Rob Warner: The Resurgence of Umbro & the NY Cosmos

While Umbro has been largely seen in the shadows of the American soccer lifestyle segment, the brand has put the wheels in motion to reclaim its rightful place. Rob Warner has been put in charge of helping lead the design as he oversees both Umbro and the NY Cosmos division. As the defining point of Umbro’s lifestyle resurgence, we spoke with Rob Warner to gain some background into his work with the Cosmos.

Photography: David Bowles/HYPEBEAST

How important has it been to pay tribute to the heritage of the Cosmos, but forward thinking in how the garments are designed and produced?
The history of the Cosmos and more importantly its inherent style and swagger was an incredibly rich point of inspiration for the design team. Bringing elements of the past, such as the iconic neckline of the jersey, back to the limelight through a modern execution is one example of how the heritage of the Cosmos can be used to trigger great design. There’s so much to draw from in the Cosmos archive that the hardest part is using restraint in what we use and how we make sure it’s as relevant today as it was then.

How important has it been to try and capture the essence of the city of NY in these products?
New York is an amazing city, and it’s also incredibly diverse. We wanted to celebrate that by bringing insights from New York into the collection so that it appealed to everybody and still delivered the New York Cosmos message to the world. We kept our Umbro perspective on it made sure that we did was just as relevant to us as it is to the Cosmos. We’re about football, authenticity, innovation, sophistication and tailoring, so key aspects of New York and New Yorkers naturally align to the Umbro design values anyway.

When you sit down to start a new collection, where do you begin? (archives, inspiration boards, etc?)
Always with the consumer or player – their needs and aspirations form the bedrock of how product is approached. We then look for a cultural influence that provides a connection beyond the function of the garment. We’ll pool together thoughts, ideas, imagery, and quotes and think through what they mean and what message they can tell the world through the medium of product. Some of it can end up being quite abstract (multicolored stripes being influenced by the subway map for instance) but we’ll always mix football and culture in with our values to give something that is insightful, relevant and stylish.

Do you have an ‘archive’ of all the past Cosmos kits, training range that you can reference from? Is it digital or samples?
A mixture of both; we are all avid collectors to try and gain as much Cosmos memorabilia as possible – old shirts, matchday programmes, I’ve even got a Cosmos Subutteo team on my desk. There is also a fantastic photo archive which creates a virtual timeline of the Cosmos in their former heyday; this is always a rich point of research. Some of the photos are incredible and reference points in time, be they from a football perspective through the likes of Pele or from a culture perspective with images of Mick Jagger at Studio 54.

Where do you find inspiration, references for the collections?
We’ll look into the rich history of the club and also of New York City, and we’ll spend some time in New York too (any excuse!) so that we can talk to people who remember Cosmos first time around or who will be influenced and excited by Cosmos now and in the future. There’s so much to draw from that we are able to form rich stories that are relevant to New York, the Cosmos and Umbro.

How much input/say does the NY Cosmos have in each collection?
The New York Cosmos team live and breathe the club so it’s always good to get their perspective on things – they understand New York and the club better than anybody. They’re a really cool bunch of people too and so their input is always relevant and worthwhile. They also get what the Umbro brand is about so it makes for a productive conversation – they’re as much fans of Umbro as we are of the Cosmos.

Do you design with an ideal client/customer in mind? Who is the Cosmo fan you’re designing for?
The ‘Cosmos fan’ can be anyone. Most football fans have a team and that’s it but with New York being the world’s city, so Cosmos can be the world’s club. It’s really about bringing together the essence of New York, football, and our tailoring and performance sensibilities to create something that is cool but has mass appeal. It encapsulates everything the New York Cosmos are about.

How much do the you try to follow the latest trends/collections when designing for Umbro/Cosmos?
We spend a lot of time tracking what’s happening across the world but rather than looking at it to directly influence what we do, we’ll use it as an opportunity to stay one step ahead of the game. We won’t look at a trend and think “oh that’s cool, let’s do that” but more take inspiration from it, apply our own brand values and ideals, and look to improve things.

Who are a few of your favorite brands, designers, artists or people that inspire you?
Ha! That’s the hardest interview question – designers usually get asked this when they’re being interviewed for a job and there’s never really a right answer! For me personally I love anybody who is confident in what they are doing and who is doing something for a reason. I’m not a fan of arbitrary change per se, but if something has a story or a resonance then it appeals to me. I was always a massive fan of what Neil Barrett did with Prada and was lucky enough to work with him a few years ago. He was a massive influence on my career. Lately Aitor Throup, someone else I’ve been fortunate to work with, has had an impact because of his approach to the design process; whilst there’s also a typographer named Paul Barnes who has an amazing knack of reinterpreting classic design to make it feel sophisticated and contemporary. In terms of artists or people from other walks of life I’d apply the same thinking – game changers are always worthy of respect, be that Warhol or Banksy in the art world to Pelé or Nelson Mandela in their respective fields. People who look at stuff and think “I can make that better by doing it like this…” and achieve precisely that.

How big is your design team and what do they do?
The design team as a whole is just over 20 people with 10 working on apparel and four on graphics so we’re a pretty tight unit. We have a broader team who help us through pattern making and sewing samples for us and also product managers who help ensure we’re doing the right things at the right price, and developers who take our ideas and turn them into beautiful real objects.

How far ahead do you design each collection? For instance, Spring 2011 just dropped. When did you start working on this line?
We’re about 18 months ahead of the curve on most collections but with some things, usually ones that are for a more premium retail level, we’ll work closer to market. Tailoring and engineering a great football shirt takes a long time, whilst more lifestyle-related products need to be able to capture the moment so you’d want to get them off your sketchbook and onto people’s backs as quickly as possible.

What can we look forward to in the next NY Cosmos collection?
More amazing product that will continue to educate and remind people of the legacy of the New York Cosmos combined with the forward thinking approach of the club today. It all works well with our innovative methods of juxtaposing old and new whilst telling compelling stories. Look out this summer for a Cosmos collection that will draw on a key point in the history of the club and the city as an example of all that coming together. It’s one of the coolest collections I’ve ever worked on.

When see the NY Cosmos line, what is the story you’re trying to tell with the collection?
It really is about giving a nod to the past and what the Cosmos were about but presenting it in a contemporary way that makes sense to modern society. I think the Umbro approach allows that as it’s something we do naturally through our own products and how we reinterpret elements of our archive for today. New York had and has so much to offer the world, and the Cosmos loops all that together through a football lens. Most people would want to visit New York at some stage in their life but not everyone will be fortunate enough to get the chance. The Cosmos/Umbro collection gives fans of football and style the opportunity to carry a bit of New York with them wherever life takes them.

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