Athletes tied to major apparel brands is nothing new. With strong examples including LeBron James’s ongoing LeBron shoe collection with Nike to James Harden’s Harden shoe and apparel collection with Adidas, brands focused on performance have tapped sports stars for decades.
But over the last year and a half, there’s been a rise in athletes launching their own footwear and apparel, independent from other labels. In June 2021, former Olympian Allyson Felix teamed up with her brother Wes Felix to launch Saysh, a luxury lifestyle sneaker brand. In September 2021, football star Raheem Sterling debuted tailored menswear brand 1692 with British designer Samiyah Miah. In January 2023, Tom Brady, Jens Grede and Dao-Yi Chow will celebrate one year since launching technical men’s apparel line Brady. And this past June, Derek Jeter, Wayne Gretzky and Misty Copeland joined forces with veteran e-commerce entrepreneur Chris Riccobono to introduce modern athleticwear brand Greatness Wins.
“Finding the right partners or co-founders is essential for these brands to succeed,” said Riccobono, who launched DTC menswear brand Untuckit in 2010. “My background in manufacturing and retail, honed over the years I’ve spent scaling Untuckit, has been key in setting Greatness Wins up for success. Navigating the apparel industry is notoriously tricky for new entrants and smaller brands, so partnering with someone who is already an expert in these areas can help the celebrity bring their vision to life authentically and eliminate some common missteps.”
Likewise, Chow, Brady’s co-founder and creative director, said success doesn’t come easy in this area, regardless of the name behind the brand. “It’s all about authenticity and a commitment to being true to their own story,” he explained. “Tom’s greatness and consistency have been the cornerstones to every discussion we’ve had around product and marketing. We can’t help but to be great.”
But it’s also key that the athletes behind the brands aren’t just slapping their name on products.
“It’s important that we work collaboratively,” Riccobono said. “Everyone behind Greatness Wins is very involved in the day-to-day designs and decision making, as opposed to just being faces of the brand. By using this approach, we get the best of both worlds: invaluable firsthand knowledge of how athletic apparel needs to perform, as well as extensive expertise in how to actually produce those products and bring them to market.”
But as in any market, an athlete-backed brand’s success is largely dependent on whether it’s filling a gap in the market.
“I’m always looking to solve a problem and create a product that doesn’t yet exist in the market,” Riccobobo said. “I was consistently having issues finding high-quality athletic apparel that put fit and performance at the forefront. Across the big legacy brands in this space, quality has declined, with inconsistent specs and products that just don’t last or wear well over time. In contrast, the smaller athleisure brands make a beautiful-looking product, but it isn’t meant to work out or train in. … I also wanted to provide a great customer experience with a curated line that’s easy to navigate and offers specialized products suited to specific activities.”
The Felix siblings similarly found a hole to fill when launching Saysh. “We learned that athletic sneakers are primarily built on lasts based on men’s feet,” Wes said. “This means that ‘women’s’ sneakers are not for women at all. We had heard this term “shrink it and pink it,” but we didn’t understand the depths of inequality that the footwear industry created for women. We created Saysh because women deserve sneakers created with lasts based on their feet. We made Saysh because women deserve better.” The innovative sneaker made it to Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2021.
In April 2022, the brand made a powerful statement by introducing footwear’s first maternity returns policy. It offers expectant owners of Saysh One sneakers a free second pair as their shoe size increases during pregnancy. “Our goal for 2023 is to put more focus on our mission and selling our ‘why,’ as opposed to our ‘what,’” Wes said. “We believe women deserve better, and that needs to continue to be our focus, in order for us to have the level of success we’re capable of. We’re also going to be intensely focused on supporting women’s organizations. Saying ‘women deserve better’ won’t just be a tagline; we’ll be putting action behind it.”
Additionally in the new year, the brand will launch a running shoe, “The Felix,” in response to customer demand. “This won’t be the best shoe for women to break the marathon world record in,” Wes said transparently. “Other brands much bigger than ours do a great job there. This will be the best shoe for women to throw on before work and go for a 20-minute run. We built it to be incredibly comfortable and chic.”
Greatness Wins is barely six months old, but based on 2022 success, the team has clear 2023 marketing plans to focus on paid social and Google. They’ll layer in radio ads at some point during the year. They’ll also ramp up the company’s TV spend, leveraging a commercial that saw success in late 2022. Eventually, Greatness Wins will expand into additional sports-specific categories, including soccer and tennis. Right now, Copeland is working with the team to finalize designs for the brand’s first women’s line, set to launch this spring.
As for the Brady team, they plan to continue building on the core items they’ve developed, including the Brady pant and all-day comfort shorts and underwear. They’ll also expand on the brand’s channels of distribution.
“We knew we had to identify the key value proposition of the brand,” Chow said of Brady’s 2022 launch. “That was to convert the learnings from Tom’s unparalleled body of work, as well as his non-traditional regimen of preparation, maintenance and recovery, into a platform for the next generation of athletes. The plan for 2023 is to continue promoting this idea of passing on experience and knowledge in the form of versatile products, all wear-tested by the greatest of all time.”