How one shop in Bala kitted out the Welsh football nation
It’s symptomatic of the ever surprising success story of Welsh international football that a shop in the market town of Bala in north Wales is home to a fashion brand that has transformed the appearance of the country’s football fans.
While not quite achieving the same visitor figures of nearby Snowdonia National Park, Siop SO58 on the main High Street has nevertheless become something of an unlikely tourist attraction, luring football-loving visitors from as far afield as New Zealand and America to visit this unique store.
On a shopping thoroughfare that includes familiar retail outlets such as Spar and Subway, the strikingly dressed shop, which opened in 2018, is the home of Spirit Of 58 – the clothing outlet that is intrinsically linked to the Wales international team’s supporters and the colourful bucket hats that give the fans, dubbed the Red Wall, their own distinctive cultural identity.
Since diehard Wales football fan Tim Williams launched the label in 2010, Spirit of 58 has dovetailed perfectly with the reinvention of Welsh international football.
The Football Association of Wales through the use of its inclusive motto – Together Stronger, using language, culture and identity as the foundations for the creation of The Red Wall, has created a new breed of Welsh football fan.
Together with the refining of the stirring pre-game anthem, creating a match day experience at the Cardiff City Stadium which accentuates the importance of homegrown music from the Land of Song, (especially homegrown musicians performing on the Spirit of 58 stage named after the brand) there is now harmony where there was previously division and discord amongst fans from rival Welsh clubs.
Once there were club shirts, songs and confrontation. Now there is an united approach.
In short, it’s become nothing short of a grassroots cultural movement, redolent of tribes of yore such as punk, mod and skinhead, where dearly held ideas and fashion make for an intoxicating brew.
At its heart it has brought about a seismic change in the stylistic identifiers of Welsh supporters. Now the wearing of football shirts and those ubiquitous bucket hats has suddenly become fashionable.
Where once you had fans who would go to the pub dressed in Stone Island and Armani, who wouldn’t be seen dead in a football shirt, now the demand for retro tops and bucket hats is undeniable.
To underline the Together Stronger mantra it’s amusing and startling to witness former football hooligans clad in a Wales shirt, when previously they would have been horrified to be classed a shirt wearer, they’ve totally bought into the prevailing integrating ethos.
The Spirit of 58 clothing label, not only responsible for those ubiquitous bucket hats but also an ever expanding range of zeitgeist-friendly clothing and merchandise, awash with pop culture references which pay tribute to Wales’ golden generation of players, well and truly arrived in 2016. Then the Welsh team delivered the greatest summer of their lives for Wales’ army of long-suffering football fans, who had only previously experienced footballing heartbreak.
For any Wales supporter the team’s opening game of Euro 2016 was a moment to savour. For Tim Williams, in particular, it was the crystallisation of many dreams.
As he looked out on the Red Wall that populated the stands at the Stade De Bordeaux, the red replica shirts were unmistakable, so too were the thousands of bucket hats that had become synonymous with Wales fans during the Euro qualifying campaign.
He had longed to see his team at a major international tournament. The unexpected passage of the Wales national football team to the Euro 2016 semi-finals was especially unforgettable.
He knew that he had made the correct decision to quit his job as an assistant manager at a builders’ merchants in his hometown of Bala two years previously, and launch his brand Spirit Of 58 (named after Wales’ appearance at the World Cup in Sweden in 1958) as a full-time concern.
“I was a bit overwhelmed,” remembers Tim. “It was overwhelming being there anyway for two reasons. We never thought we’d get to a major finals, but we did and then when you walked down the streets you would see people from Wales that you knew. It all seemed so bizarre, And it also meant a lot to Spirit Of 58 as well, of course.”
It’s been a long road travelled for the Welshman and his label. One that has seen him overcoming heartache and uncertainty. It was in adversity that Spirit Of 58 was forged.
“After returning home from a Wales away game in Montenegro which we lost 1-0, I had 100 t-shirts to sell and wondered how I was going to sell them, because another qualifying campaign looked like it was over before it had begun,” he recalls.
“The t-shirt was based on Wales’ victory against England at the Racecourse in Wrexham in 1980 when we beat them 4-1. That was my first product. It actually sold out quickly much to my surprise because nobody had heard of Spirit Of 58 then.
“One of the reasons I started the label was because I felt there was nothing on offer,” he adds. “I remember looking around our away support in Montenegro and all I could see was replica shirts. Not everybody likes a replica shirt, so I thought there was an opportunity for me to bring out designs that I thought would sell that would appeal to me and fellow Welsh fans.
“After that original t-shirt I produced the very first bucket hat and it grew and grew.”
The original Spirit Of 58 bucket hat has morphed into many different versions over the years, but it’s testimony to Tim’s love of music and The Stone Roses in particular that it exists at all.
“In the late ‘80s and ‘90s me and my mates from Bala were all into the Roses,” he says. “A gang of us went to Spike Island. (Stone Roses drummer) Reni wore a bucket hat and introduced the world to it. He and the Roses had a big influence on a lot of people back then and the style of clothing they wore. We were into music and clothes and it’s stayed with me all these years later. Local people probably looked at us back then and thought ‘what the hell do they look like?’ But we didn’t care. It was a lot of fun going to gigs, getting into the car and driving to gigs in Manchester and Liverpool.
“I started supporting Wrexham when my dad took me to my first match aged nine, and music, football and fashion have always gone hand in hand.
“But I took a chance with the bucket hat and luckily for me it worked.”
As the label quickly grew so Tim had a big decision to make.
“When I started Spirit Of 58 I was working full time as an assistant manager at a builders’ merchants. I was going home after a 10-hour shift and started working again in the evening packing parcels and posting to here, there and everywhere.
“The defining moment came when I knew I wasn’t able to give everything to the day job. I was getting up at 6am working to 6pm and getting my little daughter to bed and starting all over again until about two in the morning. It took over my whole life then.
“The demand for the product was building and building, but giving up my old job three years ago this Christmas was the best decision I’ve ever made. It might not last but it’s still going regardless of whether Wales win, lose or draw thanks to a very loyal customer base who have supported me from the start.”
Sadly, his story is one tinged with sadness – his biggest supporter, his dad, not only didn’t get to savour Wales’ memorable appearance at Euro 2016, but he didn’t get to see his son’s brand become the huge success it has.
“My dad died in 2013 aged 70. He had been battling cancer for three years. His name was David Jeffrey but everybody in Bala knew him as Dei Jeff.
“He encouraged me every step of the way with Spirit Of 58 and was very proud of what I had achieved. He passed away two years before the Euros, so he didn’t see the growth in a big way, but he always took a big interest and was always asking me what the next design was.
“Dad was a big football fan, he played, refereed and also ran the junior football club in Bala. He took me to my first Wrexham game against Wolves and my first international match when we drew 0-0 with Russia at the Racecourse in 1980. He knew I had a passion for what I was doing with Spirit Of 58 and he could see I wasn’t happy in the old job and wanted me to be happy.
“He was a football man and a family man.”
The SO58 founder also reveals that he actually thought about giving everything up when his dad became ill.
“After the passing of my dad I thought about knocking it all on the head, but my dad had told me to carry it on, so I did. I thought about giving it all up when he became very ill before the Belgium away qualifier. He told me to go, but I’m glad I didn’t as he passed away not long after.”
As for his innovative designs, such as Hal Robson Kanu’s Cruyff turn against Belgium or Chris Gunter’s ‘chin up’ message to Wales’ fans after defeat to England, that have become so popular playing on Welsh football’s cultural iconography, Tim promises there’s much more to come.
“When I first started we had to look back at positive moments which were few and far between such as beating England 4-1 or beating Italy in Cardiff. It was usually heartbreak rather than good times, but now because of what happened in France and the whole qualifying campaign you’re never far from a good idea.
“I try and produce Welsh language t-shirts as well, which I think is important because a lot of Wales’ football support, especially away from home are based in Bala, Porthmadog, Caernarfon and Anglesey and they’re Welsh-speaking people,” he says. “The one defining moment was when the Team GB issue arose during the 2012 Olympic games. A lot of people including myself didn’t want it and that’s when I produced the Independent Football Nation t-shirts.
“You’ve always got to keep thinking ahead because what I’ve found is that people start copying what you do. If you don’t think one step ahead you get left behind.
His recent successes include a Diego Maradona t-shirt, which features the late legend wearing a 1984-1987 Adidas Wales shirt.
“Believe it or not two days previous to him passing away the Maradona t-shirts arrived in the shop,” he says. “They flew out and I’ve got another batch coming in this week because people keep asking for them.”
The brand has become highly collectable. So much so that when Tim announces a new range or design they invariably quickly disappear from the shelves and his online store.
“In the shop we have about 70 odd products now so the range is growing all the time. I never thought I would be excited about having socks out and having candles out.
“I’m also doing my own gin, IPA and beers,” he adds. “They’ve been very popular.
“It’s been a tough time for a lot of people, but I’m very grateful to all those who have continued to support me through these difficult times.”
For the future, the music and football fan is keen to release a vinyl album, featuring Welsh bands singing in Welsh and English, including a very special guest.
“The plan was to bring out a red vinyl album for Euro 2020 which had to be shelved because of the pandemic,” he says It was to include an exclusive track from (cult indie heroes) Half Man Half Biscuit who were keen to perform a song in the Welsh language.
“It’s something I’d love to see come to fruition,” he adds. “There are lots of great bands in Wales and I have several record labels interested in releasing it.”
Ultimately, his most pressing concerns are hoping that Wales continue their passage through the knockout stages of the postponed Euro 2020 tournament.
“Whenever Wales do well, we see sales pick up, so as a Wales football fan it’s a win win for me,” he says.
“Whatever happens I will always be a fan first and foremost. The future is looking good. I can’t wait to see what it holds for Wales and Spirit Of 58.”
You can visit Siop S058 at 102 High St, Bala LL23 7AD. Visit the online store here.