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Do Sports Leagues Need ‘Creative Directors’?

Major League Soccer tapped streetwear designer Guillermo Andrade to be its creative advisor, hoping his cultural cachet will make the sport more popular in the US.
sport, soccer, football, MLS, Andrade, 424, Fairfax
Sports organisations like Major League Soccer are tapping designers for wide-ranging creative roles to boost their cultural cachet — and apparel sales — among new audiences. (Courtesy)

Key insights

  • The MLS is looking to harness Guillermo Andrade’s cult following to attract young consumers who care as much about streetwear and music as they do about sports.
  • The NBA has long been the most fashion-friendly sports organisation, having collaborated with brands like Louis Vuitton, Canada Goose and Kid Super over the years.
  • Smaller sports businesses — like the British Basketball League — are also turning to fashion tie-ups to grow engagement and merchandising revenue.

Los Angeles-based designer Guillermo Andrade, known for the cult-favourite streetwear brand 424, announced Wednesday he was tapped for a new role.

His new employer is not a big-name fashion house, but Major League Soccer — America’s top professional football league.

In his “creative advisor” role, Andrade — who founded the 424 brand and boutique in LA’s Fairfax neighbourhood — will help create capsule collections for the Leagues’ Cup, a month-long championship tournament among all 47 teams from the MLS and Mexico’s top football division, Liga MX.

The designer will also oversee apparel and merch for MLS teams in the tournament, broker product collaborations and direct a three-part series documenting the process for Apple TV.

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Andrade’s appointment marks the first time a sports league of the MLS’ size has created such a role (the organisation and its franchises have a projected market value of $16.3 billion, according to sports trade publication Sportico). It follows similar moves by individual NBA teams such as the New York Knicks, who tapped Kith’s Ronnie Fieg as its creative director last year and the Cleveland Cavaliers, which hired American artist Daniel Arsham for the same role in 2020.

Crossovers between fashion and sport are nothing new. In 1998, Jil Sander and Puma teamed up to co-design a limited edition of the “Puma King” football boot, which still shows up on resale sites today listed for as much as $250. More recently, an ever-growing list of brands like Dior, Gucci, Moncler, Off White, Zegna and Burberry have been exploring collaborations with sports teams, as well as tapping in-demand athletes as brand ambassadors.

But MLS’ appointment of Andrade as creative advisor for the entire league signals how sports organisations are looking to boost their cultural appeal among younger audiences, who care as much about streetwear labels and their teams’ celebrity fans as they do about the sport itself. To attract these consumers, sports organisations are partnering with brands and designers to create clothing that goes beyond typical fan merch.

The NBA could eventually hire its own creative director too, according to Lisa Piken Koper, the NBA’s senior vice president, global partnerships. Merch and apparel are its third largest source of revenue, and leaning into womenswear via collaborations could also help drive further popularity for the WNBA, Koper said.

“We don’t have a creative director position that exists just yet but it’s a really interesting model,” Koper added.

For the MLS, Andrade’s appointment is part of a long-term strategy to drum up interest in soccer in North America, where the sport is far eclipsed by American football and basketball. The Guatemalan-born Andrade will help boost the cultural cachet of the league and drive sales of merch, according to the league.

“For me, it makes great sense that [the MLS] wants to tap into fashion,” said Andrade. “You want to expand your fanbase, you want to grow your business, you want to reach as many people as possible — fashion is a great way to do that.”

Fashion in Sports, Explained

For brands, the appeal of tapping into sports is clear: it gets your product in front of young and engaged global audiences and opens the door to partnerships with marketable athletes.

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British jeweller MJ Jones, for example, has built a fast growing business designing bespoke products like “championship rings” for athletes and teams to commemorate tournament wins or career highlights. The brand has seen booming sales as a result of its association with high-profile customers like Lionel Messi, said founder Matthew Jones.

But for sports organisations, working with fashion brands can be complicated. Traditionally, fans and other stakeholders viewed investment in fashion projects as a distraction to players and a waste of resources.

But young consumers today care just as much about fashion as they do the sports they follow — sometimes even more so. The growing popularity of menswear poses an opportunity for sports teams and organisations to acquire new followers through interesting fashion endeavours.

“Well executed fashion partnerships will just add to the allure of a sporting organisation, capturing new fans who never cared for the sport until style got involved,” said Florencia Galarza, a former professional footballer who has brokered several sport-fashion partnerships, such as Kith’s sellout tie-up with Adidas Football in 2017.

“These kinds of deals can give a sport new reach to kids who might not have cared prior to the fashion collab,” she added, pointing to how a new generation of consumers was introduced to football when producer Swizz Beats promoted the Adidas and Kith football line on his social media.

The NBA Playbook

While the NBA may be an international billion-dollar enterprise, its UK counterpart, the British Basketball League (BBL), struggles to compete with national favourites football and rugby.

When Miami investment firm 777 Capital took a 45 percent stake in the ailing BBL in 2021, part of its revamp strategy was hiring former Manchester United footballer-turned-designer David Bellion as the league’s “global creative director.”

Bellion’s first assignment was at the BBL’s London Lions franchise, where he oversaw collaborations with the likes of UK streetwear brand Beautiful Struggles as well as a partnership with accessories label Tomme on a capsule of basketball-shaped handbags. These handbags turned out to be a surprise viral hit, picked up by retailers including Selfridges and promoted by celebrities like British rapper Stefflon Don.

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“Slowly but surely, interest is picking up [in British basketball] as we’re building an emotional link to the sport that didn’t exist before, through fashion and by engaging local creatives to bring these campaigns to life,” Bellion said. This season, viewership is up 128 percent compared to the 2021-2022 season, according to the league.

Stefflon Don sporting the London Lions and Tomme collaboration.
Stefflon Don sporting the London Lions and Tomme collaboration. (London Lions)

The BBL’s entry into fashion as well as the MLS’ appointment of Andrade are tactics ultimately inspired by the NBA, the fashion-friendly sports league.

Over the years, the NBA has partnered with the likes of Louis Vuitton, Canada Goose, luxury cashmere label Elder Statesman and Colm Dillaine’s Kid Super, to name a few. More recently, the league’s strategy has shifted to include tie-ups with niche or up-and-coming labels repped by its players, like Atlanta-based streetwear brand Eastside Golf.

The NBA also has a collaboration in the works with bespoke menswear tailor and designer Waraire Boswell, who has outfitted NBA legends past and present including Chris Bosh and Lebron James, Koper told BoF.

Industry experts say partnerships between fashion brands and sports organisations will only deepen in the years to come.

“The exposure is not just only in the city, state or country where that it is from, but it will be global,” Galarza said. “The opportunity in the intersection of sport and style in sport is monumental.”

Further Reading

Can a Football Club Become a Luxury Brand?

French footballing giant Paris Saint-Germain opened a new flagship store in New York last week, signalling its intention to become the sport’s first true fashion brand.

How Athletes Went From Selling Merch to Building Fashion Brands

High-profile athletes used to make money by inking licensing deals with retailers that use their names on jerseys and shorts. Today, sports stars like Russell Westbrook and Megan Rapinoe are launching their own labels, with full financial and creative control.

About the author
Daniel-Yaw  Miller
Daniel-Yaw Miller

Daniel-Yaw Miller is Senior Editorial Associate at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and covers menswear, streetwear and sport.

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