In collaborating with Luke 1977 for their 2018/19 kits, Aston Villa have stepped outside the conventional partners of sports apparel. Working with an established lifestyle brand that was set up by lifelong Villa fan Luke Roper, as well as sports production company 'Fanatics', the club have been able to improve kit sales by 750% year on year. We went behind the scenes as the club and brand shot their 18/19 third kit to speak to the founder of Luke 1977 to discuss how they've reset the rules.

So to set the scene, let’s talk about you as a villa fan, what does the club mean to you?

"The club means everything to me and has done since I was five years old. My first Villa memory sounds a bit far fetched but it’s gospel, it was the European Cup final in 1982. That was my first Villa memory. From that day my brother started taking me down to the ground for games and then in my early teens I started going to watch football with mates. It’s part of what I love and it’s the cement of my weekend. I’d say my weekends are structured around football as much as my life lets me. Not necessarily going to every game but Villa are always on my mind over the weekend."

LUKE 1977 has been established for sometime now, was a move into football something that had been in the back of your mind?

"It’s a funny one really. We set the business up in 2001 so we’re well established within the menswear industry in this country but we didn’t really make a specific decision to try and head into football kits but just over a year ago we started researching into who our demographic is and when we look back over the years, we’ve definitely had a real loyal following from the football supporting crowd. Football is something that binds the country and it’s something people work for. You work hard in the week so you can enjoy your football on the weekend and everything that goes around it."

"So a year ago we decided to explore the football route a little bit more, explore it through the marketing we do and see if we can engage with people who are into our brand that little bit more. In that time we started talking about doing a collaboration range with Villa and Fanatics. The idea was to produce a more premium range of products within the Villa store. We had been talking about bringing something out there that was more geared to a lifestyle punter but from there there conversations started with the club and we all got on really well. The kit deal then came about on the back of that."

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How did the link up with Villa come about?

"They were initially talking to us as a lifestyle partner for this collaboration range but then the club was also talking to Fanatics about a potential three-pronged partnership which would bring in us as a fashion brand, a global leader in sports production - which is Fanatics, and a fantastic footballing institution which is Villa.

My business partner and co-owner of the brand, Simon Poole is a Villa fan as well so if there was one club for us to get the ball rolling with into football, it was Villa."

What does it mean now to have your badge on the Villa kits?

"It’s a really proud moment, touching on emotional at times. Watching our first game against Hull away, it was on in our house and seeing that was immense. I watched it with my two eldest boys and they were fixated to the TV as well and it was a really proud moment. I think every time Villa play in that kit this season it’s going to be a real special time for me, definitely."

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The kit themselves are very sharp, what did you want to put across in the style and design?

"It’s a collaborative design so we all had an input between us as LUKE 1977, Fanatics and Villa but it should be one that is special for the fans. But it’s all about putting care into those details - colour is vital and number one priority - it’s got to be the right shade of claret, not a darker shade of pink or purple. Styling comes from one of our finest hours in the shape of the early 80s and winning what is now the Champions League. Also mid-eighties influence as we’ve got that beautiful two tone stripe as well. We (Aston Villa) were one of the founding members of the football league - there were twelve teams initially - so we put four stripes on each of the cuffs plus the collar to pay homage to that. So there’s a historical nod in there, there’s a nostalgic nod to one of our finest periods on the pitch and then going back to the colour, that is everything. I was involved in the design process as much as I could be as obviously, it means a lot to me on a personal level. Similarly the club had a big say but we worked well together."

Have you seen that crossover between football and fashion explode over the last few years?

"I think so yeah. But realistically it’s not just the last few years, it may have moved in a different direction recently but over the last twenty to thirty years I think music, football and fashion are all intrinsically linked. Even more so now because of how accessible everything is thanks to the internet and smartphones. Even as little as ten years ago it was largely magazine and print magazines that would influence style but now with the internet, trends come around almost overnight. It’s fast flowing and relentless and while football and fashion have been linked for some time, it’s definitely in a bit of a renaissance period right now."

"A football shirt is a fashion accessory now and sportswear has obviously been massive in the fashion industry for the last five years so to bring football into that mix is a no brainer. It fits perfectly with the more relaxed look that everyone is rocking these days. It’s become a lot less formal. Fashion has generally. When we first started, we couldn’t sell formal shirts quick enough. Now sell a lot more of a streetwear influenced look."

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The response has been huge, what are the main things you’ve noticed from the fans response

"Sales speak for themselves. It’s a great position to be in as the shirt sales have gone up by 750% when comparing year on year so the demand is there and we’re already bringing in more stock to meet that demand. In a nutshell, it’s been overwhelming. For us, knowing what the kit was going to be like though, it’s not such a surprise and the collaborative approach has meant we can produce something that is for the fans. There’s another batch about to be restocked already,

There’s a positive sentiment to what we’ve done here and I do think me being a local boy and a lifelong Villa fan has helped but ultimately, it’s down to the kit. The physical beauty of it and the aesthetic, the sentiment would be nothing if we didn’t make sure we got that right. In football, you can be from South America and like a Borussia Dortmund kit and it’ll sell - the ultimate element that it comes down to is whether the kit looks good. It’s an added bonus that there’s a “one of our own” element involved as well."

With fans response in mind, it was important to give them something that looks good on the street as well as inside the stadium isn’t it?

"It’s everything. Sportswear has become the number one look globally. Streetwear too - both scenes used to be subcultures based on where you live or the country you live in. Just like the way casual wear took off. Now though, it’s a global movement and we can take influence from all over. Football has found its way into this culture and an easy reference is that of the the Nigeria kit this summer which has become an absolute cult top. So it doesn’t surprise me that football tops are being worn as a fashion item and that was something we wanted to keep in mind for this."

What about the response from the club, do you think they were expecting such and uplift?

"There’s a lot of forward thinking people at Aston Villa and and a lot of positive energy down there so I think deep down they were expecting. We’re all pleased because no one has let the side down. The club have played their part, as have we as LUKE 1977 and as have Fanatics."

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What message would you say this sends to more traditional sports brands?

"Well those big brands are global powerhouses. We are a successful British lifestyle brand. We sell overseas but we have our own local market. Those big six or seven sports brands are global, it’s a different league. They currently dominate the Premier League and the top flight comes with all kinds of bonuses with huge fan bases and a global audience but for what we’ve done with Villa, I definitely think it is something that will be viewed as a real success. When a team gets into the Premier League, the big boys start calling but working with a leading, independent British brand can offer football clubs a more personal experience and I think we could bring a lot to the table."

Do you think this partnership would have been possible if the club was in the Premier League?

"Well the deal was done before the end of last season and we were at Wembley on May the 25th. As a business, we were 90 minutes away from being represented in the Premier League but again, this is a new collaboration and a period of exploration. Who knows what will happen next year or down the line but we’re committed and will do everything we can while we have that relationship with Villa. It gives us a chance to really develop LUKE SPORT too."

Talk about the logistics a little, did you have to change your operation to cater for the demands

"Fanatics are a powerhouse of their own kind. They had the production side of this and have been able to bring the technical side of strong performing sportswear while we bring the fashion side of the brand to the table."

What are your early observations from moving in to the football world?

"It’s been an eye-opener for sure. Seeing Villa and Fanatics as those to set the benchmark, they are both very slick operations and it’s nice to be working with people who compliment what we can offer. I come from more of a creative space while the club provides the channel and output and Fanatics provides us with the logistics and production so we each meet in the middle somewhere. We’ve learnt a lot if we wanted to take this model to other clubs for sure."

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What does it mean on a personal level to see a fan walking around the city in a Villa shirt with your brand on?

"It’s been a whirlwind six months since we announced the collaboration to when we released the kits a month ago. It’s put a profile for me out in the fanbase which has been good and again, it’s humbling to see see people wearing a Villa shirt that has our logo on."

Has there been any negatives to the process?

"The only negative is that because of how well it’s done, the kits have sold out so there’s people who want a kit, unable to get one right now. We’ve obviously sorted that and we’ll be restocking regularly. So it’s a positive message on one hand because it’s been a success but when a football shirt has such an emotional connection with fans, we wouldn’t want them not to have one."

Imagine if it’s a kit the club get promoted in, that’s beyond a childhood dream isn’t it?

"Whatever happens, these kits and this year will be in the history books now. It’s something I’ll always cherish. Obviously it’s something we all want to build on and I’d love to see this club in the Premier League with our brand but right now we have a deal for this season and we’ll see where that takes us. It’s one of those years I’ll never forget and it’s the same for my friends and family. From a fans perspective on the pitch, I really do think we’ll finish in the top two this year."

Looking at the wider picture, do you think this acts as a stepping stone for you to make more kits for other teams?

"Yeah, I think it is the aspiration. I’m so glad we started the whole process with my team, a team I’m mad in love with. To kick the ball off with them has been a dream."

In years gone by, have you ever looked at Villa kits as a fan and thought “I could do it so much better than this”?

"You know what, I think subconsciously perhaps but I’ve never made that statement because it was a different realm of the industry for us as a brand. We’ve always been more technical tailoring and then moved into streetwear more in the last five years but as far as team sports apparel, it’s never been something I’ve been deeply involved with. Everyone always has an opinion where kits are concerned and design is subjective as we all know. You can’t please everyone all the time but I feel that between the three parties involved in this one, we’ve done a damn good job."

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If you looked to expand the brand and make more kits for other clubs, would or could you ever bring yourself to make a Birmingham City kit?

"Well, half of my family support Birmingham City. Two of my siblings support Blues along with all their kids, the two other brothers of mine and my sister are Villa but my sisters husband supports Albion so we’re a real West Midlands football family. On a serious note and I’m not just saying it to be politically correct but I want to see Midlands football back to where it was 10-12 years ago when we had around five teams in the Premier League. Brilliant derbies, amazing for the community and now that’s not there so I’d like to see that back again. Wolves are doing a great job in representing the Midlands and I’m pleased for them. To answer your question… who knows there is always a possibility."

Could you see more clubs working with lifestyle brands over traditional sports brands in the future?

"If the model was there and the structure was in place, like what we have created here, I could see it happening. Early signs from this exploration have been super positive and I think we’re making a real impact in the market."

Do you think working with someone like yourself and an independent brand allows for more freedom and more creativity?

"Absolutely. There’s so many examples out there that everyone has seen where you can buy the same top in a sportshop without the club crest on for £12 or it’s the same top in the club shop with the club crest on. A lot is made of the price, that’s one argument but for me, I just think “where is the creativity there?”. Every fan of every club deserves something a little bit special. Football shirts are so important. They are a prized item for any fan. I hope what we’ve done here can rewrite the rules somewhat."

What can this do for your brand?

"I think it’s made us really visible. Locally for the last four months but nationally we’ve seen recognition for this. If we had got to the Premier League then we would have been seen globally but it’s only been a positive collaboration."

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The 2018/19 Aston Villa kits which have been produced by Luke 1977 and Fanatics are available now.