As sportswear brand Champion celebrates its 100th anniversary, Drapers talks to Chris Haggarty, Champion’s group country director for the UK, France and Benelux, about the brand’s plan for the next 100 years.
The distinctive “C” logo of sportswear brand Champion is now as likely to be spotted on millennial street style stars as it is on athletes warming up on the touchline. The US label marks its centenary this year with a campaign highlighting what it means to be part of a team, but even putting major milestones to one side, Champion has plenty to celebrate.
It has been a star player in the resurgence of once-neglected heritage sportswear brands. Wider market trends have worked in the label’s favour: Champion has an innate credibility thanks to its long history in sportswear and it specialises in casual, logo-heavy designs. Both factors have proved catnip to authenticity-obsessed streetwear fans, and as a result, a new generation is discovering Champion for the first time.
“I’m the wrong side of a big number and I remember wearing Champion growing up in the 1980s and 1990s,” laughs Chris Haggarty, Champion’s group country director for the UK, France and Benelux, as he chats to Drapers about how Champion is remaining fighting fit for another century. “There’s a mature customer who is buying into Champion for nostalgic reasons and first-timers who are adopting the brand because they’ve seen what we’ve done with the collaborations and brand positioning.”
The Champion story began in 1919, when entrepreneur Simon Feinbloom and his two sons, Bill and Abe, started what was then the Knickerbocker Knitting Mills in Rochester, New York. By 1924, the brothers had taken over the business, rebranding as Champion Knitwear Mills and producing heavy-knit wool sweaters. The business quickly established a reputation for quality and for its pioneering approach, kick-starting its athletic product line by selling directly to teams to gain insight from coaches and athletes. Champion product has been worn in sporting leagues including the US National Football League and National Basketball Association.
Champion has experienced a particular resurgence in the UK market over the past few years. Current stockists include Selfridges, Urban Outfitters, JD Sports, Next and Sports Direct. Like other savvy sportswear brands, it has also collaborated extensively to help bring new customers into the fold. Champion’s long list of partners includes Supreme, Wood Wood, Skechers, Japanese label Beams and menswear independent End.
Champion spring 19
Financially, the business is also in good health. Champion Europe was acquired by underwear giant Hanes Brands, which already owned the US arm of the business, in 2016. Global sales at Champion hit $1.36bn (£1bn) in 2018, up from $1bn (£770m) the previous year. In Europe, the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain are key markets and Champion is also targeting Scandinavia.
“As we reach our 100th anniversary, the main thing that has given us a foothold in what can be a very challenging market is authenticity,” Haggarty adds. “The brand can be trusted – we’ve got an authentic and credible back story with not just the trade, but consumers. We’re considered the definitive sweatshirt brand and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Champion has an extensive archive that we can dip into and tweak with a modern fit or fabric.”
Champion, Haggarty explains, has been able to take advantage of consumer’s ongoing interest in all things sportswear by playing to it strengths.
“Going back to basics was key for us, such as focusing on the original heavy-weight sweatshirts that were at the forefront of the brand’s product innovations in the 1930s and 1940s. Our product strategy was to concentrate on what we are renowned for, which coincided a couple of seasons after with the trend for 1980s and 1990s sportswear.”
Going forward, Champion will concentrate on diversifying its product range to allow younger fans to buy into the brand at a lower price point. Currently, Champion’s retail prices vary from £35 for simple T-shirts to £220 for a long-line padded jacket. The label’s trademark sweatshirts retail from £50 to £115.
“Segmenting the product range to appeal to an even broader range of consumers is something we’re working towards,” Haggarty explains. “We want to maintain our premium place in the market while also making sure we have similar product that is more accessible to a younger demographic that might not have the same ‘wallet space’ by using different fabrics. We want to offer something affordable that still has the DNA and ethos of the brand.”
Champion is also focusing on new product categories: outerwear, footwear and accessories have all been earmarked as particular areas of growth.
“As an athletic brand, outerwear is already part of our offer, but it might not be immediately associated with Champion, so there’s an opportunity there,” Haggarty adds. “We wouldn’t do something that doesn’t look or feel authentic and Champion outerwear has been worn on the touchline for decades, so we know we can develop that category commercially while still staying true to the brand.”
The booming trainer market is another opportunity for Champion, he continues.
“We’ve been doing footwear for a number of years in our standalone stores in Italy, and it is a growing part of our business in our sporting goods channel, so it makes sense to develop the lifestyle offer. It has to be done in the right way, though – we don’t just want to take a silhouette and put our name on it. It has to be right.”
Wholesale is central to Champion’s growth plans and Haggarty describes it as “the fastest route to market.” However, the brand is also seeking to grow own retail, both on- and offline. In 2017, Champion opened a UK flagship store on Soho’s Brewer Street, where the brand’s equally on-trend neighbours include Supreme, Palace Skateboards and End. The Soho branch, Haggarty says, will be a tough act to follow, but Champion is exploring opening more stores in the UK.
“The store in Soho gives us the opportunity to really showcase the brand, as some of the things we design aren’t always bought by wholesale customers,” he explains. “Own-retail allows us to tell the brand story. We’re always looking for new opportunities, but it needs to be the right one.”
Champion is making investments in its online offer to drive further growth, Haggarty explains: “We’re also looking to expand our retail footprint online, so there’s been investment in both the UK and the US in the right technologies and software to help us do that.”
Heritage sportswear brands such as Champion have undoubtedly benefitted from friendly market trends. Smart strategies are needed to retain consumers’ interest, but extending product categories and ensuring more customers can buy into the brand should help Champion hit the mark.
Champion’s century of sporting standouts
1919 Knickerbocker Knitting Mills is set up in Rochester, New York
1928 The first line of athletic goods is released under the “Olympic Champion” brand
1934 Champion collegiate clothing is sold for the first time at Moe Sport Shop, Michigan
1938 Champion patents both a new flocking process and the Reverse Weave sweatshirt
1941 Champion supplies T-shirts and sweatshirts to troops in World War II
1952 The Reverse Weave design is updated with expansion gussets, and debuts in sweatpants
1967 Champion introduces the first nylon mesh football jersey. The company goes public as Champion Products
1968 Lady Champion, a PE collection for women, is launched
1975 Champion Japan opens for business
1977 Jogbra, the first women’s sports bra, was invented by Hinda Miller, Lisa Lindahl and Polly Palmer-Smith
1979 Champion Europe business begins
1982 Champion debuts its retail line at department stores
1987 Champion footwear is produced for the first time
1990 A deal is signed with the NBA, making Champion the official supplier of all team jerseys
1996 Champion is the official outfitter of the US Olympic team
2006 Champion joins the Hanes Brands family
2017 A Champion Reverse Weave hoodie is displayed at MOMA
2019 Champion celebrates its 100th anniversary on 6 May