David Adamson chats with Serge and Polina from the vintage football shirts shop newly set up in the city
Serge Shcherbyna, 29, and Polina Vynohradova, 27, left their native Kyiv a day before the Russian ground invasion of February 2022, closing their beloved retro football shirt store in the process.
Ahead of today’s launch of their new shop off King Street, they tell DAVID ADAMSON about the beauty of shirts from the past, the pull of nostalgia and moving to a city mad about football.
David Adamson (DA): Firstly, welcome to Manchester. When did you arrive here?
Polina Vynohradova (PV): Thank you. We’re living in Macclesfield and arrived ten months ago.
Serge Shcherbyna (SS): Last November. We had been travelling for quite a while already at that point, because we were the lucky ones, I guess, to have left Ukraine just one day before the full scale invasion happened. So we went to Brussels first to meet with our good friend, Damion, who's in the same kind of business with vintage shirts. We wanted to learn from the best because he's very big, and we went to exchange experience, and basically our trip is still going on.
PV: [laughs] We’re still exchanging experience.
Just like us people, who can be crazy attractive and beautiful, the same applies to shirts really
SS: I would say we are now doing even more. We have more than enough experience to be ballsy enough to go with this concept here in Manchester.
PV: And the biggest players are here. Obviously you have Classic Football Shirts.
SS: The whole niche started in Manchester back in 2006 when Doug and Matty initiated Classic Football Shirts and I think they've inspired a lot of people around the world to go with vintage and we’re no exception.
DA: Right, so they do really have a global reputation then, and of course they have a big warehouse right by the Ethiad, where there must be millions of shirts. So you had a shop in Kyiv already?
PV: Yeah, we had a physical store in Kyiv in the middle of the city centre in an 18th century mansion. We had a small room there. It was not a huge shop but it was more like a showroom, I would say, pretty ‘vibey’ [laughs].
SS: It was cosy. And we had lots of details on the interior. I wouldn't say that we did very well in terms of sales because here you already have this culture established whilst in the Ukraine we had to educate people on the importance of this stuff, on its value, why sometimes it costs more. Because these are authentic shirts from back in the day, these are not newly made versions that are being produced by the thousands. So they have not just a commercial value to them, but emotional as well: for the people who remember them from some glorious days of their clubs, or how they played their first FIFA or Pro Evolution Soccer and players were wearing these actual shirts. So we had to work on that really hard in Ukraine, I would say.
PV: Yeah, even though we have clubs and they should do that, but we put this weight on our shoulders, to educate the community of football supporters.
SS: One thing I can say for sure is that launching a physical store was one of the best decisions that we've ever made because it helped us grow the community around this little room. We met so many people who share the same passion about football, and are being creative about football in one way or another, and that was very important to understand there is somebody you can join forces with and you can go down the same road with them. Sadly, we had to shut it down, and once we realised, ‘Okay, the war is not going to be over in two weeks or two months’ time’, we had to negotiate how our stock is going to get picked up. It happened from a distance from Brussels, and now it's all here in the centre of Manchester, our second shot. Stunner 2.0.
DA: So not to dwell too much of course, because I know it’s an awful situation that's going on in Ukraine at the moment, but you said that you left the country the day before the grand invasion began? Was that a matter of seeing it coming and thinking, ‘We're probably going to have to leave’, or was it a snap decision within the space of a week sort of thing?
SS: Obviously, it was in the air. If you're a grown-up who reads the news you can understand that once there is 100,000 foreign soldiers being lined up on your country's borders, it's not for nothing. Plus we have a long story, it’s not like this war just happened on 24th February 2022. It was already going on for eight years.
PV: And I would say for centuries if you go even deeper.
SS: So yes, to be fair with you, it was a matter of precaution on our regard, temporarily closing down the store. We even made a post on Instagram saying, ‘We don’t know what's going to happen to Stunner, but we are leaving for two weeks’. That was the initial plan.
PV: Just to understand and to clear our minds and ask ourselves ‘What should we do next?’ So that’s why we went to Brussels.
DA: So then from Brussels you went on to Macclesfield?
SS: We had one more pit stop. We went to Italy for three months.
PV: We’ve always been in love with calcio, and we understood that if we already have the opportunity to discover the world we should discover the football in other countries. Not many people in Ukraine have this and we were very lucky, so thought we should use it for our followers, for ourselves. To grow and understand what's going on in this world. So we went to the north of Italy to cover a Juventus game.
SS: This thing aside, we also do media coverage from football matches. We travel quite a lot, regardless of how high or low the club is, it doesn't matter. Actually the lower the better. So we did some coverage in Italy, and most of the time we would find ourselves applying for media accreditation just for the sake of the media lunch that was served.
PV: Because we were completely broke. [laughs] We worked for food and our portfolio of course. We went to the match and covered the whole atmosphere pre and post- match, not just from the ground or about the players but more about the supporters - to catch their emotions. That was our goal, and we nailed it. We reached out to NSS Italy, a big media company who saw our portfolio and were happy to work with us, and that was I think our first big step in terms of our media.
SS: Once again, when your back is pushed against the wall, it's oddly enough the time when you get the most creative in terms of finding a way to go around this unfortunate situation. In terms of finance at least that was unfortunate but we hit the very bottom financially and realised we couldn’t afford accommodation anymore in Italy. That's when we started considering the UK because we had many friends here and we reached out to one friend in particular, who I met through football eight years ago when he came to Kyiv to see Everton play against Dinamo in the Europa League. When I shared our situation with him he said ‘Come in guys, stay for as long as you need’. The UK had just introduced this Homes for Ukraine programme, so you needed a sort of ‘inside man’ or a sponsor who will host you. And he said you can live with me for six months, 12 months, six years. ‘How long do you need?’
PV: From then people were nothing but friendly to us. When we arrived here, Sean, our sponsor, wasn't home, so he said, ‘I'll meet you in the pub’. So we went to the pub, and everybody already knew us. They said ‘You’re Serge and Polina from Ukraine!’ We thought, ‘What the hell, are we that famous?’
SS: We discovered that news travels really fast here, especially in the pub. You can whisper something in someone’s ear and in five minutes time everybody knows about it.
DA: So tell me about the name, where does that come from? Because the English word for that is someone or something that’s very beautiful. Does it have a similar word in Ukrainian for instance?
SS: No we don’t have this word in Ukrainian. It just works on a few levels, I think. First, it comes from football, when a commentator works on a match and let's say somebody scores an amazing goal from 40 yards with some crazy volley, which goes against all laws of physics - they would call it a stunner. And the same kind of vocabulary applies to many of the shirts I think. Because just like us people, who can be crazy attractive and beautiful, the same applies to shirts really. In my humble opinion, with these shirts compared to modern ones, you can see the aesthetic difference straight away. They used to be ballsy they used to be bright, something that would not fit in the modern game, which is very much regulated and too much about finance these days.
DA: I’ve always had a big love for football shirts. I had the 2003 Italy Kappa kit at the time and was a slightly chubbier 11-year-old, so it didn't really fit very well.
SS: [laughs] Yes that’s especially tight.
DA: And over the years I've obsessively looked at all sorts but not always been able to afford one; looking around for the Mediolanum Milan shirt from the Ruud Gullit era, which is just beautiful. But I’ll show you one I do actually have, which my friends bought me for my 30th birthday, which is the Juventus Sony Mini Disc from 95/96 I believe.
SS: And that's the sponsor that was only used in the Champions League. So yes, very, very niche.
DA: So I've always had an appreciation for them, and there’s that nostalgic kick you get. I can see the England Beckham ‘7’ shirt there from the ‘98 World Cup and your head just floods with all these associations. Now people are getting really into the nostalgia of it all and I wonder what your thoughts are on that?
SS: Well, it is true that nostalgia is the fuel of our business, but what we have to understand at the same time is that only so many people will get their nostalgia kick from these particular shirts because younger generations, people who are maybe 20 years old…
PV: They will have a nostalgia kick from shirts maybe from 2015 - Fly Emirates or something like that. That will be their nostalgia, not some shirt from the 80s or 90s. We don't feel nostalgia towards shirts from the 60s, for example, it's just a white shirt. And that's okay, that's absolutely fine because it’s the normal circle of life and the circle of nostalgia.
SS: It's going to move constantly, and so this business has the potential of being present constantly, because generations of supporters are going to change. It’s the same with the shirts that trigger this nostalgia, they’ll also change. So, if you look at this from different angle, these can be considered as a very good investment. Because they are being produced now in larger quantities because football is gaining a bigger fan base with every year.
PV: And you can get any shirt in any size with any name, right in the store. It's not a quest anymore.
DA: That's a good way of putting it: that sense of rarity and of searching around. There'll be people in this city right now who have been tormenting themselves for years thinking, ‘If I can just get that 94/95 Ajax shirt. I’ve trawled eBay, I’ve tried everywhere’, and they’ll walk in here, see it, and think ‘Shit, I've got to buy it’. Like you say, it's that quest for this grail of a shirt.
SS: When people are on this quest, we want to present them with the best possible option for their collection, that’s impeccable in terms of condition and which brings them pleasure.
PV: Basically we bring what we would like to buy for ourselves.
SS: What I do enjoy the most about it is the communication between us and people who love what we love. This communication is crucial for us, it's not about commercial value, as long as we are able to afford the rent each month.
PV: It's okay for us because it's more about the experience. We built a place where we can get some experience and we want to also give experience for other people. So in our plans we want to create another space downstairs for artists, local photographers, lecturers, and put on exhibitions, lectures, workshops.
SS: People who are being creative about football in this or any other way. People who have a story to share, who have a path that took them to where they are right now. So definitely within the next few months we will expand to downstairs level as well, because it's just asking for stories to be shared there. This is just the start.
DA: You couldn’t have picked a better place; your neighbour is the manager of Manchester City. As you mentioned, Pep’s place is just around the corner. Have you seen him yet?
SS: No not yet, I guess he’s the early bird whilst we are commuting in from Macclesfield, so we maybe just miss him every day.
DA: Have you thought about sourcing one of his shirts?
SS: It’s happening next week. I have one ordered already, Barcelona shirt No.4. We’ll see, maybe he’ll pop in and leave a signature on it.
Stunner Vintage Football Shirts hold their official opening today (Friday 15 September) from 5pm at their shop on 9 S King St, Manchester M2 6DG
Visit their Instagram here