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Interview with Peter Saville

Lynda Moyo and Peter Saville on national identity, the Royals, England's kit, Twitter

Written by . Published on February 7th 2011.


Interview with Peter Saville

Peter Saville launched his Umbro 'Modern England' menswear collection at Harvey Nichols last week. Lynda Moyo caught up with the creative director of Manchester to talk about football fashion and the ever-changing English culture. In a fascinating interview which covers national identity (in the week David Cameron has spoken out against multiculturalism), the Royal Family, the design process itself and...er...Twitter, the Creative Director of the city tells it as he sees it.

LM: Do you think the new design of shirt had the desired effect on England fans or was it overshadowed by England’s World Cup failings?

PS: There was one nice article in the Times Saturday supplement about the shirt at the time, but that was it. It was in most part because there was this mood of frustration around English football and there’d been such expectation going into the World Cup that there was this kind of failure to deliver, for whatever reason. The mood about the team was quite down in September. I think that was a problem and then this was a new bit of product, so trying to introduce new product on top of a despondent mood was difficult. If England had done well in the World Cup, the idea of a new shirt would have been seen as a celebration. As it was, it was seen as a new tax on the supporters.

It was such a big public idea that I was really excited about it last summer. It was an idea for everybody. Often you have ideas like that and they come out on a book jacket or poster but the exposure is so marginal that you think it’s a shame it’s not bigger. Second only to a new flag on parliament, the England team is a great ambassador for the idea. It’s not usual to look for a socio-political or cultural idea on a football shirt. It’s more likely to be a book or article or artwork. There’s no culture of looking for an idea on football shirts.

LM: Do you feel you’ve achieved what you set out to with the design of the Modern England range, in spite of the down-beat atmosphere?

PS: People are gradually realising that there’s an idea here for people to share - above and beyond football. A lot of people were really positive. Tom Bloxham’s wife, Jo, wanted to start a national movement because she was so hurt and angry at how the English flag had been marginalised. She said “Every time I see it, it raises one set of responses in me. What you’ve done with it is an attempt to change and readdress that.” I was really pleased.

One of the ladies from the council said she thought it was very ‘Manchester’. I was aware of the fact that it was a commercial project despite being national and I’m quite sensitive about that here in Manchester because I’m also working for the public sector. I was sensitive about whether anyone would feel there was a conflict of interest but this lady said that isn’t so. Manchester has this history of tolerance and acceptance going back 200 years and she said she thought it had a very ‘Manchester’ spirit. That was nice to hear too.

LM: ‘Original Modern’ is your phrase for your work in the city - and how the city itself should try to work. Did you have that phrase in the back of your mind over this project?

PS: It would be a way of describing Factory Records 30 years ago, which was the first thing I did when I left college. It was the spirit of the better and more important things that have come out of Manchester. There’s successful conventional things that have come out of Manchester, but the ones the city is most fond and proud of are those that have been controversial, irreverent or proposed another way. Whether it was the beginning of the Trade Union movement or George Best, it was a kind of independence, a wilfulness and determination to do something or say something a different way. That’s how we get progress. ‘Original Modern’ is very Manchester, and in the spirit of Factory. Those are the things that you want to be involved in – opportunities to make a difference. In the City festival is very ‘Original Modern’ too.

LM: What was your brief for the project?

PS: We had a very intensive three or four days. The England team shirt is a white shirt and this time that white shirt needed to be colourful. The previous one was really white. It looked great - beautiful - and it’s difficult to follow on from something you really like. I worked with two or three friends to work out how we could introduce colour to it.

b>LM: And what were some of the later scrapped ideas you came up with at the beginning?

PS: We did some nice things with piping that followed the technical shape of the shirt. There’s an ergonomic design to the shirt and some of the ideas involved picking out these shapes using different coloured piping and piping with fades. I was interested in it representing England. One of the ideas was to have areas of colour which were the principle towns and cities, so it would be abstractly like England. It was a vehicle to introduce colour.

The obvious way to put colour onto a white shirt is to have a pattern. If the pattern is big the starting point white disappears. If the pattern is small, you retain the whiteness. There were about 50 different visuals that we took to Umbro some days after the first brief.

LM: What was your thought process for the final design?

PS: We were thinking ‘What is England about’. It’s difficult because we don’t really think about England anymore. I think about the UK and Great Britain, so what is England and Englishness? Some of the things have exclusive associations. English style - because it’s a historic idea has a lot of class connotations. Then there’s the rose, but do you really want to see football players wearing a design with roses on it?

There’s a pathway that begins to open up in front of you when designing. We thought a lot about ‘Englishness’ which then influenced the colours. In the mix of that were geometric motives, circles, dots and crosses. As soon as we got to crosses Paul Barnes, who was working with me, said let’s try different types of crosses. We tried the St George Cross and all of the possibilities fell into place. The idea of what it suddenly meant to see the cross of St George in many colours made it difficult to be excited about any of the other ideas we’d come up with. Suddenly it was like the place I live.

LM: And Umbro liked the design too?

PS: A graphic designer is work for others not work for yourself, so it has to please others, be approved by others and tick the boxes of others’ needs. Umbro really liked it. It’s very controversial but they were not afraid of it. I was worried that the FA and untold numbers of gate keepers would say ‘let’s not court controversy’ but they approved it too.

LM: What was the response from die-hard England fans?

PS: There were a lot of quite aggressive reactionary comments on blogs. But then people who write into blogs tend to be the slightly more mad ones.

b>LM: Do you think that was because the fit of the shirt isn’t designed with beer bellies in mind?

PS: You worry about that. But I thought about the shirt on the team, I wasn’t focussed on selling shirts, I was focussed on the team. You can’t plan for the greater public because they always surprise you anyway. After a while you know not to take anything for granted and not to presuppose things. I wasn’t that concerned about the football fans. I was more excited about the idea of somebody who wouldn’t normally wear or associate with a football shirt or a wavy flag, taking it because it was pink or green. My greatest hope in this project is to see cab drivers with a St George's flag in black, green or pink at some point in the future. Maybe not the white van driver, but at least the cabbie. I loved the thought that the idea could get taken up by people who thought the spirit of it was positive.

LM: You can’t go into some pubs wearing a football shirt. Do you think your design might help towards making football shirts more acceptable fashionable attire?

PS: Imagine going down Canal Street and seeing a bunch of pink ones during the World Cup or green ones in a country pub? That’s what I wanted to see because it transcends football and says something about the society. When people come to other places to live they have to adjust to fit into that society, but if that society has some way of showing that they also adjusted for those people, I think that’s quite positive as a gesture of inclusiveness to people. How you nuture a cohesive society when people are coming from all different parts of the world, is one of the problems the UK has today. It’s necessary to find bridging points that can give people something to unify around.

LM: Like the England flag?

PS: Well what are flags? Seemingly terribly unimportant bits of fabric. Soldiers have died to protect a piece of fabric on a stick – what is that about? But flags contain a remarkable power as a symbol to which people can identify and that’s the purpose of them. If you see that red on white cross, sadly many can’t identify with it but if it can be blue or green or pink they can say ‘now it’s for me’. I would be thrilled to see a big flag of St George flying over Parliament that was the cross of St George with a spectrum fade – for everybody.

LM: What’s next, design-wise, for you? How about the Royal Wedding dress? Fancy that?

PS: I have a bit of trouble with that. I was hearing on the news how much international interest there is in that wedding. A lot of the merchandise is being made in China and it showed some of the Chinese workers talking about it. They had some Disney vision of it which I just find a bit embarrassing.

The monarchy is something which I can see has been and continues to be one of the defining brand facets of Britain – not necessarily of value - but it’s part of Britain and is one of the things that makes up the image and perception of Britain in the world, for better or worse. A lot of people like it.

LM: Not you though?

PS: You can’t not have some regard or respect for somebody who does the job that was given to them as well as they can and she (the Queen) has done that really well. The last 20 or 30 years have shown how difficult that is now. I don’t know if it’s possible in our time now to be it. It’s not easy.

It may have become an anachronism to be a king or queen now. Some of our ritual of state is looking a bit Star Trek. Some of it does look like it needs to be re-thought to be serious. And the Royal Wedding? I was just amazed that so many people are interested in it.

LM: What’s the defining symbol of Britain then, for you?

PS: The BBC is the greatest British brand now. In 2011, the BBC is the most important statement from Britain of who we are and what we’re about and how we try to do things in how it looks and in the authority of its content. We believe the reliability of its content and how it delivers it is so modern. BBC world has an edge, posture and position that’s really different, cool, contemporary and composed. That is the most important manifestation of Britain in the world now.

LM: What do you think of Twitter as a way of voicing your opinion or getting a message out?

PS: Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist dissident, uses Twitter to speak to hundreds of thousands of people and communicate a message of question and change. These things can be used really brilliantly to achieve things you couldn’t achieve before. Or to say ‘I’m at the hairdressers’.

LM: No Twitter for you then?

PS: Apparently I already have one. I have a Facebook too, but it’s not me, it’s a fan. When I found out I had a Facebook it was weird. What annoyed me is that it makes it incumbent on you to do something you don’t want to do because if you don’t, other people will. I don’t even like the word Tweet. What’s Tweet supposed to mean? I’d prefer it if it was called ‘message’ or something.

The Modern England collection by Peter Saville, is available to buy on the second floor Menswear Department at Harvey Nichols Manchester.

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12 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

J E SibberingFebruary 6th 2011.

Does he still live in London?

AgricolaFebruary 7th 2011.

Who cares TBLZEBRA? What about his words? I really enjoyed this interview and it sparked lots of ideas and got a chat going with a friend. I'm proud that Saville is associated with Manchester through his past work and through his present ideas. We as a city aren't usually intellectual enough - where we have intellectuals, in the Universities, they rarely get involved in Manchester life. We need more people of ideas like Saville not like the legions of accountants and solicitors - not all of them but 90% - in Manchester who have forgotten that they should be involved in the development of the city where they make money, not just bugger off home, asap.

FisherFebruary 7th 2011.

Some people Agricola just can't see the wood for the trees. Small minded you see.

NojjyBoyFebruary 7th 2011.

I like the shirt and like the design / culture debate that ensued. I also agree that our national flag should be reclaimed (from the militants / racists) and made more relevant. However, I reckon with the impending council cuts Mr Saville's public sector work could soon be drawing to a close. A good thing, as this city does not require a Creative Director. The flow of creativity here is perfectly capable of directing itself.

M30February 7th 2011.

Peter Saville, Peter Hook... Who gives?

I personally think that he's still royally dining off his successes of the 70s and early 80s. In a similar way to how Liverpool still bangs it's drum about The Beatles (others who left the Motherland for London as soon as they had a few quid in their back pocket)

Also, the fact that Saville has lived in London since about 1980 yet gets paid a huge fee by Manchester City Council for his creative curation at a time where essential services are being cut, sticks in my throat somewhat.

Sadly, though, Manchester (or certainly the Mancunian Establishment) seems to prefer to hark back to the FAC days rather than look to the future and new talent, Which is a damn shame considering the vibe this city has, and the creative people who live here.

AnonymousFebruary 7th 2011.

Didn't ask him how he justifies his salary at a time when one in five council workers are getting sacked to save money then?

BrinaFebruary 7th 2011.

Listen just because someone has form in something else doesn't mean we can disregard everything they say after that moment. Age often means wisdom. And those bitter buffoons who always associate a Manc of a certain age with being stuck in the FAC age are horrifically narrow minded. What Saville says also comes from the accumulated knowledge gathered after Factory - he's worked on loads of projects. Prestige is important. Give me Saville over Phil Redmond in Liverpool any day.

Kevin HandFebruary 7th 2011.

Ha. Anonymous, did you read this bit. 'PS: There were a lot of quite aggressive reactionary comments on blogs. But then people who write into blogs tend to be the slightly more mad ones.' Oh dear, that's made me slightly mad now. Although Mr Saville I salute you, keep up the good work.

AnonymousFebruary 7th 2011.

Not sure how that relates to his extraordinarily massive wages? Reads more like he's talking about controversy around the 'all new' plain white with logo England shirt design.

Nothing about sacking him and keeping four people in a job.

costelloFebruary 8th 2011.

I know he has his design principles. But it is 'principal' towns not 'principle' towns. One of the great things about the English 'brand', to be a bit Saville, is the English language, so let's get it right. The rest was interesting but if only Man Con could afford a sub-editor to get the wordage down to something more readable, so we are not reading a transcript of a whole conversation. A bit more like real journalism, in fact. Otherwise why not just tape it and stick on the site as audio? Gripe over: it was still a good piece. Thank you.

AnonymousMarch 20th 2011.

I thought he'd been sacked already?? WE DONT NEED A CREATIVE DIRECTOR! Its just another NON JOB! I don't want to contribute to another massively overrated persons wage bill, he really is surplus to Manchesters requirements a cost we cant afford right now, he obviously can't cut the mustard in the big smoke can he if hes still clinging onto past glories? maybe says a lot about his design.... !!

AnonymousMarch 20th 2011.

'The BBC is the greatest British brand now.'

No wonder the country declines relentlessly.

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