Keeping it 100: Champion Is Surging in Its Centennial After Celebrity Influence


Champion is celebrating its brand centennial in 2019, and they got a massive gust of wind in their sails for the milestone occasion when a number of immensely influential celebrities wore their wares in droves a couple of years ago. Between 2016 and 2017, Kylie JennerKendrick Lamar, and Teyana Taylor shared themselves wearing it on Instagram. Chance the Rapper had it on at several concerts and eventsSelena GomezKendall Jenner, and Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin) were spotted out and about in the apparel. Odell Beckham Jr. wore a Champion outfit courtside at the NBA Finals. In the same period, a global brand synergy strategy was taking place. Sales are surging now.

In 2017, Champion sales were $1 billion. They were $1.36 billion in 2018, they’re projecting $1.7 billion this year — a 70% increase in two years — and their goal is $2 billion by 2022. It’s been a vintage resurgence in large part driven by people who either weren’t or were barely alive when Champion thrived in the 1990’s and was the official licensor of the NBA and the Dream Team. It’s difficult to envision a group of celebrities that would comprise a more effective native advertising campaign targeted at teens and 20somethings, but company officials are adamant that it was actually organic.

“We’ve seen different high-profile influencers really adopting the brand [but] they’re not people that we are paying,” says Champion director of brand marketing David Robertson. “These are people that are fans of the brand and are choosing to wear it and feature it, whether they show up in the press or it’s on their social media platforms. That’s been really, really powerful, and we certainly appreciate that.”

Even with that influencer push, Champion, under the ownership of Hanesbrands, had to execute on distribution. It’s been a strategy almost akin to someone who publishes audio or video content across a number of internet, TV, and/or radio platforms, seeking to meet consumers wherever they’re gathered. In Champion’s case, you see this both locally and globally.

Champion is very easy to find online or in the spectrum of retail outlets. You can buy its activewear from big box stores like Costco, Target or Dick’s or get fashion-conscious apparel at places like Urban Outfitters or Akira. And then there’s even higher-end offerings, like a collaboration with Supreme (worn by Kendrick Lamar) or a tracksuit that Kendall Jenner sported in 2017 that reportedly retailed for over $1,600.

Champion has also delved into opening its own retail locations, including stores in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. A couple weeks ago, I went to the one in Chicago’s Wicker Park area. The biggest draw was a customization station, where you can pick from amongst about 100 patches that range from the city’s neighborhoods to variations of the company’s logos. You can design your own t-shirts, crew-necks, and hoodies with any combination of the patches, thus purchasing clothing that is one-of-a-kind.

“Champion is a very inclusive brand, all around the world,” says Susan Hennike, Champion’s president of North America. “With regards to segmentation, we absolutely have distribution strategies that go with that. Opening stores for us is a wonderful opportunity to be able to tell a very strong brand story and to have that one-on-one communication with our consumers. It’s the ability to talk to them directly.”

From a global perspective, in 2016 Hanesbrands re-acquired Champion Europe so that, after years as a separate entity, it was back under the same umbrella with North America and Asia. While their research indicated the overseas brands had very positive feedback and consistent messaging, this has nonetheless meant seeing what works in one region and applying it to the others. “We’ve been really leveraging the capabilities that they have from designs and fabrics and allow us to really get to know our consumers and how we design better for them,” says Hennike.

Champion’s Instagram followership has grown from 186,365 in 2016 to over 5 million today.

What’s kind of interesting is that while you can call this a comeback, Champion never went away. It’s been there as part of the Hanes conglomerate this whole time (Hanes was a part of the Sara Lee corporation until 2006 when it was spun off). Nonetheless, the brand has had a number of innovations and cyclical rises throughout its century’s existence. They pioneered the reverse weave sweatshirt in the 1930s, ultimately finalizing a patent on the product in the 1950s. They were also involved in the popularization of the hoodie, and in the creation of breathable nylon fabric basketball jerseys.

What most readers here presumably remember them most for was their licensing relationships with the NCAA, NFL, and most significantly the NBA. From 1990-91 through 96-97, Champion had the official jerseys for the whole NBA, and for the half-decade after that had them for 8-10 teams. They also outfitted the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Champion is also not alone as a brand from this era in making a comeback. Stories have been written about Tommy HilfigerCalvin KleinFila, and Reebok. Nike and Adidas re-market their vintage items all the time. It’s not just clothing, either. Vinyl records sales have been skyrocketing (it helps that they sound astoundingly better than digital audio). You can buy new Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis loaded with their classic games (from at least my perspective, the fact that these games are in 2D prevents my brain from hurting like it has since video games entered the third dimension).

In any event, perhaps resurgence is a more appropriate word for what’s happened with Champion in the past several years than comeback. To whatever extent one wants to attribute the flurry of free celebrity promotion for the surge of sales, it’s crazy to think about how this interest could not have been rooted in nostalgia that was experienced firsthand.