This week, a look at a sportswear brand’s collaboration-fueled growth plans. Scroll down to use Glossy+ Comments, giving the Glossy+ community the opportunity to join discussions around industry topics.
A new day, a new collaboration.
Despite trialing new marketing tactics, amid recent digital advertising shakeups, apparel brands vying for attention have continued to bet on hit-or-miss product collaborations. Among them is Head Sportswear, which has its sights set on an expanded Gucci partnership and “tremendous” growth this year.
Below, a breakdown of its grand plan, including what it needs to be successful and where it could fall apart.
Starting the brand
Full owner of the Austria-based sporting goods company since 1995 — taking the company public in 2000 and then private in 2013 — Johan Eliasch enlisted Roman Stepek to lead a new global sportswear division in 2016. Head’s hard goods business, including tennis rackets and skis, had dominated the company for 65 years, experiencing particular traction in the prior 5-6 years, with back-to-back record sales. Reviving the sportswear business was Eliasch’s next mission.
Stepek, who’s worked for multiple ski apparel brands, said it was two years into the conversation with Eliasch before he decided to sign on with the company. A textile engineer by trade, he saw the challenge of gaining necessary support internally, considering the company’s history and success with sports equipment. That was especially considering his forward vision for the sportswear division.
“I told Johan that, to do this right, we’d have to start below ground zero; we’d have to start at minus 10 or 15,” Stepek said. “I knew it would be critical to change the mindset of all the business units.”
Stepek said that proved true, with his co-workers wanting nothing to do with him for his first two years with the company. He eventually brought in a new team of “very young people with a free mindset” who trusted him, he said.
Stepek said his first order of business was laying the groundwork for a brand known for quality apparel. That began with establishing an all-new supply chain, and perfecting the brand’s fit and sizing for men and women. Next came the challenging task of securing manufacturing partners willing to tackle small-quantity orders for a reasonable price. Rounding out Stepek’s immediate to-dos were motivating the international sales force to expand their focus to sportswear and hiring an Americas sales director with a dedicated sportswear focus; Jessica Goodman, former local sales director for both Goldbergh Luxury Sports and Bogner, joined the company in 2022.
The first Sportswear products hit the market three years ago via the brand’s e-commerce site. But, as with Head’s other divisions, it will primarily focus heavily on wholesale, to establish the brand in the market, he said.
Currently, just 10% of Head Sportswear’s sales are driven by the U.S. market, with a majority coming from Europe and Asia. But the U.S. business is set to “grow tremendously” in the next few years, Stepek said. It will launch its tennis line in the states this summer, plus Saks Fifth Avenue is among local retailers that have picked up the brand for winter.
The pandemic worked to accelerate Head Sportswear’s U.S. focus, after ski resorts in Italy and Austria closed for the 2020-2021 season, resulting in “absolutely zero business,” Stepek said.
But the company dodged many of the popular brand issues of the last three years. As in the U.S., there was a tennis boom in Europe. And Stepek owed Head’s ability to avoid shipping and quality issues to employees’ smart solutions for potential roadblocks. For example, they recruited people who could speak the local language to join FaceTime conversations with factory line workers in East Asia. According to a company representative, Head has seen “significant growth” in the last two years. They declined to share specific growth and revenue figures. In its last annual earnings report, for 2000, Head reported revenue of $398.6 million.
Stepek first tackled tennis apparel, with a focus on making it design-driven, professional-oriented and high-quality. To help get it off the ground, he linked with Head’s grassroots and Pro programs, established by the hard goods sector. The former centers on partnerships with teenage tennis players with the potential to become the sport’s next big stars. Typically, tennis players have one sponsor for their bag and racket, and another for their clothing and shoes, but Head athletes now wear the brand from head to toe. Among professional players Head currently sponsors is Marin Čilić from Croatia. For practices and tournaments, he wears made-to-measure Head Sportswear in his choice colors.
According to Stepek, efforts in the category have paid off fast. Its tennis apparel business is now “well-established” in Europe. In fact, in markets including Germany, Italy and Austria, Head Sportswear is the No. 2 tennis apparel brand, based on sales, only behind Nike. In 2024, Head Sportswear will launch a tennis apparel collaboration with a major U.S. fashion publication.
Growing the skiwear business, on the other hand, has been more difficult, Stepek said. He started by establishing the new subcategories of Legacy and Kore, building on existing performance-based skiwear now classified as Race. Leveraging athletes to gain awareness and authority has been a go-to strategy.
In January, Head Sportswear launched the Legacy Collection with retired Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn (2.2 million Instagram followers), bringing attention to the line’s “elegant, sophisticated” take on traditional skiwear. Stepek listed “Robert Redford in the ’70s” among the line’s inspirations. Vonn had previously been sponsored by Head for about a decade and had been the face of Legacy since it launched. “She makes appearances at [ski] resorts, speaks to consumers, talks to the clients — and she understands the materials and the fit,” Stepek said, explaining her strength as a partner.
Meanwhile, to develop the “cool and young” Kore line, catering to freeride, all-terrain skiers and snowboarders, Head Sportswear designers teamed with three female and three male skiers on the Freeride World Tour. Along with consulting on the design, they serve as Kore ambassadors.
Winning over Gucci
In early 2022, Vonn introduced Stepek to her executive contacts at Gucci, after gauging his interest in teaming with the company. Stepek considered partnering with the company a long shot, until the first meeting when the teams hit it off and immediately started concepting a Gucci Vault collaboration. According to the plan, Head would be in charge of silhouettes, fabrics, fit and production. Meanwhile, Gucci would determine styles’ colors, applications and logos, and carry out associated photoshoots and marketing. Within four months, the collection launched on the Gucci Vault site, in January 2023.
“We said, ‘We only have one chance, and we have to make it outstanding,’” Stepek said. “My goals for the [Head] team were to execute the products in a very high-end way and to deliver them on time. This had to be something very special. For example, we couldn’t just make a print and put it on the garments; we [instead] used soft patches, each handmade in Italy.”
In September 2021, Gucci launched Gucci Vault as an online concept store. In the time since, it’s housed customized archival pieces and other vintage styles, as well as collections by emerging designers and Vault-specific collaborations. Vault has also collaborated with Gen Z-popular fashion brand Praying and streetwear favorite Palace. A Vans collaboration hit the site earlier this month.
For its part, the Head Sportswear collaboration was part of a larger, skiwear-focused Gucci Vault capsule collection. Among other brand collaborators were Moon Boot, The Elder Statesman and Yniq, the latter of which co-created goggles among other styles. Head Sportswear and Gucci Vault’s ski jacket and pants, valued at $4,500, made headlines when Kris Jenner posted a picture of the set, which had been gifted to her by Vonn. While referencing other buzz, Stepek noted that many of Head’s Kore ambassadors reached out requesting “the Gucci jacket.”
Stepek declined to comment on the collaboration’s sales, only calling it “very successful.” As such, he hinted that a Head Sportswear collab with Gucci’s core line is on the way.
“Everybody was happy” with the Vault line, he said. “There are now more talks going on; we just met with Gucci executives in St. Moritz, and it looks like we’re going to continue the [partnership], potentially for a longer timeframe. … I want to come up with a medium- to long-term contract, and sign a few more collaborations with them — not only with Vault, but with Gucci directly. And we want to do more fun, a little bit crazy stuff.” Gucci declined to comment on this story.
In addition, Stepek has established a five-year partnership with Porsche. It launched in July with one complete men’s outfit, inclusive of a key ring, clothing and helmet. In 2024, the companies will release co-created counterpart styles for women.
“We need collaborations to bring the brand to the next level,” Stepek said. As he sees it, Porsche drives home the brand’s high performance, while Gucci ups its credibility among luxury shoppers.
Building upon momentum
In early 2022, Glossy reported on the growth in the skiwear market, with a variety of brands newly launching the category and decades-old brands seeing increases in sales. And fashion brands including Khaite have since continued to enter the market. While other luxury houses have long played in the space, with both sportswear and hardware — a Prada snowboard was the subject of controversy during the 2022 Winter Olympics — Gucci has yet to go there in a big way; its core line has only offered après-ski capsule collections. It’s worth noting that a Google search for “Gucci skis” results in no matches, but a Head x Porsche pair is among sponsored results.
Moving forward, Stepek said he plans to continue pushing the Legacy line into the fashion category and to a younger audience. For summer, the line will be inspired by travel.
In addition, he said there’s urgency around hiring a sales director in Europe, considering the Gucci partnership. “We need someone controlling sales in Europe, who’s on the right channels and speaking to the right people for direction,” he said.
“Overall, I want to perfect Head’s look, sophistication and luxury, but also impress the young audience,” Stepek said.
But, according to Matt Powell, senior advisor and sports industry expert at BCE Consulting, a Gucci x Head collaboration may not provide the type of brand boost Stepek is hoping for. That is to say that it’s become rare for a collab to do for a fashion outsider what Balenciaga arguably did for Crocs. If it does prove impactful, however, Head should be ready to build on the momentum.
“Brands do collaborations in hopes of introducing themselves to the fans of the other, but there are simply too many collaborations released now. They’ve just become noise,” Powell said. What’s more, “brands [often] fail to figure out a path to commercialize what are typically small numbers of units made for a collaboration.”