Champion’s rise and fall and rise again is an interesting story that reminds us why Champion are still champions.
Rise & Fall
Champion were ubiquitous for athletic clothing back in the day. Not only did their clothes look good, but they were also innovative. Way back in the 1930s, Champion invented both the hoodie and the reverse weave sweatshirt. Yeah, they invented the hoodie, one of the most historical fashion innovations of the 20th century!
These inventions put Champion on the map in the U.S. and it was their important partnerships with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Football League (NFL). These partnerships meant that Champion absolutely exploded in popularity as their sales doubled from 1985 – 88.
Manny Martinez, Champion’s global brand ambassador said in an archived company letter, “You didn’t even have to put it on racks back then. Stores would crack open a box and just put the box out and the people would buy it out of the box.”
So, what went wrong? It actually started with something going very right. The Sara Lee Corporation bought Champion for $320 million. This meant that Champion had the resources to expand the brand further than ever. It even landed them a deal with the NBA to produce all their uniforms.
The problem was that over time Sara Lee just started to lose interest in Champion and turned their attention to the food industry, that’s why when we think of Sara Lee, we think of cakes and not jumpers. Sara Lee sold Champion Europe and all this meant that Champion no longer had access to the abundant resources they once had.
Champion also thought the XFL was a good idea and when that inevitably fell apart, Champion fell with them. For those who don’t know, the XFL was a collaboration between the WWE and NBC to create a separate football season when the NFL season concluded. Turns out all the good players were already in the NFL so the XFL games were just plain bad – who knew?
From Champion’s shadow came brands like Adidas and Nike who would soon gain greater interest with consumers.
Champion, in order to stay afloat, had to resort to selling their clothes in places like Kmart, Target, and Walmart. Your appeal and image take a severe hit when your products are sold in ‘cheap’ places. To put it simply, they simply were no longer cool.
Champion weren’t going to take this lying down. Martinez said that he had a plan, “It was a plan that started almost 12 years ago. I came into 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.”
If you’re no longer cool, how do you get cool? Start being friends with the cool kids.
A massive range of collaborations laid the groundwork for Champion’s comeback. They worked with Supreme and Vetements which did amazing things for the brand. Both collaborations were incredibly successful. Supreme especially were popular with the right people who could give Champion the prestige they needed to get back into consumers good graces.
These collabs weren’t just opportunistic business moves but actual moments of genuine creativity and inspiration. Each collab from Weekday to Supreme added something new while still, without a doubt, being a Champion piece.
This was so successful that Martinez today believes that Champion is “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.”
This was back in 2019 when Champion celebrated their 100-year anniversary, and it seems to still be true today in 2021. But things are always changing, and Champion know where they stand. “We’re known as the kings of fleece,” said Martinez. “We want to stay within that realm, and we’ll take it from there.”
We can’t attribute all their success to their collaborations as at least some of it was due to external trends and luck.
Think about the time when Champion were getting big again. A lot of 80s and 90s wear was starting to come back around then, wasn’t it? Especially in sportswear. Well, who does 80s and 90s athleisure best? Adidas, but also Champion.
Even Fila jumped on this trend to great effect and you even saw the revival of Reebok who I believe is the only one that isn’t quite having the same levels of success as the others.
Champion have said that by 2022 they would be hoping for $2 billion in sales. In 2019, they reached $1.9 billion. It seems safe to say that they will likely hit that goal in 2022 despite the pandemic.
Champion are still champions because they knew what they had and realised that external trends were in their favour. They knew they had to be cool again and shed their Target label and to do that, they borrowed some ‘cool’ from other brands and struck while the iron was hot.
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