are used to seeing them in something more classic and not quite over the top and in your face, but at the same time it’s our World Cup; it’s our time to shine, it’s time to let the world know who we are. And again, there are a lot of monetary strings attached in regards to expectations for retail sales. Everybody in business understood that internally and I think that probably pushed away any fears of, “Is this too much? Is this not classic enough?” I don’t think there was any great fear.

TDK: Did the design of the Denim Kit influence your future work in design?

DG: Yes, I think so. You have to think about your stage and you have to be bigger than the moment sometimes. And what really stood out for me when the word denim came up was, I went to FIT in New York and remember Yves Saint Laurent came to speak to our class and one of the things that he said that really stood out for me was that I really wish I would have invented the jean, the blue jean. He said that is just the epitome of apparel. He kept saying I wish I would have invented it. I wish it would have been me. And that kind of stuck with me and when the word denim came out that kind of stuck in my craw; we are so used to it, but other people look at it and how important it is to them and different it is and it kind of resonated then.

At the time, the Adidas philosophy … they may not have been that technologically advanced, but they wanted to identify with the street and what was hip and what was cool and the leading edge and all that RUN-DMC before it and all that sort of stuff. To them, denim was street and street was how they wanted to make a name. Fashion to them came from the street and the street led everything. And they were comfortable with that.

[Nike] had such a huge success with the Jordan line and how it was influenced and welcomed by the street and how it had cred with the street; and that was new to people in the early 80’s; how important the street dollar was and the inner city dollar and how it drove fashion, especially with an active-wear, footwear company and that stuck with [Adidas] as well. They were always looking to be respected by the street.

(Elo Geo helped interview Gardner and wrote the introduction to the feature.)

Follow @TheDenimKit on Twitter

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1 Comment

  1. Marketers. Ugh. Fasionistas. Double ugh. USSF’s unwillingness to stick to a recognizable home kit (a la Argentina celeste stripes, Brazil yellow, Holland orange, Germany white with flag color accents, Italy blue). Triple ugh.

    Fascinating interview. Its amazing how many great (and epic failure) decisions are made based purely on profit motives.

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