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Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

An ambassador for Thomas Pink, the rugby legend talks team spirit, tailoring and the Lions Tour

‘Tailoring’s the new playing,’ winks Brian O’Driscoll, brandishing a tape measure. In Thomas Pink’s Jermyn Street store, I’ve come to meet the rugby legend for a frank and honest discussion about the history of his sport, how best to dress the sportsman physique and the upcoming British Lions tour to New Zealand – the first for 16 years in which the Irishman hasn’t been involved. 

But O’Driscoll is keen to kick off by showing me his newfound tailoring talents.

Looking every inch the sartorialist, the sportsman talks me through his measuring of Thomas Pink’s head of marketing, Alex Field. One of the first measurements, the chest, offers O’Driscoll the chance to slip in some trivia about this tour’s team. Field’s chest is 40 inches, but the largest on the Lion’s team this year is a huge 49 inches – and belongs to Irish forward Tadhg Furlong.

Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

‘He’s certainly not buying off the peg,’ quips O’Driscoll. And, thanks to Thomas Pink, not one of the 41-strong squad will have to for the upcoming tour. Instead, after similar sessions of meticulous measuring, each player will be given 28 different pieces of clothing from the Jermyn Street tailor. 

Formalwear pieces such as ties and shoes make up an evening look, alongside shirts and trousers designed for the day. Even boxers and socks are included – and everything from the velvet jackets to the gold-plated cufflinks are made in Britain.

Instead, after similar sessions of meticulous measuring, each player will be given 28 different pieces of clothing from the Jermyn Street tailor

As O’Driscoll carries on his measurements – more deftly than you may expect from the outside centre – I hear that 170 such measuring sessions took place, with every player of a home national team taking to the tape in case they got the Lions’ call. 

With 30 or 40 players on each squad, not to mention management staff, the Thomas Pink team got measuring down to a fine art during their own tour of Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin and London, with it taking an average of just 4 minutes 9 seconds to measure a player.

Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

‘We heard the Irish were the most fun,’ says Fields with a wry smile – and O’Driscoll nods knowingly. The photographer, clicking away merrily, asks the rugby player to get down on one knee for ‘that classic tailor’s shot’. O’Driscoll, eyeing the in-seam with suspicion, sighs with relief when the cuff is offered his way.

‘In 2013, we had black velvet jackets,’ says the sportsman. ‘This year, they’re burgundy velvet – and I’m a little jealous…’

With four years to design the formalwear collections for the Lions, no expense was spared by Thomas Pink. The lion, the crest and the whole gamut of obvious inspirations were spurned for the most part and, after a trip to the rugby museum at Twickenham, the team discovered an old program, and decided that it would become the cornerstone of the 2017 design.

Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

The two jackets with which the players are issued – a burgundy jacket and navy blazer – are lined with a mock program – articles and pictures distinct and specifically designed to line the Lions’ new threads. Even a pocket square shares the design – and the personalisation doesn’t end there. Each of the shoes has the player’s initials stamped into the leather insole, and each jacket contains a handwritten label.

‘These jackets are great,’ says O’Driscoll, tugging at the blazer of a nearby mannequin. ‘The material they’ve used has a bit of give in in, which is incredibly important for sportsmen’s mobility.’

As a sportsman, getting off the peg and expecting it to fit is unrealistic

And, with that, we’re into the the bulk of the conversation. With some rugby players have unconventional body shapes – to say the least – it’s no wonder that sportsmen often don’t look the best in suiting. But what has been O’Driscoll’s experience with sartorial setbacks, and what can he use his newfound talent for tailoring to recommend?

‘As a sportsman, getting off the peg and expecting it to fit is unrealistic,’ says O’Driscoll bluntly. ‘It will always need some tweaking, some form of tailoring to, say, the width of your shirts. From my point of view, I used to have a 17 ½ inch neck, and my shirts used to always billow – so I needed them to be taken in.

Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

‘And sportsmen in general,’ he continues, ‘be you a boxer or a rugby player, have to get dressed up a lot. And you want to feel good in formalwear. You want to feel smart. Our work gear is boots, shorts and socks and jerseys – so, when you get into something that looks good, it may never be as comfortable, but you still want it to look good.’

The rugby legend explains that he had problems with clothing, even two decades ago when men weren’t as fashion aware as they are today.

‘I had problems, yes,’ O’Driscoll laughs. ‘My dimensions were very unusual. I’ve shrunk a little now, but my thighs used to throw up all manner of problems. As with the shirts, trying to find trousers where the waist and legs both fitted was impossible. It’s rare even now that I won’t have to have a jacket even slightly modified.

Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

‘And there would have been things I had to get modified even back in 1999, when I first began being fitted for suits. But there was nowhere near the focus then that there is nowadays. 

‘There wasn’t that level of scrutiny – that side of things has grown exponentially. Because there’s an expectation now from men, from society, that we should be more fashion-conscious in general. As a result, we want to look sharp – both as individuals and as a team.’

If you look at a team and they’re all wearing mismatched, ill-fitting suits, you’ll think they’re real Ragtag Rovers. But if everything’s pulled together, and they look tight, you’ll say ‘these guys mean business’

Small things, such as dropping the first button hole so the V of every team member’s jacket lines up, contribute to this style-centric morale boosting, say Thomas Pink – and O’Driscoll wholeheartedly agrees.

‘Looking good together, getting your details right on and off the pitch, leads itself to a good team mentality. And it’s not like we’re strangers to modification. The need for tailoring in sport, in our on-field apparel is almost as important as off. Shorts, for instance, are fitted to particular positions – so you might have 3 or 4 different types of shorts on the field, and the same goes for socks and jerseys.

‘Because it’s never one size fits all on the field, and it shouldn’t be off. If you look at a team and they’re all wearing mismatched, ill-fitting suits, you’ll think they’re real Ragtag Rovers. But if everything’s pulled together, and they look tight, you’ll say ‘these guys mean business’.

Brian O’Driscoll: “As a sportsman, you can’t buy off the peg”

‘Very much so this year,’ says the sportsman, gesturing at the 2017 collection, ‘but even during my tours, if we’d got even the suiting part of the tour right, you could be sure that the rugby will be taken seriously, too. It’s a psychological thing. If we’ve gone to these ends to invest in our wardrobes, then the players will think – this really means something. It’s worth something.’

‘And one more good thing about these clothes,’ O’Driscoll adds as he wanders across to his old black velvet jacket, ‘is that the Lions are such a diverse bunch. And these jackets and shirts and accessories – like the kit – equalise people. You get people from the north, people from the south, city slickers, rural boys. It can be a real culture clash on that team. But when you dress the same, you become a unit.

‘Not that my jacket would fit me anymore,’ he grins, setting down the tape measure. ‘It would swamp me. But there it is – a great reminder…’

Brian O’Driscoll is an ambassador for Thomas Pink, Official Outfitter of the British & Irish Lions

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