With a strong, authentic brand story now key to earning loyal customers, Champion is making a point to shine a light on its rich history.
On Saturday, the athletic wear brand will host the grand opening of its second physical store, a 5,000-square-foot space located in NYC’s Soho neighborhood, decked out with odes to its century-long past.
“This is the perfect place for us to showcase our story,” said David Robertson, director of Champion brand marketing, pointing to the brand’s birthplace of Rochester, New York, in 1919. “It’s like a coming home.”
In store, departments are dedicated to popular brand innovations: There’s a walled-off section for “Reverse Weave” sweatshirts and hoodies, the entrance of which is bookended with framed patents tied to the franchise including the first sweatshirt engineered for athletic use, marked 1938. Champion played up the store’s background as a Merchant’s Bank, transforming a vault into a display case for five of its archive pieces including a collegiate athletic sweater (worn before Reverse Weave sweatshirts were introduced), the first sports bra (made from two jockstraps, in 1977) and a jersey worn by Dream Team member Chris Mullen in the 1992 Olympics.
There’s also a customization station, allowing shoppers to personalize sweatshirts and tees with one of three patches (“Champion New York,” a classic Champion “C” or a scripted logo) that can be heat-sealed on the spot. In the near future, embroidery will be offered as an option, with requests completed in a matter of minutes.
A New York City-inspired collection is also on display featuring an array of pieces tagged “NYC” with Champion’s signature “C.”
“Connecting with the community is important,” said Susan Hennike, president of Champion Athleticwear. Regular events will be hosted in the store, including activations during New York Fashion Week featuring screen printers and sketch artists. The store will have dedicated social media accounts — @champion_nyc on Instagram — run by store associates, to better connect with local shoppers.
Promoting the store was carried out through a combination of Champion’s Instagram, which counts more than 3 million followers, Facebook (most useful for its targeting capabilities, said Robertson) and a variety of outdoor advertisements posted in the area.
Inside Champion’s NYC store
Based on the brand’s first store, which opened in Los Angeles in April and is less focused on the brand’s history, Hennike expects Champion’s newest location to see a young, “global” shopper (the store sees a lot of tourists), many of which will be at the ready to line up for the regular drops of limited-edition product. Those will include capsules from Champion’s Japan and Europe businesses, featuring small nuances like colors not available in the States. Many styles within those drops will also be available on Champion.com, serving a broader audience and playing into the brand’s move to omnichannel.
Many Gen Zers only recently discovered Champion, largely due to the revival of popular ’90s-era activewear brands including Reebok, FILA, Kappa and Esprit. Forty-three percent of that same cohort widely trusts long-established brands, according a recent report by Irregular Labs.
“The younger customer likes that there’s a story behind [Champion],” said Hennike. “There aren’t a lot of brands that can say they’re 100-years-old. Here, they can learn the stories behind the brand and the product.”
More so than they can at, say, Urban Outfitters, one of its “hundreds” of wholesale partners — which also includes retailers ranging from Amazon to luxury e-tailer Ssense. “We can tell [our story] online or we can tell it through our retailers, but this is the only way to really bring it to life,” said Robertson.
Hennike said the brand hasn’t changed course in direct response to the new attention, though there’s awareness that many of its signature styles and features (including bold logos) are trending, and that it’s appealing to more customers than ever before. (The brand declined to share yearly revenue.) The focus remains fixed to the brand’s DNA, which explains its new mesh pieces. It was the first brand to introduce mesh nylon jerseys, said Roberston.
Opening next is a store in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, but there are no definite plans beyond that, in terms of subsequent stores.
“We’re very selective; we pick markets we think are important for us to be in,” said Hennike. “Retail is changing all the time, so we want to take our time and do it right.”