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Revival of the fittest: why retro sportwear is back in vogue

Diadora autumn 17

Once-forgotten heritage sportswear brands have become one of fashion’s hottest tickets. Drapers looks at the unlikely revival and how brands are making sure they stay on top. 

Colour-block zip-up jackets, brash branding and boxy sweatshirts. All were once languishing in fashion’s history books, part of a sports-inspired look that had long since fallen from favour.

Brands such as Fila, Champion, Diadora, Kappa and Ellesse had their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were worn by superstar athletes and transitioned from the pitch into consumers’ wardrobes. 

Smaller sportswear labels struggled to keep up with the growing power of Nike and Adidas as the market grew increasingly crowded and trends changed over the following decades. But these once-neglected brands are enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity – they have found a new foothold in youth culture and are worn by everyone from Instagram influencers to celebrities such as Kylie Jenner.

High street retailers have been quick to embrace this renewed interest. Customers can shop for heritage sportswear brands online at Asos, and at Topshop and Urban Outfitters on the high street. Missguided is the latest retailer looking to gain a bigger share of the lucrative market. As Drapers revealed last month, the etailer is understood to have approached brands including Adidas and Kappa in its first foray into selling third-party brands. 

ellesse autumn 17

ellesse autumn 17

Elllesse autumn 17


Part of the revival can be put down to timing. Most trends come back around given enough time, and fashion is in the midst of an ongoing love affair with 1990s nostalgia. This, coupled with the rise of the athleisure trend, has created the perfect environment and opportunity for heritage sportswear brands.

“The resurgence has come from so many places all at once,” explains Amy Rycroft, head of menswear at Urban Outfitters, which stocks Fila, Kappa, Champion and Ellesse.

“Sportswear brands are embedded in streetwear culture, of which we’ve seen the rise and rise of at the moment. It’s tied into the resurgence of 1990s fashion trends, which are propelling what we wore in our youth in new directions. We’ve also seen big grime artists and hip-hop stars adopting these loud and proud logos. Heritage sportswear brands are ticking so many boxes.”

Fila heritage

Fila spring 17

A new interest in authenticity, particularly among brand-conscious millennials, has also helped heritage labels find a fresh audience.

“Authenticity is the key,” stresses Ellesse brand director Marc Greene.

“Adults want to recapture a look or feeling from their youth. We’re given so much choice now for every purchase, with huge numbers of new brands across online and traditional retailers. Heritage brands bring us the comfort of the familiar. Teen consumers have also leapt on the nostalgic look of 80’s and 90’s sportswear and its links with music genres past and present. We believe it’s essential to keep one eye on the brands rich history and values while keeping the other eye on emerging trends.”

Italy’s Fila began as a manufacturer in 1911, giving the brand more than 100 years of history to draw on and repackage for today’s consumers.

“We let the quality of the product and the brand’s DNA do the talking. We’re not trying to be authentic – we are authentic,” argues Paul Siviter, marketing manager at BB Group, Fila’s UK distributor. “There’s a lot of history but we’ve also looked at colour palettes and trends to ensure the product works in today’s market.”

Fellow Italian brand Diadora is enjoying a similar revival. But is it simply a case of the right time and the right place, or is there more heritage brands are doing to reverse their own fortunes? Many had lain dormant in the UK market for years, struggling to overcome the perception that logo-heavy sportswear was outdated and undesirable. Brands had to convince buyers that heritage sportswear was more than a passing fad and, for some shoppers, the image of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard in a neon-pink Kappa tracksuit top loomed large.

“The 1990s trend wasn’t there when we were first looked to relaunch the brand,” says Mark Ward, managing director of Kappa UK. “We took over distribution at the end of 2014 and had to set up everything from scratch – a new office, new team and a new strategy. Our brief was to look again at the brand and put it back where it deserved to be after being practically non-existent.” 

Ward stresses that the key is to do the right job, with the right partners. Kappa is stocked in around 200 doors in the UK – its key accounts include Asos, JD Sports, Footasylum and Urban Outfitters.

Kappa started life as an Italian sock manufacturer in 1916, but became known for sportswear after it provided uniforms for athletes in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and kitted out football teams including AC Milan and Juventus. The brand has gone back to its sportswear roots to re-establish credibility in the UK market, and signed kit deals with Leeds United and Wigan Athletic in 2015. For the lifestyle arm, Ward says the brand looked carefully at colours and fabrics to give well-known products a fresh twist.

“A really critical part was segmentation and distribution – that really was the key piece for my mind,” he adds. “We had to look at how we managed distribution and segmented the collections, looking at the end consumer and working out what channels they were going to buy from, whether that was on the high street, from independents or online.”

Distribution has been equally important for British-born heritage label Admiral, which also has its roots in football. It started in 1914, and kick-started the replica kit market after producing the first commercially available England shirt in 1974. In 2015, the brand partnered with Sainsbury’s, launching its Admiral Gold and Retro range in 90 of the supermarket’s stores.

“We felt working with Sainsbury’s gave the brand the best opportunity for success,” explains managing director Jonathan Hamburger. “For me as a brand owner, trying to take on the likes of Lacoste and Fred Perry alone would have been foolish. We’ve partnered with Sainsbury’s because they have the distribution, they understand the consumer and the market place.”

Admiral sales at Sainsbury’s have grown 152% since the collection first launched and it will be available in 123 Sainsbury’s stores for autumn 17, as well as online. 

Working with brands and retailers outside of sportswear has proved key to re-establishing heritage labels. Collaborations have come thick and fast. For example, Russian catwalk designer Gosha Rubchinskiy’s spring 17 collection showcased a host of collaborations with brands such as Reebok, Fila and Kappa, while Henry Holland partnered with Umbro for the same season and British menswear designer Liam Hodges has teamed up with Fila for spring 18.

You have to give retailers a reason to think to think this isn’t just a passing trend

Richard Evans, Rich London

Away from the catwalks, the spirit of collaboration has also flourished. Champion has worked with Swedish brand Weekday on limited edition T-shirts, sweatshirts and cropped hoodies. Weekday’s creative director Louise Lasson described sportswear as “so relevant to our customers right now” when Drapers met her earlier this year.

“There is nostalgia out there for heritage brands but it’s a case of constant reinvigorating and new activity,” says Fila’s UK distributor Siviter. “People want to see brands doing new things, rather than staying static and relying solely on heritage.”

Richard Evans, founder of PR agency Rich London, which represents Fila in the UK and manages its creative strategy, agrees: “These brands need to have activity and they need to appeal to other demographics. The collaborations give the brand another dimension and consumers another way of looking at Fila. You have to give retailers a reason to think to think this isn’t just a passing trend, so they can look at a brand and say: ‘Wow, they’re making some exciting moves, we’re confident that we can keep buying into it.’”

There is no doubt that heritage sportswear labels have benefited from both fashion’s cyclical nature and the rise of athleisure. But they have also focused on their sporting roots to re-establish credibility and used attention-grabbing collaborations as a powerful tool to attract customers. To continue to thrive, sportswear labels will need to find new ways to engage consumers and stay relevant even as trends change and the 1990s nostalgia wanes.

As Kappa’s Ward puts it: “It’s about looking ahead as far as possible and making sure we’re ahead of the trend, rather than sitting on it.”


Brand insight from Enrico Moretti Polegato, CEO of Diadora

Enrico moretti polegato

Italian shoe giant Geox bought then-struggling sportswear brand Diadora in 2009. Drapers catches up with CEO Enrico Moretti Polegato (son of Geox founder and president Mario Moretti Polegato) to hear about the brand’s journey to double-digit growth.

What was the appeal of Diadora?

We took over Diadora in 2009 when it was a very difficult situation. However, it had a good trademark and a reputation that hadn’t been tarnished by the difficulties. That’s important with consumers and we wanted to save the brand’s heritage. I also wanted to have my own experience with my own team, rather than working in the family business.

What was your strategy for the brand?

Because of the brand’s history, it was very important to make sure Diadora was credible as a sports company. Diadora exists because of sport – without that we don’t exist. Authenticity is fundamental in the fashion market, particularly among younger consumers. An authentic product proposal is one of the reasons the re-launch is working, because customers feel it speaks to them. We’re also reshoring and bringing production back to Italy.  It puts us in another league from other players in the market – products made in Italy have a different status and perception.

Why is authenticity so important for heritage brands?

We’ve seen the evolution of consumers’ mentality. It’s not enough to have a logo – people don’t identify with that. It’s about stories, the background of the brand, the company’s history.

What does Diadora have planned in the UK?

We’ve recently started direct operations in the UK, rather than going through a third party. We’re working with several high street shops and chains on our different lines. It’s a small market but it is a focus and the beginnings are promising. It’s one of the markets we’re betting on for future growth, alongside the US, Germany and the domestic Italian market.

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