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the square ball week: in fashion

the square ball week: in fashion


Image by Wayne Gamble | @Gamblism

You would think there would be some photos of it somewhere, but when we contacted them, nobody at Top Man knew where in their archive to look. 

Upwards was where Gary Speed looked. With his friend and agent Hayden Evans, standing at Oxford Circus, he looked up at the flagship London Top Man store and saw himself, the size of a building, featuring with Jamie Redknapp in two enormous banner adverts.

“He thought it was incredible,” said Hayden. “You don’t see yourself as other people see you, and to him he was just Gary Speed – but suddenly he was there on Oxford Street, as high as a building.”

Top Man had latched on to Premier League football’s new popularity, and by turning two of its handsome young stars into fashion models, it had turned its new clothing line into a sales hit.

Leeds had been slightly ahead of the curve on the trend for turning footballers into fashion icon. What the sponsorship deal with Burton, arranged by Peter Ridsdale for the 1986/87 season, was at the time a hook-up with a local company, but it was also early recognition that football could help sell menswear. 

Fans at the time were seen as nothing more than hooligans, causing mayhem on trains and at football grounds up and down the country. Perhaps it was coincidence, but putting Burton’s name on the shirt of a second division football club seems like recognition that the fans may have been malevolent, but they were often well dressed.

Images via Fear&Loathing in LS11

The players, on the other hand, weren’t exactly model material. After the Burton logo was replaced by Top Man’s brand, photos of the players in the most up-to-date Top Man lines appeared in adverts in the match programme. The mockups of autographed Polaroids, featuring Lee Chapman in a violently striped jumper, or Chris Fairclough sporting some double denim, were so obviously photos of footballers forced into everyday clothes that they didn’t even bother to disguise the Kop in the background. A better bet for sales was Vinnie Jones in the gleaming white home shirt and jeans, “Exclusively available from Top Man” stores. 

The Premier League changed all that. United’s Top Man deals ended the year before Leeds won the last League Championship, and the players most serious modelling task was to pretend to be interested in copies of the Yorkshire Evening Post during the annual squad photocall. But the move to satellite TV, Monday night football, and big budget (for the time) TV adverts changed people’s perception of football, and of footballers; there wasn’t much Sky could do with Peter Beardsley, but Paul Stewart in his shades, and Tony Daley in the shower, suddenly looked more like genuine superstars than future pub landlords.

It got Top Man’s attention. In the mid-nineties they’d asked an agency called First Artists to devise a massive new national campaign, and had Jamie Redknapp, just coming into his own at Liverpool, in their thoughts. A tip-off from Lennox Lewis’s brother, and a fortunately timed phone call by Hayden Evans, put Gary Speed in their thoughts too.

“He turned out to be a bit of a revelation, like with everything else he put his hand to,” said Hayden. This was no longer a jacket and jeans photo shoot in an empty stadium; Speed was taken to a disused mill in the east end of London, with clothes, make up, the works. “He was really professional, everything was done first take, no messing about. He got on with the other models – particularly the female models!

“Away from football, fashion was his thing. Gary was a great supporter in the early days of Martin Schneider and Accent, he would get all the Leeds boys down there to smarten them up a bit. He was always fashion conscious.”

We’d seen a bit of it on the pitch at Leeds. The tousle-haired youngster who lifted the championship trophy in May 1992 returned with a flowing, gelled mullet in August. It would flow behind him as he ran around the field, and in slow motion his signature headed goals became an explosion of flicked black hair. Gary G mentioned on Twitter that for a while Speed acquired the terrace nickname ‘Catwalk.’

The mullet disappeared as suddenly as it arrived, though. The post-title season was world’s away from the success of the previous season: Leeds were knocked out of the European Cup, sold Cantona, and toiled without reward away from home. What was worse, nobody could put their finger on what was wrong. 

“Gordon Strachan was a big influence on Gary growing up,” said Hayden. “One bit of advice always stayed with him. Strachan told him, you’ve got all the talent in the world, so don’t ever worry about a drop in form – just work harder. If you work hard through it you’ll come through it.”

Batty went first. His thick blonde do had made him a photogenic celebrity in his own right, but it all went: a number two all over meant his appearance at last matched his demeamour. Then Speed: not quite as drastic, but a short back and sides got the message across, that while Leeds were 17th in the table, it was no time to be fussing with your hair.

The same thing happened later with the Top Man campaign. “It was an excellent supplement to his income,” said Hayden, “Which was my thought process. But to Gary it was exciting, it was different and something for him to do that didn’t really take him away from Leeds much.” But while Leeds weren’t struggling as much as they were in 1993, Speed suffered a mid-nineties dip in form that caused frustration on the terraces.

“He knew it was happening – he could feel it happening. To be fair to him he recognised it and put it right himself; he didn’t need anyone else to put it right. He worked through the contract with Top Man and then he just said to me: ‘I want to concentrate on football now.’”

Football has changed again since Speed’s playing heyday, with the wages on offer at even lower league clubs removing the need for players to top their income up with other work. “It’s totally insignificant now,” said Hayden. “Back then it was a nice extra, but now you don’t see a lot of players doing it unless it’s the real top end, like Beckham.” 

There was no shortage of players willing to step up and take over from Gary Speed on the nineties catwalks, though. “It wasn’t that difficult to deal with them,” said Hayden. “I just said, look, I’m not going to be able to get you a deal. The point is, you just don’t look as good as him!”

The on-off relationship between fashion and football has never completely died out at Leeds United, though. In the Champions League era the club’s magazine, Leeds Leeds Leeds, relaunched under the guidance of James Brown with more of a lifestyle angle than traditional club magazines were used to, and photographer Justin Slee became a fixture at the training ground, coaxing players out of their kit and into top clothing, making them look like models rather than footballers. Even Lee Bowyer. As part of Leeds Digital Fashion Week vol.3, The City Talking took Justin back to Thorp Arch for a shoot with one of the current squad, and you can see the results in issue seven of The City Talking newspaper, and online here later today. Here’s a clue: it’s not Michael Brown.

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