Home and away kits are pretty self-explanatory. And third kits are firmly established as an important part of football these days – even if some of their post-season uses are questionable – but third kits are a relatively new phenomenon.
In recent years, arguably starting with the 2020-21 season, clubs have launched fourth kits at an alarming rate. Most of these stripes have no official role and are never worn on a professional pitch, although some associations allow an unusual appearance in the league.
This has understandably led to accusations of greed from some fans, with these fourth kits often being written off as nothing more than something else for fans to spend money on.
“Fourth kits are an area where we can explore with more creative freedom,” says Ingo Turner, Design Director at adidas Football GATE. “We saw it as an area to push the creative space in football shirt design and try things that we might not otherwise be able to do.
“We also consider them part of the matchwear collection, so we often create them as fully playable kits with the ambition to have them on the pitch.”
Harnessing gear on the field brings its own set of challenges, as all leagues have specific rules about what gear can and cannot look like. Caps on the number of colors and crests or placement of graphics are enforced globally, but there’s still more than enough wiggle room to take a different approach.
“Because it’s fairly new, it’s also undefined, so we can go in any direction and explore it,” says Turner of the fourth kit category. “We can collaborate with artists and creatives/designers, we can collaborate with communities and supporters, we can connect with this in a different way than we might do elsewhere.”
As Turner says, the ability to collaborate with outside partners is one of the main draws of fourth kits and helps explain the popularity of collaborations in this space.
Since fourth kits have become an important category, clubs and kit manufacturers have often turned to fashion designers to help design kits. Pharrell’s Human Made designed kits for a number of adidas teams, while Napoli have collaborated with Marcelo Burlon and London skate label Palace came into play through a collaboration with Juventus.
“Collaboration in football is relatively new, so I think it brings something very progressive and creative where sometimes it’s not that easy to do with one of the first three jerseys,” Turner continues. “Collaborations in general are nothing new when compared to the sneaker industry, which has been in this space for many years.
“I think it’s something that takes the jersey into a new and interesting realm, and jerseys are such big symbols for fans and people that they get a lot of attention, so you can bring together really unexpected or interesting partners with a very engaged community . ”
The criticism of fourth kits and their role in football is understandable, but they also serve a purpose outside of the game. Supporters of a team may be more interested in wearing those shirts as part of their day-to-day lives, while the dedication of staff gives clubs the opportunity to reach out to people who might otherwise miss them.
“Football and fashion have always been there and have a long authentic history, but in the last five years or so it’s really picked up steam,” explains Turner, pointing to some of the work adidas has recently done with Yohji Yamamoto’s range, including the incredible blackout away kit.
“We want to capture the excitement and diversity of the world and culture. Football jerseys in particular are also very tribal but also diverse, they represent the diversity of people, sports, moments, they are iconic, and football is the sport of the world, so I think the rich tapestry of this identity lends itself to be explored with fashion and being merged into the unique way people like to present and style themselves.
“Sport has influenced fashion, which in turn goes somewhere else and influences them back, it’s very creative and evolving.”
So far, most fourth kits have fulfilled the fashion focus, but other clubs are taking different paths.
At last season’s FA Cup, Arsenal competed in an all-white shirt to raise awareness of knife crime in London and spotlight an important issue.
Whether it’s new design directions or public statements, fourth jerseys are beginning to establish their own role in the sport. Whatever you may think of them, it’s clear they’re not going anywhere just yet.