Collaborations with hot designers are often good for short-lived buzz and revenue boosts, but for years-long revenue streams, fashion brands and retailers are turning to partnerships with universities.

For Tommy Bahama, which launched collegiate apparel in August 2017, entering the licensed collegiate apparel category was a natural next step — the company began selling MLB team gear in 2011 and NFL styles in 2015. “We know that more than 90 percent of our customers went to college,” said CEO Doug Wood. “And I saw the parents at the bookstores when I visited my kids at school; they had their arms full of stuff, and they were dressed like me. It felt like we were missing something.”

The company saw a “crazy response” out the gate, he said, though noted the steps to market weren’t easy: For starters, licensing agreements with each included school — each of which came with a price (which many brands offset by lowering apparel quality, he said) — were necessary, and each had different, stringent rules about everything from where product is made to how it will eventually be marketed.  

Tommy Bahama looked to IMG College Licensing to help facilitate the process. The company — which has exclusive trademark licensing rights for nearly 200 top schools, and reports it’s paid them more than $2 billion total in royalties to date — works with Victoria’s Secret on Pink apparel, as well as Columbia and Carhartt on lines, and has coordinated short-term programs with brands including Brooks Brothers and Dooney and Bourke.   

“For brands, there’s a lot of upside to college [product],” said Tammy Purves, senior director of communications at IMG Licensing Apparel. “College has really become a lifestyle brand, in and of itself. It’s not just a game-day brand anymore; people are wearing it out socially. Plus, college is year-round — you’ve got football, basketball, baseball, graduation — which sets it apart from [seasonal] pro leagues. And college fans are very loyal to their brand.”

Wood, however, said Tommy Bahama sees peak sales times in the category, which works to the company’s advantage: Specializing in styles for “the island life,” it typically sees its best sales in spring and summer. Its collegiate apparel sales pick up in fall, around back-to-school time. “It’s a nice counter seasonal business,” he said.  

The time is ripe for college apparel: Included styles typically classify as trendy athleisure, and many reference vintage college styles, playing into fashion’s current obsession with nostalgia. IMG College Licensing’s vintage-inspired College Vault collection — which launched in 2005, and includes five to 15 usable elements (like a logo or mascot) per school — has seen a resurgence in the last two years, said Purves. To better capitalize on that success, it’s currently undergoing a rebranding.

“We’re using data from the marketplace to evolve how the Vault is presented at retail,” said Purves. “Just like successful retailers are doing, we’re looking at how to make it more experiential and more about a lifestyle — so it’s not just another collection next to another jersey.”

On the same note, in the first-quarter earnings call for 2018 last month, JCPenney chairman and CEO Marvin Ellison looked to alleviate concerns of shareholders (sales for the quarter dropped 4 percent) by talking up an improved merchandise experience, including the launch of 700 Fanatics shop-in-shops this summer. The retailer has been JCPenney’s online source for licensed college and pro apparel since 2014.

On Tuesday, G-III Apparel Group, which has licenses with over 150 U.S. colleges and universities, released its first quarter fiscal 2019 results, which included a net sales increase of 16 percent to $611.7 million, making it a record quarter.

There’s money to be made. According to IMG College Licensing, sales of licensed collegiate apparel reach an estimated $4.6 billion annually. And the category is seeing momentum, thanks in large part to increasingly strategic brand partnerships.

Like today’s many “[fashion brand] x [fashion brand]” collaborations, there’s got to be something in it for both parties — the opportunity to get in front of a new audience is usually the draw. “You can’t just license with a college and the add a page to your next catalog,” said Purves. “The colleges want to know: How is it going to benefit my brand? How are you going to market your college program differently than other brands? Are you going to provide incremental distribution through your stores? — because the bookstores already have enough product.”

Based on learnings from IMG College Licensing research on what women want to see in the market — basically, less “shrink it and pink it” and more stylish details, modern silhouettes and styling ideas — Dick’s Sports has updated their women’s floor displays to provide more outfit inspiration, Purves said.

Brands have popped up dedicated to the same idea, including Nuyu, founded by University of Michigan alum Tracy Buescher in 2014. The brand’s styles include women’s crop tops, yoga pants, sports bras and bomber jackets. Gameday Couture took off the same year, following an appearance by the brand’s founders on “Shark Tank.”

In April, rumors swirled at the inaugural Michigan Fashion Media Summit about Tommy Hilfiger possibly launching a collegiate apparel line, when attendees reportedly witnessed the brand’s CEO, event speaker Gary Sheinbaum, asking Buescher a number of questions about her business. During the event, he spoke on stage about Tommy Hilfiger’s size advantage, enabling it to enter niche markets, recently including adaptive clothing. The company declined to remark on interest in collegiate fashion.

Regardless of size, it’s a big undertaking. Along with winning approval of colleges and abiding by their rules, brands must face consumer demands — which are vast when it comes to college apparel, said Wood.

“We started small, with just Pac-12 [Conference] schools, and there was immediate backlash, like, ‘But I went to Villanova!’” he said. “And you can’t keep rolling out the same product — they need to be compelled to shop. Indeed, sports fans are fickle.” And universities can always choose to stir up buzz with another collaborator.

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