Even when he can’t play, Hector Bellerin is one of the busiest men in football. In January 2019, the Arsenal and Spain defender ruptured his ACL, which as any footballer will know, means a lengthy layoff and a long, grinding road back to fitness. But Bellerin used his time wisely, capturing his recovery on camera before turning the footage into Unseen Journey, an episodic documentary that went live on YouTube at the start of 2021. Bellerin has also been working on a sustainable clothing collection with H&M, which launched last week, and now the fruits of his labour as creative director of Volta, the street football mode on EA Sports’ FIFA 21 video game, have been unveiled.
His role saw him expand further on his enthusiasm for style, sustainability and inclusion with the design of five different, playable kits. Each explores a different passion of Bellerin, from the charm of Barcelona to the rights of the LGBTQ community. Here, Bellerin talks about how a longterm injury can affect a player mentally, and how his injury prepared him for a similar experience with the Covid lockdowns, as well as his creative input for the Volta project, and how the worlds of fashion and football are merging.
As football’s most stylish man, are you seeing other players following your lead?
I think so, especially young players. This new generation have grown up fully in social media where aesthetic is important, so for them dressing cool and expressing themselves in that way is important. I feel they’re realising that they are allowed to do that, and just because they’re doing that doesn’t mean that they’re less of a footballer or more of something. it’s just the way they are.
When I see loads of my young teammates come to training in these outrageous outfits I like it, because they’re just being young. I look back on myself as well… the first few fashion weeks, I’m not sure if I would wear that again! But that was a time for me to try that and they’re going through the same phase.
Do you think there’s more of a crossover between football and fashion than ever before?
Social media has definitely given a bit of a bridge for many different parts of culture to blend in together, and brands are taking football in into their collections, or even different sports, like Louis Vuitton’s partnership with the NBA, for example. And you see it the other way around. Like when teams are making kits, now they want to make it ‘fashion’ or they want to add a collection to the kits. It’s more like street wear – what you wear to the stadiums is what you wear in the streets where and what you where every day.
On the topic of the game, street football, especially when FIFA Street came out, also had its own aesthetic. And it was all more grunge and loose fitting and I remember playing with the yellow T90s, you know. There was a whole aesthetic to it. So, it’s always been interlinked in some way and a certain part of culture has used football in the way of fashion. But I think that we see that more every day, and even with music and entertainment with football – everything is crossing more and more which is really exciting to see.
Is this the start of a Hector Bellerin clothing brand?
I don’t know man, it’s not something I’ve got my mind on right now. I’ve got a few things cooking on the side, but I’ve been very lucky and blessed to be involved in a few projects and hopefully they’re going to see the light soon. I’ve really enjoyed the collaboration but I’ve got so much to learn. I’ve been really lucky to be able to have these things to work on while the world kind of stopped and that’s where I’m at right now.
How did the project come to be?
I got approached by FIFA at the beginning of the first quarantine to be the creative director of Volta, which is kind of like FIFA Street but built into the game. I played FIFA Street so much on my PSP when I was young, and I guess every footballer starts to play football in the streets. When that game came out it was a bit of a revolution.
For me to be able to design clothing kits for the characters, it’s never something I thought I would be asked to do. In that period when we were just at home, not even training, it was really exciting for me to have a project. I’ve been really involved in how we could make the game cool and relevant and we got to this idea for making old-school football kits.
I’m someone that will take any opportunity for activism, if you want to call it that, and we decided that every single kit would be a representation of some sort of protest or celebration that’s going on, and in that way we could send a message and make it fun and engage people. It’s been a really cool project and process and I’m really happy with how it’s come out.
How did you find the creative process?
Well it’s a video game, so it was almost like anything could happen. We had so many ideas and [the team at EA Sports] were so good with me in terms of creative freedom and they trusted me from the very beginning. I was also very lucky that to be able to have the help of my friends in terms of designing. I’m someone that’s got so many ideas but I’m not good with Photoshop yet. At that time, when we were all isolated, to be able to work with other people for me was really good in terms of mental health.
You have family ties with the fashion industry, how did they help?
I feel like I’ve always been someone creative. It’s just in the position where I was where I was the kid that played football, I felt like that was always put aside. And in my school we didn’t have the resources or we didn’t take it as seriously, so it’s just ‘focus on the football’ and that’s it. But I was very lucky that my grandma and my mum have always made clothes and I was always around clothes, I was always around the design process. As a kid I was always drawing with my mum – that’s how we used to have fun on Sunday afternoons. So that’s where it definitely comes from and I’ve always said that it’s been a thing that has allowed me to discover myself and it’s definitely even got me closer with my family, because it’s kind of like that thread that can unite further than just family.
Right now I really enjoy the collaboration side of things. It’s been something that I’ve really, really enjoyed doing, and when we did the 424 partnership with Arsenal and all our stuff – for me, bringing up the best of two people was much better than just like putting your ideas out there.
Were there certain retro kits that offered inspiration?
The ‘95 Arsenal shirt for me, especially the away one. It’s so cool with the blue and the JVC sponsorship. With the FIFA kits we’ve made, the sponsorships are really relevant to what the shirts represent. In the Barcelona kit, all the sponsorships are taken from things that happen around Barcelona or have something to do with the city’s culture. So it’s fun for the player to find out what’s going on how we made it work. We also took a lot of inspiration from national team kits from the 80s and the ‘Bruised Banana’ and all those kind of styles that were going on back in the day and gave it our own little modern twist.
Of the five kits, do you have a favourite?
For me, in terms of design, I like the Kumbaya Union kit. when the George Floyd episode happened I felt like I really wanted to protest, and I was so involved in this project and I really wanted to make something happen, but I didn’t want to do it by myself. So, I spoke with my friend in Barcelona – he’s a fashion designer and a musician and he’s from Senegal – and he was like, “You know, Hector, I think you should make something that celebrates, our culture, and celebrates union and equality.”
We have an LGBTQIA+ kit, which is really cool – the pattern of the kit is actually the sponsor, which is like something that’s probably never been done before, but we could twist it that way because we had that freedom. And the Permaclub is so different to any other team shirts you’ve ever seen, there’s more asymmetry to it.
You’re famously passionate about sustainability, too
Obviously we weren’t making these clothes for real life, so we were thinking about how we can talk about these matters – and not just sustainability but many others – and make it something relevant. And the demographic of people that play FIFA, they’re young people that are still learning and they’re open to new ideas, so it’s about sending positive messages through things that aren’t boring. Usually things can be too political, but if we can find a way to make it cool and make it fun then they might research more on the subject and create their own ideas
In terms of sustainability we made the United Recycled, and the idea was, as in real life, you’ve got old kits that no one was using and we just made it back into a new one, and we’re uniting people because they’re patterns from different national team shirts. So we’re uniting different nations through the purpose of recycling.
You’ve recently released a documentary series about the serious injury that kept you out of the game for long time – how did making the films help you while you were away from the game?
The documentary was something really positive for me as a human being, and in terms of growing as a human and as a person and learning about myself and my limits and just how to deal with mental barriers that come on in life. Obviously, what we’re all experiencing today is a complete different kind of issue to the one I had when I was injured. But I was able to overcome something that for me was so difficult – and I think that people that see the documentary can see why – and it gave me tools for going through such a tough time with this pandemic.
The injury taught me to appreciate the people around me, to be close to them, to enjoy the things away from football as well, and just to simplify my life and feel more joy from like the simple things. Now, not being able to leave the house is kind of like the same again. Before I wasn’t able to play my game, my passion, and now I’m lucky that I can do that, but there’s the other side of life that I cannot enjoy.
I’ve been really, really grateful with the response to the documentary and I feel like it’s made it easier for some people that are going through the same kind of injuries or other obstacles to see that we footballers go through the same things that everyone else does.
Do you think the mental experience of being a footballer is underrepresented?
Well I think football is always been a very ‘manly’ sport, and it’s still sometimes the case that a man cannot show his feelings. Which is an old-school mentality, but in football this kind of behaviour is still very relevant. The truth is, for us men to be healthier we need to be able to express how we feel and to connect with other people and speak about the way we feel because that’s the only way you overcome trauma or situations like this. It was really important and therapeutic for me to connect with the crowd and talk about my experience.
Right now there are players going through a really rough time – they can’t see their families or lead their normal lives, and we’re people like everyone else. We’re experts on our field but that doesn’t make us robots. We fully have the same number of feelings someone else has in a day. But the industry and ‘masculinity’ is what’s made it so difficult for players to open up.
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