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Dirk Bikkembergs and the invention of football fashion

The Belgian fashion designer who was very popular in Italy in the early 2000s and who has forever changed fashion's vision

Dirk Bikkembergs and the invention of football fashion The Belgian fashion designer who was very popular in Italy in the early 2000s and who has forever changed fashion's vision

There was a time when fashion and football were two different and remote worlds, impossible to be synthesized into a unique creation or just thought of together. A time when it was absolutely unthinkable to think that these two languages could somehow be combined without being aesthetically inappropriate, or even 'blasphemous'. It is clear that the evolution that then carries us to the present day, from the merger experiments of Les Vêtements de Football to the mingling of so many fashion giants, inspired by vintage football through the uniforms designed by Hugo Boss and DSQUARED², has necessarily followed precise steps, fundamental to proceeding onto the next ones. Going back in time to find the ancestor of the concept of ambivalence that we are used to seeing today and to understand when fashion started to move towards a different destination, we stop at the beginning of the 80s, and more precisely in Antwerp.

It was necessary to dare, to go beyond the old settling conceptions: from a famous Belgian academy came Dirk Bikkembergs, the visionary designer born in Germany who revolutionized the language of fashion forever: it was 1982 when he graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the same prestigious school at which, in addition to Martin Margiela, other exponents destined to become famous such as Ann Demeulemeester, Dries van Noten, better known as the 'Antwerp Six' were attendees. After having created the first clothing collections in which something original was already visible, a masculine and a feminine, he arrived in Italy on the threshold of 2000 with very clear ideas, even though he had never been a football fan.


If we consider it a precursor, it's because the intuition to merge fashion elements with the football ones, exploiting the body of footballers and sportsmen using them as models and exalting some of the typical soccer stereotypes, of course, the most popular sport in Italy. In short, an enormous operation of revisiting the past by redeeming old clichés to reach, as Enrico Albamonte defined it in an old piece on L'Espresso, "the apotheosis of the democratic concepts of its fashion". His debut with Sport-Couture was a resounding success, followed by some experiments that in those times were thought to be unthinkable: parading on the catwalk in a stadium like the Camp Nou, collaborating with a top club like Inter Milan (using the same players as testimonials, from Thomas Helveg to Jeremy Brechet passing by Andy van der Meyde), thus making his brave and innovative ideas known in completely new contexts. Sport is its primordial inspiration, and the original logo is a very clear example, while the rest comes from itself: its second collection, simply called 'Bikkembergs' which includes the first models of sneakers, is purely commercial.

Meanwhile in 2005 Bikkembergs had another brilliant idea: to buy a small club from Marche located near the factory and the main outlet, FC Fossombrone, making it become a real stylish 'headquarters': the team at the time was in the fifth division and started to dress in the coolest kits of the moment. If the club's route, which in the meantime has undergone a name rebranding operation, will stop in Serie D some years later, the proportions of the project were enormous in terms of diffusion and visibility.

As Gianluca Cordella, one of the close associates of Bikkembergs, said in an interview:

"The team is the privileged "laboratory" for expressing the essence of Dirk Bikkembergs which can be summarized with the two words fashion and football. We started with an amateur team because in this category it is possible to find the true values of the world of football as passion, determination, care for the body."

An adventure in which it's not just a question of pursuing purely sporting goals: in that semi-unknown team where a very young Vincent Laurini (now Fiorentina's right-back) plays, footballers also begin to wear the first shoes made specifically by Dirk: in the 2006 the Bix model come out, while at Pitti 2008 Tirosegno were presented, which in a few months we appeared on the feet of champions like Giorgio Chiellini and Ludovic Giuly, but also good players like Reto Ziegler, Dario Dainelli, Antonio Floro Flores, Paolo Cannavaro, Francesco Modesto and Rubinho.

As stated by the same designer:

"Tirosegno reflects the essence of the two worlds that I support. It is the result of a unique project in which I compared the exclusivity of fashion and the world of football in the right proportion. What you will see is a jewel of fashion with better performance. What more does a player want?"

It should come as no surprise that even the most casual boots made in the following years look very much like gaming shoes due to the fake cleats on the sole and the large tongue. And the same goes for bags, t-shirts, and swimsuits, strongly influenced by sports references. All new stuff that at the time had all that success by leveraging the 'novelty' factor rather than being aesthetically interesting, but that despite everything, years later, has been taken up by absolutely unsuspected brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, with the clear will to revive something absolutely trendy at the time.

In the following seasons, the Belgian brand remains topical in Italy, confirming its philosophy also on the catwalks, where between a set with soccer balls and one with stylized Champions League trophies, the fashion shows with active players remain famous. If today we see Paulo Dybala among the testimonials of Dolce & Gabbana or Neymar attending the Paris Fashion Week there is no effect, try to imagine ten years ago players like Enzo Maresca, old glories of the recent past like Fabrizio Ravanelli and even a referee, Daniele Tombolini, parading with the latest Bikkembergs clothes on, almost horrible.

Also the launch of DIRK, the first fragrance presented in more recent times (2016), is absolutely influenced by the world of football as the perfume bottle is nothing more than a glass balloon and the motto, Reach your Goals. 'From manly intensity. The sexy pepper/apple fougère, the orange blossom, the skin and the moss give off boldness, passion and competitiveness'. The perfume launch campaign was then linked to the Bikkembergs European Futsal Tournament Championship, a sort of World Fashion Tournament which took place the following year.

Not just 'tacky stuff' (or at least it's the effect of reviewing some of the Belgian designer's creations after so many years): After the shots of underwear campaigns filmed in the Andes, on the desert or in other absurds places, became unforgettable, the last crazy idea dates back to 2009, the year in which Bikkembergs decided to open its flagship store in the center of Milan, between via Manzoni and piazza Cavour: a huge store of over 1300 square meters, three floors and fifteen shop windows, almost entirely black and white and with the bathroom covered with pages from the Gazzetta dello Sport.

The project was so unprecedented that it was called a reality-shop, given that the Belgian designer decided to place a real footballer inside the store, making it his personal apartment, complete with a bell shaped like a football shoe. It's not a joke, the former Brera Calcio defender Andrea Vasa moved in for some months, thus fulfilling the dream that Bikkembergs had been harboring for over 20 years: the featured soccer player.

The brand remained cool even after some quite serious financial issues: problems with the Italian tax authorities, the accusations that later proved unfounded of tax evasion and the inevitable decline in the brand's appeal. Years after having concluded the relationship with Inter Milan, a team for which Bikkembergs designed the game jerseys also dealing with the formal uniforms and also collaborated with the women's team, the relationships of the Belgian with the world of football has faded over the years, without ever disappearing from the scene. A decade after the real boom, Bikkembergs entered into another important partnership with the Spaniards of Malaga, returning from the quarter-finals in the Champions League: an agreement whereby the Belgian took care of the club's image by designing the uniforms, the casual clothing and the line of footwear for the whole team, maintaining the usual elegant and informal imprint at the same time.

After the Andalusian team, above all after falling into Chinese hands (since 2015 the brand is controlled by Modern Avenue, though the production has remained Made in Italy) the most recent collaborations with the Slovenian national football team and one Russian one have arrived, dressed from head to toe at the recent 2018 Russian World Cup thanks to the eye of Lee Wood, the former Versace creative director who tried to reconnect the thread of the past that seemed to have broken, the true essence of Bikkembergs: fashion and football.