The century-old sportswear company was perfectly poised for a comeback.
It would be hard to overstate how popular Champion sweats were back in the '90s. Even at the time when there was only a fraction of the number of clothing brands that there are now, there weren't many labels that had Champion's insane demographic reach. It was the uniform for jocks and preps, but also for skaters and hip-hop heads. Champion was all over the hardcore punk scene, but it was just as popular among jam band fans.
"You didn't even have to put it on racks back then," says Manny Martinez, Champion's global brand ambassador and one of its biggest superfans. According to old letters from the company archive, he says, "stores would crack open a box and just put the box out and the people would buy it out of the box."
After the brand's peak around the turn of the millennium, people weren't exactly mobbing stores for Champion sweats anymore. The market had fragmented into a thousand pieces, each of which was tended to by a host of new athletic companies catering to niche clientele.
Anyone who watched '90s nostalgia swallow the fashion world whole could have guessed years ago that Champion was due for a revival, so it was no surprise to see its iconic logo start popping up recently on fashion-forward media stars and trendsetting Instagrammers. What is surprising is how well the brand has been able to leverage this new surge of interest into one of the most impressive comebacks of any label in recent memory. In certain corners of the style world, Champion seems almost as ubiquitous as it was during its heyday. According to Martinez, that's no accident.
"It was a plan that started almost 12 years ago," he says. "I came in to Champion 12 years ago as an intern. My whole thing was to take it from an urban phenomenon to pop culture. Because that's what I always believed the brand was. That's what it meant to me as a kid. And that was my mission."
One key element in the brand's comeback has been a barrage of headline-grabbing capsule collections with a broad range of collaborators, from streetwear legends (Supreme, Undefeated) to fashion troublemakers (Vetements), and from Japan (A Bathing Ape, Monkey Time) to Scandinavia (Wood Wood, Beams). The collabs not only kept Champion's name in everyone's mouth, but also highlighted the brand's versatility. Weekday cropped the iconic Champion sweatshirt, Supreme covered it in allover print, and Vetements added tears and its signature droopy sleeves. But they all still read loud and clear as Champion sweatshirts.
Now, Martinez says, "I think we're in a golden hour. The brand doesn't actually need collabs right now. Not that we don't appreciate them, but now is when the brand can live on its own. When you see Kylie Jenner wearing the brand on her own, it's not because it's a collab. You see people wearing it because it's Champion. That's the beauty of it."
In 2019 Champion turns 100, and its creative team is making full use of the brand's deep history. They're also doubling down on the brand's core design principles and egalitarian vibe. While fashion geeks and hardcore Champion heads climb all over each other to cop limited edition upmarket collabs, the brand's main collection continues to serve up classic silhouettes drenched in the label's history,
with a few tweaks here and there—like polka-dotted hockey jerseys—to keep things modern. And it all comes at easily attainable price points. "It's like having a new brand with a hundred-year history," says Martinez.
The apparel game has changed substantially since Champion was founded. These days, Martinez says, "designers are making stuff that hits, then they gotta go onto the next platform." In this environment, one of greatest the luxuries the Champion team has is the ability to stay put. "We're known as the kings of fleece," Martinez says. "We want to stay within that realm, and we'll take it from there."
Article by Miles Raymer for Esquire.
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