Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Casual classics No. 1: the Benetton rugby shirt

One of the iconic pieces of scally fashion, this particular item was bought for me by my dad in 1985 when I was 13. Even though it’s now too small, it still has pride of place in my wardrobe, alongside other pieces I managed not to throw out at the time.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wear you art on your sleeve – the history of Stone Island

Originally in Maxim magazine.

Some clothing brands just matter. They define us, they say what we are as people when we wear their garments. And for many men, no label does that better than Stone Island.

On a cold terrace, there’s nothing like a chunky Stone Island knitted cardigan overlaid with one of their beautifully engineered jackets to protect you against the elements. Forget the brand’s ubiquity with a certain type of football supporter in the late ’90s, Stone Island’s exquisite clothes are classics that inhabit a space beyond fashion – they’re almost pieces of architecture that you can wear. And as the brand opens its first stand-alone flagship store in the UK (below, in London’s Covent Garden), it’s finally getting the respect it deserves.

The label began in Italy in 1982 when the brand CP Company acquired an industrial fabric that took on two different colours when dipped in dye. Unsuitable for the then-conservative CP, a new label was created especially for it. Named after a book the firm’s visionary designer Massimo Osti was reading, they called it Stone Island Marina.

Osti, who tragically died in 2005, was a design obsessive, owning more than 20,000 pieces of military and industrial wear. His mission was to take the innovations of this clothing into the fashion arena, to make the unwearable wearable, to engineer beautifully tailored garments from the most unexpected of materials. The brand’s logo, reflecting his obsession with both military and nautical design, was a compass.

“From the beginning Stone Island has been a label centred on fabric and construction research,” says Carlo Rivetti, who’s headed the company since 1982. “We’re always investigating how far we can go in ‘inventing’ and transforming materials, exploring functions for the wearer derived from work gear and uniforms.”

To say that the early Stone Island collections were radically different from everything else is an understatement. Items like jumpers and trousers were made out of fabrics such as steel-coated nylon from the aviation industry or polyester fibre felts used previously in construction. The 1989 ‘ice jacket’, which had a “thermo-sensible” coating that allowed it to drastically change colour through temperature changes was the first garment to get fashion buyers and journalists in the UK interested in this previously obscure Italian brand.

Dropping the ‘Marina’ from its name, the label finally surfaced at Brown’s in London’s South Molton St, the UK’s only stockist. Its prohibitive price and exclusivity made it perfect for those in the capital who’d moved upwards from Sergio Tacchini and Lacoste to high-end brands like Armani and Hugo Boss, as Dave Hewitson, boss of clothing brand 80s Casuals, remembers.

“It first surfaced in London about 1988/9,” says Hewitson. “ It took a while for it to move to Manchester and Liverpool, and in truth it was never that popular here, because it was so expensive. In fact only one shop in either city ever got hold of it. This was, early on at least, a London thing.”

The acid house and rave movement of the late ’80s, which was very ‘anti-label’, kept the brand’s profile low, but as the 1990s began it slowly became increasingly popular with design-obsessed football supporters in both England and Italy. Stone Island’s UK representative Gino Da’Prata:

“The clothes were perfect for football stadiums – their technical construction meant you were protected when it got cold and damp. The fact that Stone Island was expensive, aspirational and also hard to acquire – demand always exceeded supply – just increased its allure. And it’s still the same today.”

Up until 1992, the brand was still something of a secret, but at the 1992 European Championships in Sweden, England fans descended on a clothes outlet in Stockholm called ‘Genius’ – which just happened to be crammed with large amounts of Stone Island. The supporters did what British fans have been doing since the 1970s – and promptly looted it. Within an hour the compass was on the arms of football fans from all over England – Stone Island had just gone mainstream.

For much of ’90s it seemed you couldn’t go to a game without seeing a firm decked out in Stone Island. It became choice for fans looking for more than just football in their trips to the match. Da’Prata again:

“You saw the compass first because it was on the outside of our jackets, but underneath those fans would have been wearing Prada Sport and Armani too. We never targeted that consumer, we’ve always been exclusive and been sold a in a few selected shops, but you can’t stop people buying it.”

Like anything, fashions come and go – and Stone Island, which has always seen itself as above fashion carried on innovating. After the departure of Massimo Osti (to found his own Left Hand label, below), British designer Paul Harvey took over, creating the most incredible of garments. The story went from the people who were wearing it to the genius of the brand’s innovations, like the 100% stainless steel mesh bonded to nylon to make it wearable or coats made of garment-dyed Kevlar – the stab-proof material used previously by the military and police forces in their protective clothing. For Carlo Rivetti, it is this absolute dedication to innovation that defines Stone Island to this day.

“We approach the design and engineering of garments pretty much like industrial design. This is not pointlessly exasperated research: design is dictated by contemporary needs. Every new season shows how far it can carry us into the world of clothing.”

In 2009, Stone Island is stronger than ever with devotees all over the world – many of whom obsess about it at dedicated websites and forums. Working with outside designers, who put their own spin on the label’s philosophy in new collections like the Shadow Project and body-focused Articulated Anatomy collection, is helping to make it the absolute definition of 21st Century clothing brand. And, as 23-year-old founder of football/fashion fanzine , Daniel Nicolson says, “Stone Island has come full circle. People now recognise its undoubted quality. In a way, I wear it in spite of the badge, not because of it – the clothes are that good they speak for themselves.”

And if that's not the definition of a classic then what is?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Napoli’s ultras arrive at Rome’s railway station

Now this is a football mob. After years in the wilderness, the light blues from Naples got back into the top flight of Italian calcio – and at the end of August they played their hated foes, Roma for the first time in years. This video shows their vast army of supporters arriving at Roma Termini, ready for battle.

They just keep coming and coming…

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Sports stadium design: an interview with Rod Sheard

Sheard is the architect of some of the world’s premier sports stadiums (such as Dublin’s Croke Park, above). This article originally appeared in the January issue of UK Esquire magazine.

If watching sport is the nearest many of us get to organised religion, then it’s no surprise that the arenas we frequent feel as sacred as the cathedrals our ancestors once worshipped in. What makes them worthy of genuflection is that they are places not just of observation, but also of participation, where we, the crowd, are as much a part of the spectacle as the supermen on the turf. Theatre may be the highest of high culture, but there is no equivalent of the ‘12th man’ at the Royal Opera House.

Rod Sheard understands better than most the relationship a fan has with the venue where he follows his chosen sport. The “Senior Principal” of architects HOK Sport (the go-to company for stadium design) has overseen projects as diverse as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, the new Wembley, Hong Kong’s Happy Valley racecourse, and the O2 Arena, not to mention the contentious 2012 Olympic arena currently rising out of the Lea Valley in east London.

Sheard appreciates that working on a stadium is very different to undertaking a residential or office project. “There is something that gets under your skin about sports buildings,” he reflects, relaxing in the firm’s London headquarters, a placid environment lined with the uniforms of myriad sports teams. “If you’ve got that it helps. These are not boring buildings. You can do office projects all over the world, but the level of interest you get from them is limited, whereas with stadia you can go back to them, live in them month in and month out. Ten years into the future you can still remember the times you’ve spent in them.”

Born in Brisbane in 1951, Sheard qualified as an architect in Australia before coming to the UK to work for LOBB Sport Architecture in the late ’70s. After plying his trade for the firm for several years, he became a partner in 1981, and was made chairman in 1993. In 1998 LOBB merged with HOK Sport to become the world’s leading designer of stadia. Today, Sheard runs the London office, a role that allows him to get involved with some of the UK’s most hallowed grounds, as well as plenty more abroad. “If you’re the head of a big firm that does all sorts of stuff,” he reasons, “you’re spread so thinly you can’t be involved in all the jobs. We just do one sort of building – sports and entertainment. Our clients expect a level of personal service, more than you’d expect from a normal architect. But I don’t actually do the door details any more, I have people who can do that.”

The practice currently has a staff count of 530, spread over six international cities to ensure it remains online around the clock. There’s no overall CEO of HOK Sport, rather a board of 10 ‘managers’ who run the company between them. Though this may sound a tad Leninist, in truth it’s a logical blueprint for practical leadership. With an experienced director overseeing each of the practice’s global outposts, important decisions can be made quickly, and, crucially, with the benefit of local expertise.

Sheard believes the key to fulfilling each premises he takes on is to understand the sport that will be played in it. “You have to have different types of stadia for different sports. Pick two extremes like tennis and rugby union. One’s about an individual against an individual, it’s about sheer speed. The practicalities define the speed of the ball and define the stadium. You can’t put 80,000 people around a tennis court; you wouldn’t be able to see the ball. On the other hand, if you put 15,000 people around a rugby pitch there’d be no atmosphere.”

Yet even arenas for the same sport can end up being radically different. He cites his current project at the Centre Court for the All England Tennis Club (above) as an example. “Wimbledon is about the intensity of grass, you almost want to be able to smell that grass. It has that post-box view, the roof comes down very low, you have no peripheral vision, and it’s all about that patch of green. Whereas Roland-Garros or Flushing Meadows is much more expansive, more out in the open.”

Of course, each of Sheard’s arenas is unique, but whether it’s the Suncorp rugby ground in his home city of Brisbane (below) or Benfica’s new Estadia da Luz in Lisbon, a common theme emerges: the site as a catalyst for development. “Cities all around the world are looking at places where they can put these buildings. We put the Colonial Stadium in Melbourne’s docklands and the area just took off. They’re seen as ‘good neighbour’ buildings that people want in their cities. Even a fairly average stadium will bring in a million people a year – Wembley brings in three million. I think we’ll see them develop further, more mixed use, more vitality, more seven-days-a-week use.”

As with so many business plans, the location can be as important as what goes on it. Drive toward Horwich on the M61 in Lancashire and you’ll see a basket-weave of white steel – a trait of Sheard’s designs – nestling in the valley below. This is Bolton Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium (below). Built in 1997, it’s an example of how even a rural environment can be enhanced through the introduction of a well thought-out facility. And this philosophy of working with the environment is what’s guiding HOK Sport’s work on London’s new 2012 centrepiece.

“The idea Seb Coe and his team had was that London doesn’t need an 80,000 seat stadium after the Olympics,” he explains. “Normally, the stadium stays after an Olympics and a sport is found for it. He was brave enough to say that this wasn’t a model we should do here. Rather than change the sport, change the building. We did have a need for an athletics stadium, but that can’t justify more than 25,000 spectators. After the Olympics we’ll take away 55,000 seats.”

Sheard believes that the whole philosophy of stadium design, particularly for one-off events like the Olympics or World Cup, is radically changing. “We see cities like Chicago – which is bidding for the 2016 Olympics. It has looked at London and said ‘let’s take it further’. They can do their venues as temporary structures. Build them in a park in the city centre and take them away afterwards, meaning they don’t have to find 300 acres at the edge of town. Why should a venue be more important than the event? If the event itself is special, everything else falls into place. Minimal impact, touch the earth softly, use as little resources as possible and move on, but do the most spectacular show possible.”

While Sheard may be an Australian, it is the national sport of this country that has provided him with the chance to best flex his creative muscles. As football boomed after the 1990 World Cup, he was perfectly placed to capitalise on the need for safe, well-designed buildings in which the paying customer would be treated like a human being, rather than a caged animal. His revolutionary McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield, the first sports ground to win the RIBA ‘Building of the Year’ award, was built as a direct result of the new philosophy that followed the Hillsborough disaster.

One accusation that the new breed of stadium has had directed against it is that many of the grounds are interchangeable – ‘soulless bowls’ somehow detached from the community the team represents. Sheard is aware of this, and admits it can be a difficult task to imprint the spirit of a club onto a new arena. “A typical Premier League club needs a 50-60,000 capacity, but after that, what sets them apart? It’s about getting inside the psyche of the club, trying to find what’s special to them and reflecting that in a building. When we did the Emirates for Arsenal [below], it helped us a great deal that we’d worked at Highbury before. The Emirates was never about an ego statement, Arsenal may be high-achievers but they are quietly spoken. The ground reflects that.”

Sheard’s enthusiasm for his projects is obvious. Touring HOK Sport’s sleek offices with its Le Corbusier sofas, there’s a perceptible buzz, with people crowded in front of computer screens or hunched around models scrutinizing every last detail. He points to various corners along the way, explaining that “This is the Landsdowne Road project” or that we should “Meet the team doing the roof at Wimbledon”.

Almost immediately you get the impression that he is not into micro-management, and obviously believes in his staff enough to let them get on with it. He prefers instead to be on hand when the occasion demands, and – as long as he knows that things are progressing – is content to let them work things out.

But it’s not just in the office that this feeling permeates. It’s the same on site too. “The trade guys who build these places are just fantastic,” he reflects. “They work a bit harder because of what they are. You might find ‘Tottenham rule’ written on the odd brick at the Emirates, but it’s all tongue in cheek. In the end they believe in the sport, so they do their best. How often do you build a football ground? There’s a feeling of common purpose with a stadium.”

As laid-back and affable as he is, Sheard is also very aware of his responsibilities. It’s for this reason that – along with the other nine principals - he’s helped lead a management buyout from the parent company, that will soon see the sports division go it alone. “When we go in to a client we’re expected to field a team of guys who know what they’re doing – ‘this one’s done five stadiums, he’s done four’. Therefore the loyalty and commitment of our employees is more acute than any other sort of firm. We have to be able to attract and keep the best people.”

“The only way to do that is to give them some level of ownership and we could never have achieved that if we’d stayed part of HOK. By coming out of HOK we’ll pay good wages – and a bonus. In this day and age it’s important that the guys who do the work and make us successful should get rewards in ownership.”

And what of the current global outlook? Isn’t it a bit risky to embark on this sort of action? He thinks not. “Sport is one of those things, even with the economic doom and gloom, that’s insulated from it, more so than say, housing. We don’t have to go through boom and bust cycles, we can plan for the future.” And because stadium design is something that anyone with an interest in sport feels strongly about, it’s a future we'll all be watching with interest. No doubt from a stand he has designed.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Liverpool Anglican cathedral in the fog

Still one of the biggest places of worship in the world, these photos, taken with my 3MP phone camera help to illustrate what brooding, magnificent building it is.