Interview with the minds behind Icarus Football Designs

From an early age, Robby Smukler’s heart beat for sketchbooks dedicated to football jerseys for imaginary clubs – teams located in random cities or countries. 

Playing football in Philadelphia, Robby noticed that teams were forced to wear impersonal and boring designs from the usual established brands. Together with a group of friends and talented graphic designers, he decided to turn his childhood passion into a new, atypical reality, creating one of the world’s most innovative and fastest-growing football kits related brand: Icarus Football.

Since its inception in 2017, Icarus has taken its uniquely designed kits and jerseys to more than 3,000 teams around the world. The Icarus Cup, a tournament shaped by the Philly grassroots football community, helped this process. Athleta Magazine will be part of the 2024 edition, hosted between July 12-14, through a special jersey created by Icarus designers.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Robby Smukler and Jaden Stevenson, the designer who created the Athleta kit, and got an up-close look at both the magic and passion that drive this project.

Considering that you are both American, where does your love for football or ‘soccer’ and kit design come about? 

Robby: 

“I was really interested in the sort of intersection between sports, history and culture. I just loved how jerseys symbolize that in a way. How they express identity through the medium that is sports uniform and how the symbolism and the colors resonate with fans and become their identity factor. Just as a hobby growing up, I would draw out jerseys and logos for cities and countries around the world. Then I played football in college, so it’s a pretty big part of my life. I think football has a kind of deeper and richer history and relationship between the culture, the identity and the values of a country, region or a city than any other sport. The main reason why I created the company was because I looked around and noticed that the teams playing in the states weren’t wearing anything that connected the team’s identity with their jerseys. So I started the company to give teams that ability to express themselves through jerseys and by giving them access to a proper designer that is able to work directly with them to tell their story and make jerseys that actually make sense for them.”

We know that you used to worship Shevchenko. Growing up in Philly, where everybody talks about basketball and football while you were thinking about soccer jerseys, how was that for you?

Robby: 

“I’m a huge Philadelphia sports fan. Allen Iverson is my favorite athlete ever, there is that side of things too. I was fortunate to have soccer as my favorite sport growing up. I lean more towards football stuff, but I love all Philly sports, especially basketball. When I was seven or eight my mom put together all my drawings into a book which was a sort of World Cup preview magazine. I did logos for all the different teams. Pretty much just imagining what a logo and jersey for each country would be. My hobby was literally to look at the map and pick a city or a country and then design a logo and a jersey for it..”

Jaden, you also had a past in the U.S. school system related to football, right?

Jaden:

“I was into lots of sports at a really young age. I had an older brother, Reid, that was obsessed with football and I really just tried to follow him the best I could. Whether that be copying his goal celebrations or wearing his team’s kits. I think that was probably the first time I got interested in kits. I come from a family where basically everyone plays football and creates art. It was very easy for me to lean into the art heavily because of my mother and then combine it with football. When I was playing in high school, I started to take art a bit more seriously and found my personal style in a way. Then, while I was playing in college, I randomly found out about Icarus Football on Twitter. I reached out to Robby immediately basically saying that I loved the project, what he was doing in the football design space and that I wanted to work with him however I could. There really wasn’t anything like Icarus Football at the time. Now, it’s quite cool to see how popular the custom football kit design market has gotten. But before, there wasn’t anybody paying as much attention to designing football shirts like Icarus Football was. 

Can you share with us the most inspiring jerseys that you saw while you were kids?

Robby:

“I was born in 92. I really kind of fell in love with football jerseys in the late 90s and early 2000s. People said I played like Shevchenko so I was immediately drawn towards AC Milan. Also growing up in New Jersey, where there are a lot of Italian people, you just would see tons of Serie A jerseys around. I was really into that aesthetic and Italian design. It’s kind of the gold standard in a lot of ways. When I was 9 or 10, my family took a trip to Italy. We went to Rome, Florence, Venice, and I remember all the stalls that sold imitation jerseys and begging my parents to buy them for me. Those are still in my closet somewhere.

Jaden:

I grew up in a rural town in Wisconsin, around 9000 people, so my exposure to different countries and their designs weren’t very accessible to me first hand. For me, a lot of inspiration was player focused. My brother was obsessed with Cristiano Ronaldo, so I’d have a variety of Manchester United and Real Madrid shirts to steal and wear. For me, I had an acute interest in the US National Team and MLS. Clint Dempsey was my favorite player growing up; I remember wearing his bootleg 2014 World Cup shirt until it fell apart. Even though the US didn’t necessarily have the most interesting kits, they were still my favorite to wear because of what the players meant to me. In college I really started to take up an interest in exploring and researching more on different countries and cultures to grow and develop my style from.”

Focusing on your role on the Icarus project, can you tell us something about the connection between every design and its storytelling?

Robby:

“Like i was saying before, imagine you’re playing football with your friends, and it becomes this kind of thing where you’re building a culture around this group of guys, where you’re going to a bar after the game, you’re having meals after the game, you’re really creating this new kind of friendship, and there hasn’t really been a way to express that. That’s where the jerseys come in, is the perfect medium to express that shared identity. What we do is try to meld everything together to make it look good, and connect what’s important to the club with reference points that make sense. Making it look like a football jersey, and something that’s going to actually look good on people that are going to wear it even off the pitch. You can tell the story of this group through soccer uniforms.”

What are the most inspiring and strangest storytelling projects that you had the opportunity to develop? 

Robby:

The strangest project that comes to mind is a “shrek-inspired” jersey, stuff like that. But it’s not our duty to say why they would want to come and do it, that’s their thing. I think the reason the strangest projects aren’t actually that strange for us is because we try to not take it too seriously. We care more about groups having fun and getting together, having this really positive kind of social interaction. This is the most important thing to me. We have a club called Dairy World FC and they have “cow-print” jerseys. For us, that’s not strange. That’s the beauty of sport, and how fun it can be. We almost look forward to doing those, it’s way more fun. The most inspiring projects are the ones for clubs that have a sort of charitable or socially concerned component. Where we’re not just helping to express the team identity but also create this affordable option for kids that often aren’t able to play football. In Philly we have projects that explore the relationship between Philadelphia-specific pride and football, and that’s a very nice thing. Ultimately, the best experience when working with clubs is really getting to know them. That’s the main reason why we do it. we want to develop these intimate relations with clubs.”

Jaden:

“For me the most inspiring side of our job is creating and/or telling the story of a community through the football kits we create; this is the most rewarding part of it. Seeing people not only wear it for matches, but to go on a night out, to work, to do groceries, it’s very fulfilling. It’s also very inspiring to see the teams that exist in the “Icarus Football universe” to eventually meet one another, buy each other’s shirts and become friendly.

Talking about the Icarus Cup and the Athleta’s jersey, what was the inspiration behind the creative process of this jersey?

Jaden:

“Every year at the Icarus Cup we try to take on different focuses. As it is an Olympic year, we wanted to focus on the different countries around the world. Every design is inspired from these nation’s architecture, flags, food, lifestyle, clothing, music or just general “vibe”. We took cities from these countries we thought were interesting and beautiful, and we ended up with 80 kits after designing around 150 preliminary kits. The idea was to bring the world to Philadelphia through the designs on these shirts. For the jersey we did for Athleta, the inspiration of course was the city of Verona. I was inspired by Chievo Verona directly for the color scheme. The geometric Icarus god pattern came naturally as I was drawing inspiration from the 80s and 90s Serie A football kits that feature interesting geometric patterns that often set the background of the kits. What I had envisioned was everyone on the team wearing two sizes up, drowning in the shirts, and popping the collars. Trying to capture the essence and the vibe of that retro Serie A football.”

What are your future goals and dreams? 

Robby:

“On the icarus Cup side, we run this with an organization called “CASA Soccer” which is the biggest league organizer in the Northeast and they run the Philadelphia grassroots football scene. We have a combined vision of bringing this tournament to other communities and making the Icarus Cup this really great festival of grassroots football, being organized by people who love playing in it. Trying to make this tournament look sick is something we are really passionate about. On the brand side, I think just continuing to work with clubs that fuck with us. Obviously, we’d love to work with bigger clubs, but for us it’s more about finding the right partners, and continuing to have a brand that really speaks to a segment of the population that wants to have fun and wants to not take themselves seriously but at the same time, love the sport and is passionate about it. We want to continue to grow, and to continue to work with clubs around the world, do more and more events, and bring more and more clubs into the icarus family.

Jaden:

“We’ve reached a very good point and we’re proud of who we work with and where we sit in football design. From a designer point of view, I know we’ll continue to push the boundaries of traditional football kit design and integrate new artistic ways of expressing our football clubs and communities.