One of the basic rules of branding maintains you can’t be all things to all people. Yet somehow, this time-honored concept does not apply to quintessentially American sportswear brand Champion. Because for almost 100 years, Champion has not only supplied athletes and everyday folks with functional sweats, socks, shoes, and underwear but also enjoyed the aura of a coveted highvalue brand held in high esteem by rappers, streetwear addicts, fashion designers, and supermodels across the globe.
The Story of a Champion
Just within the last year, Champion has launched high-profile collabs with labels such as Vetements, OFF-WHITE, Stussy, Bape, BEAMS, Timberland, KITH, atmos, and Supreme. Celebrity endorsers include Chance The Rapper, 50 Cent, and The Game, plus supermodel Kylie Jenner.
Complex listed Champion among its Best Brands of 2017 and the brand’s retro 1990s basketball gear sells for top dollar on eBay. At the same time, customers can still cop a solid Champion hoodie or T-shirt at Walmart without breaking the bank.
Looking back at Champion’s storied history, a pattern emerges. Perhaps even the secret to Champion’s longevity and staying power. Because right from the start, Champion has been all about helping others win – and that’s what they’re still doing almost 100 years later.
Birth of an Industry
Founded in 1919 by New York brothers Abraham and William Feinbloom, the company incorporated as Champion Knitwear in 1923 with a winning concept: Instead of selling primarily to consumers, the Rochester-based manufacturer supplied university athletics teams with functional sweatshirts and sweatpants. Straight out the gate, Champion found its direct competitor – the adidas to its Nike – in Russell Athletic, the significantly older company established deep in the South’s cotton kingdom in 1902. Russell already boasted significant innovations, including the modern cotton sweatshirt introduced around 1920 after successfully pivoting athletic wear from wool to cotton.
Champion fired back by inventing THE hip-hop garment of choice, the hooded sweatshirt, in the early 1930s. Next up, they pioneered the Reverse Weave sweatshirt that avoided shrinkage during the washing process and is still a calling card today. Over the years, they also patented reversible T-shirts, mesh jerseys, screen-printing and flocking techniques, and the first sports bra. But despite these breakthroughs, Champion always let others have the shine – namely the sports teams it outfitted as official supplier.
Outfitter of Champions
Partnerships with sports teams kicked into high gear in the 1960s, after Champion found the formula for success with the redesigned “C” logo. Placed discreetly on the left sleeve or chest of sports uniforms, the “C” provided the seal of quality while leaving all logo real estate on the garment for the team’s insignia and player numbers. A blank canvas for branding. Or as one could argue, the perfect backdrop for collabs. The brand signed major deals with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Products first hit consumer stores in the early 1980s, and 1989’s takeover by the Sara Lee Corporation opened the doors to global distribution – and emergence as a pop culture phenomenon. What started with California hardcore bands such as Gorilla Biscuits and Houston rappers Geto Boys in the late 1980s spiraled out of control, as Champion became the label of choice for rappers, skateboarders, and streetwear brands.
Pretty much every early 1990s East Coast rap act from Wu- Tang to Onyx and Gang Starr rocked baggy Champion gear on album covers and video shoots. Skate brands such as Underworld Element spoofed the “C” logo on decks and clothing. Early streetwear runs from BAPE, Supreme, and Good Enough were printed on Champion garments, while 1990s Champion basketball sneakers like the Equinox Hi influenced shoe design with color-blocked suede in primary hues.
“Champion gear that I rock, you get your boots knocked.” – Wu-Tang Clan, 1993.
The early 2000s brought back the Champion’s iconic hooded sweater in a Super Hood design, rocked by hood poets such as Fat Joe and Ghostface Killah. But following 2006’s takeover by HanesBrands, the brand lost some of its sparkle to fragmented licensing deals and generic products.
Champion – The 100th Anniversary
Today, Champion is everywhere. Drawing on its strong brand heritage, the label’s design team has a few surprises up its sleeve for the 100th anniversary. Expect a return of cherished sportswear pieces in premium finishes, retro basketball boots, and a premium sneaker line to drop over the next months as we get closer to 2019. Remember: One hundred years is a long time, and brand credibility is not a sprint, but a marathon. And Champion is in it for the long run.
This story first appeared in our October 2018 issue of Sneakers Magazine – available now!