Lionel Messi wore a silly suit as part of a silly branding play last week.
That is not an obviously newsworthy development. Messi has never been particularly fashionable, and recent history suggests no branding play is beneath a football club. If Messi started wearing turquoise suits because a petro-state or Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor offered Barcelona money, it would just be filed to that large mental file of laments we call modern football. But this particular suit is different. While no sillier or more lamentable than other branding plays, it’s at least illuminating about the various players in this deal.
The suit’s by American designer Thom Browne, who recently signed a deal to provide FC Barcelona’s “off-field tailored and formalwear uniforms during the Champions League and La Liga away matches.” The look can be understood as the Thom Browne starter kit: everything, save for a white dress shirt, is grey; defiantly un-skinny trousers are cuffed to show ankle; the jacket is short and buttons high up the chest; a cardigan stands in for the traditional waistcoat; the whole thing is anchored by heavy brogues worn without socks.
Thom Browne, if you’ll forgive the phrase, is a strange fit for this Barcelona team. His menswear refracts the European schoolboy uniforms of yore through an American’s imagination. It looks like the costumes from Spring Awakening. It’s boyish, but for the man who is not under the illusion he’s still a boy. For the outfit to look like something more than a costume, the wearer has to be somewhat in on the joke. Wearing an expensive suit that looks like it came from the boy’s section is tragic when you’re 16; some years later, for a certain kind of man, it’s Fashion.
Does that man really sound anything like Lionel Messi, circa 2018?
Don’t look now, but Messi turned 31 this summer. This is both well known and something much of the world is very busy trying to forget. At some point time will catch up with him, and then…well, maybe it’s best not to think about it just yet. Other than his hair and gloriously bad tattoos, Messi now looks much as he always has. He doesn’t quite look his age, but it’s not clear exactly what age he appears to be. This aesthetic quality mirrors the broader sporting concern around Messi. We are clearly in uncharted territory with Messi’s aging curve, and cannot be sure when time will catch up with him: he’s just going to be young until one day he is not.
Thom Browne’s designs emphasize this uncertainty. Messi is now too old to look like a schoolboy wearing a schoolboy’s outfit, but he has yet to achieve sufficient remove from such youthful days for Thom Browne’s sartorial wit to read as knowing. He is possibly the oldest and largest man to be dwarfed by a garment that looks like a boy’s suit. Some of this tension, one suspects, stems from Messi and Barcelona’s unwillingness to steer into the Thom Browne skid. The trousers, while hemmed without any break and just above the ankle, are longer than the typical Thom Browne look. (My kingdom for a club that’d go all-in on Thom Browne’s pairing of suits, shorts, and high socks.) Instead of letting his tie be nonchalantly loose and off-kilter, the knot looks like twelve consultants worked too hard disheveling it. Ultimately, he looks like Tom Branson in the early, pre-marriage-to-Lady-Sybil (RIP) seasons of Downton Abbey.
Lionel Messi is a staple on the sartorial horror circuit better known as football’s awards season. At most of these events, players show up wearing variants on the slim tuxedo. Since the players are conventional physical marvels, they can successfully do nightclub chic. This logic has also given us Italy’s various collaborations with Dolce and Gabbana. Everything is invariably 20 per cent too shiny; experimentation with form is invariably rare. Messi always stands out at these events as the one man whose form is poorly served by a dinner jacket. He is the world-class forward least likely to be confused for Michelangelo’s David. News of the Barcelona-Thom Browne deal therefore brought with it the hope that after all these years, someone willing to play with shapes might finally dress Messi. That has clearly not happened here. Barcelona has barely used Browne to play with shapes and Messi still looks somewhat goofy.
At this point, it’s a cliché to note that Messi only appears truly at home on the pitch. Sartorially, though, it’s hard to argue otherwise. As Messi ages awkwardly, Barcelona’s uniform is the only thing that he successfully wears. One suspects the club was looking for something other than a reminder that Messi’s a changed man on the pitch. This was always a branding play. But at least Thom Browne also gave them a visual representation of the Messi story. What more could they want from a designer?