PARIS — A few days before Paris St.-Germain traveled to Liverpool in September to begin its latest quest to win the Champions League, Dani Alves and Kylian Mbappé stood on a stage in a starkly lit room in the basement of the Parc des Princes.
In front of them, a crowd of dozens of journalists, social-media influencers and fashion bloggers milled around, watching freestyle soccer players run through their dazzling array of tricks. The décor was industrial chic. Exposed pipes ran along the ceiling. Goal posts and basketball hoops had been arranged to create a replica of an urban ball court.
Alves and Mbappé — alongside Wang Shuang and Marie-Antoinette Katoto, members of P.S.G.’s women’s team — were not there to play, though. They were there to stand, to pose, to model. For once, inside their home stadium, they were not the star attractions. All anyone cared about, really, was what they were wearing.
This was the launch of the latest in a line of ambitious collaborations between P.S.G., the perennial champion of France, and a fashion brand. Alves and Mbappé were there to showcase Nike’s new P.S.G. jersey: a sleek, black number designed by the company’s Jordan Brand, with the club’s crest redesigned to incorporate the famed Jumpman logo.
The team is wearing the new kit in the Champions League this season — a uniform for the conquest of Europe — but it exists because P.S.G.’s horizons have shifted far from the old world, onto soccer’s emerging markets of Asia and North America, and the wealth that awaits within them.
“We go,” the P.S.G. merchandising executive Fabien Allègre said, “where other clubs don’t.”
The connection between P.S.G. — the French capital’s only top-flight soccer team — and the city’s fashion houses is a longstanding one. The designer Daniel Hechter served as the club’s president for five years in the 1970s, and is regarded as one of the driving forces behind the team’s foundation.
It was Hechter who designed P.S.G.’s traditional look — a red vertical stripe, bordered with white, on a blue background — during his reign. The story goes that he based his creation on the red-and-white jersey worn by Ajax, the Dutch champion dominating European competition at the time.
Increasingly, though, P.S.G. is using both that bond and Paris’s reputation as a global fashion hub to forge its 21st-century identity.
The ambition of the club’s owner — Qatar Sports Investments, an investment arm of the Qatari state — to turn its team into a soccer superpower is well known. It has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in players in recent years, including the $222 million deal that made Neymar the most expensive signing in history in 2017.
Its vision does not stop there, however. Even if it is aware that P.S.G. as a club might never have the same allure or history as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich on the field, it believes it can overtake anyone off it.
“Paris means fashion, style, creativity and energy,” Nasser al-Khelaifi, the P.S.G. president, said. “We want P.S.G. to embrace those values that make the city so unique. Not everyone else can do this.”
In plainer terms, Qatar Sports Investments has set out to make Paris St.-Germain cool.
The partnership with Nike, and Jordan, is hardly the first step on the way. The club also has sponsorship deals with the likes of Levi Strauss and Beats. And last year, P.S.G. worked with the Rolling Stones and Nike to produce exclusive merchandise to celebrate the arrival of the rock band in the French capital. The clothes were sold at Colette, one of Paris’s trendiest boutiques.
In 2017, the club was featured at Paris Fashion Week, thanks to a capsule collection by the fashion house Koché. In it, the company’s creative designer, Christelle Kocher, used the team’s jersey in a range of outfits lined with crystals, silk and muslin.
“Paris rhymes with style, with fashion, with glamour, and P.S.G. has the Eiffel Tower on its logo, so playing with these concepts makes so much sense for them as a brand,” Kocher said. “It is kind of obvious now, but it wasn’t before P.S.G. made these partnerships,”
This year, a collection by the Indian designer Manish Arora produced with the Chinese and Indian markets in mind incorporated colorful, heavily stylized portraits of players, including Mbappé, Thiago Silva and Edinson Cavani on T-shirts, jackets and dresses.
Cameos on the catwalk, though, are only one element of P.S.G.’s attempts to infiltrate the fashion world. The club has a team of four employees, managed by Allègre, working full time on brand diversification, searching for ways to help P.S.G. become something more than just a soccer team.
The club has established collaborations with more than a dozen designers and artists: brands like Afterhomework, Maison Labiche and Blume, as well as Nick Fouquet, a hatmaker based in Los Angeles, and Georges Esquivel, a shoemaker. The partnerships, Allègre said, are aimed largely at “American fans that may not know P.S.G. as a club but adhere to our project as a lifestyle brand.”
That reputation has been created, in part, by the frequent sightings of famous faces like Naomi Campbell, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rihanna and the Kardashians — in the V.I.P. boxes at the Parc des Princes. Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton’s artistic director, is a regular at matches.
Taking in a P.S.G. game has become fashionable, it seems, for any Hollywood star or prominent athlete visiting Paris. But the club’s jersey and crest have become something of a fashion statement for the A-list, too: Beyoncé and the British singer Rita Ora have worn pieces by Koché. Justin Timberlake wore a jacket emblazoned with the then-unreleased Jumpman logo at a concert in Paris in July, and LeBron James turned up for a Los Angeles Lakers game in a P.S.G. shirt last month.
P.S.G. insists all of that interest is entirely organic. “Some stars want to come,” Allègre said. “Others are invited.”
To the deeply cynical soccer world, though, there is a fine line between Hollywood sheen and public-relations artifice. P.S.G.’s celebrity following has served simply to accentuate its reputation as somehow inauthentic, a plaything for the rich and famous, a passionately supported team turned into a high-end tourist destination.
For all that fans of the team worry that its soul has been lost, there is a sporting purpose behind the club owner’s approach. The fashion collaborations and the celebrity appearances, the club believes, can have a genuine impact on its fortunes.
“Since we bought the club, we have tried to be even more different, more unique, more creative,” Khelaifi said in an interview at the launch of the Air Jordan event. “This partnership is going to bring us more fans around the world: fans who love basketball and soccer, who love fashion, who love Michael Jordan and who love Paris.”
It is an approach that Kocher, at least, contends is working. Her collection, she said, helped the club “raise the prestige of the brand” and would convince those inclined to be scornful of soccer that the worlds could commingle. “I have had fashion fans who have told me that they would never have worn a soccer outfit, but this is kind of hip and almost desirable,” she said. When she visited a luxury boutique P.S.G. opened in Tokyo this fall, she said, she noted that many of the lifestyle items had sold out.
Much the same happened with the Jordan Brand collection. The club’s website had to be recalibrated to cope with a surge in demand once it went on sale, and snaking lines of fans eager to buy the gear formed outside P.S.G.’s store in central Paris.
Not everyone has been so positive. Many of the club’s most ardent supporters were unhappy when Hechter’s classic jersey design was jettisoned this summer in favor of a reimagined Nike design, worn in domestic games, that no longer boasts a plain red stripe on a blue background. The forays into high fashion are unlikely to appease them.
Qatar Sports Investments, though, will point to the end game. P.S.G. cannot rely on infusions of Qatari cash forever — it has twice flirted with severe punishment under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play legislation, and disclosures on Friday raised new questions about its efforts to skirt the rules. So it has to find whatever way it can of closing both a financial and reputational gap on those clubs it believes to be its peers.
Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern have the advantage of history, of multiple Champions League titles, of galleries of former star players. P.S.G. is still playing catch-up, and must look to eke out whatever advantage it can. By conquering the world of fashion, by becoming a chic, aspirational brand, by appearing on the catwalk and the sidewalk, by seeing its players as models, it hopes it can begin to do that.
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