Karl Lagerfeld passed away this week aged 85. The German fashion icon was best known for his roles as creative director of both Chanel and Fendi, alongside his own eponymous label. What many don’t know, however, is that Lagerfeld was an unlikely early adopter of the high fashion-performance sportswear crossover.
In 2018, streetwear and sportswear overlapped more than ever. Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones collaborated with Nike Football on sets of jerseys and boots, while Palace and adidas released a Wimbledon collection worn by eventual women’s champion Angelique Kerber.
But long before that, Lagerfeld had a small hand in the movement. In 2011, the designer teamed up with Nike for the launch of the French national football team’s first ever jersey with the brand, specifically the away shirt. The French Football Federation had just signed with Nike having been supplied by adidas since the ’70s.
On the pitch, the France national team was experiencing a tumultuous time, having crashed out of the 2010 World Cup in the group stages. However, the signing of one of European football’s giants was still considered a coup for Nike.
Lagerfeld was the one selected to photograph the collection, attending its official launch. He might have been German, but his life and career were in Paris. The photos were used in the official unveiling and, according to Nike, represented the public’s first look at the new partnership.
The 2011 away kit’s daring design represented a departure from what many had come to consider a standard France jersey and set tongues wagging. Rather than a simple blue or white top with complementary Tricolore red and white/blue accents, Nike dressed the kit in Breton stripes. But even if it was something new on a football kit, the Breton-style shirt, also referred to as a “marinière,” is something classically French.
The style was introduced in 1858 as part of the French Navy’s uniform (hence “marinière,” or “sailor”). Like military styles such as the German Army Trainer or the beret, Breton stripes — so called because many French sailors came from Brittany in the northwest — made their way into civilian life.
During her trips to the coast, Coco Chanel took notice of the style and incorporated the stripes into her 1917 nautical collection. Since then, Breton stripes have become a fashion staple and a worldwide symbol of French culture.
While he wasn’t involved in a design capacity, Lagerfeld’s promotional photography for the Nike collection, paired with his presence at the launch, was an important cosign. Coming years before the likes of Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams, and Heron Preston started collaborating with sportswear brands on collections geared toward athletic wear and fashion consumers alike, Lagerfeld lent his name and clout to a key Nike football project.
His involvement might have been minor in the grand scheme of things, largely passing out of common knowledge, but that shouldn’t discount the fact Lagerfeld played his part in helping along today’s movement toward greater hybridization of high fashion and performance sportswear.
Not only did Nike’s 2011 France away jersey represent a noticeable change in how the team looked on the pitch — chic in a truly French way — it referenced an important element of national culture. Sprinkle in a little Karl Lagerfeld and you’ve got one of the most striking jerseys in modern football history.