Through The Lens: The History Of Champion Sportswear
We take an extensive look into the history of the iconic sportswear brand Champion.
Written by Mitchell Tan.
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Champion, as an adjective, is used to describe a person who has triumphed over all of their competition and rises to the top, a mark of superiority. As a brand, Champion embodies this definition fully. The proliferation of Champion in recent years has seen their influence spread far and wide, not only reaching those who seek the utilitarian purpose of the original sporting garments as consumers, but also as far up as the large scale fashion houses that sit atop the fashion hierarchy.
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Nothing can be more testament to their popularity than a simple Google search of the word “Champion”. This yields primarily results associated with the sportswear and lifestyle brand, far outnumbering any results relating to the word itself. The Champion era is in full swing and shows no signs of slowing down.
How Champion Began & The Early Days
Just a decade ago, Champion was among clearance and outlet brands associated with an excess of supply, and no demand whatsoever. Shelves of retailers associated with “budget” were flooded with Champion products. This was no different here at home in New Zealand. In fact, one of the most memorable moments in my childhood actually involved a Champion t-shirt. Aged 8, I remember finding a red t-shirt with “CHAMPION” emblazoned on the front in a vintage varsity script, a little ‘C’ logo was also embroidered on the sleeve for $15 on the (what seemed like) weekly Rebel Sports clearance sale. I proudly donned the t-shirt to primary school the next day, only to get absolutely fried by my friends. But before Champion and their mass appeal nowadays, and even before being seen in one of their articles would be an open invitation to a group roasting, Champion found humble beginnings in Rochester, New York.
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Rochester has long been hailed as a city of innovation and trade, with a convenient location on the shores of Lake Ontario. 1919 saw the Feinbloom brothers establish the Knickerbocker Knitting Company, which would later assume the moniker of ‘Champion Knitwear’, a less suggestive name and one that would be indicative of their future as champions in the sportswear garments industry. Just one year after its founding, Champion had already begun to make waves - Michigan University had noticed the brand’s dedication to affordability and quality in sportswear (namely sweatshirts and sweatpants), and before long, Champion spread amongst schools and universities in the United States, becoming the brand of choice in college bookstores.
Introduction Of Reverse Weave & Innovation
The brand continued to shift with the demands of the industry. Coaches and team managers of the sponsored college sports teams needed a warm fabric that would hold up over many bulk washes without shrinking.
Thus, in 1938 began the patent process for new technology “Reverse Weave”, finally coming to fruition in 1952. To avoid horizontal shrinkage during, the fleece is knitted transversely (as opposed to the more common and cost/time effective vertical sewing method). Furthermore elastic gussets were added to the side of the body (with the same material used for the neck, hem and wrist ribbing) to allow for greater range of movement during training whilst reducing heat dissipation.
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This turned out to be revolutionary and has lead to many reverse weave garments surviving through the decades, maybe with some stains or marks here and there, but the same construction as when it was first made however long ago. The tricoloured ‘C’ embroidered logo found it’s way on to many Champion garments and became instantly recognisable as a signature touch.
Champion continued to innovate. In the mid-’70s, Champion brought the hooded sweatshirt, the ‘hoodie’ to the mainstream. Although it debuted in the 1930s, it began to take off in the 1970s, and the hoodie has become one of the most important garments, period. Invented out of necessity - fulfilling a niche in the sportswear industry, the hoodie has gone on to become an essential, found at all levels of the garments industry, fashion to streetwear to sportswear. Inventions didn’t stop there though, the reversible t-shirt was also pioneered by Champion (able to have two different colours even with different prints on each side.
First Photo: Champion
Second Photo(s): Urban Outfitters
Sportswear Dominance & The Downfall
Champion engineered the first nylon ‘breathable’ mesh fabric with the general purpose of keeping athletes cool but came to be the signature of anything basketball. The takeover of professional American sports had begun. The ’60s saw the NCAA fully adopted the brand as the uniform, followed by the NFL in the ’70s and the most notably a full endorsement of all team uniforms in the NBA in the ’80s (along with the USA Men’s Olympic Basketball Team Uniforms of 1992 - the ‘Dream Team’).
Their continued prosperity and rise to fame made Champion a target for investment and acquisition, and in 1989 American food mega-company Sara Lee acquired Champion, expanding their clothing empire which also included Hanes and Coach. However, after the high of the ’90s, Champion began to hit a steep decline in sales. It’s hard to speculate on the cause of the collapse as many factors could have contributed. Some say it coincides perfectly with Michael Jordan stepping away from basketball, and then Nike and Starter joining in with the manufacturing of uniforms. Others may attribute it to a general societal shift away from the loud and flashy athleisure of the ’80s and ’90s.
Again, it is hard to stipulate on a direct chain of cause-and-effect events. Sara Lee was aware of the decline in Champion’s popularity and also sought to reduce their stake in their various clothing ventures, initially dropping Coach and looking to pawn off Champion too. Instead of just selling Champion, Sara Lee instead sold the European division, making it a private entity - Champion EU, whilst the Champion in the US was now under Hanesbrand Inc., which would eventually go on to purchase back Champion EU to unite the two, but remain as separate entities to maintain their differing identities (with the EU division having made the transition away from solely sportswear much sooner).
The Comeback Story & Collaborations
Although Champion still existed in the 2000’s (as I explained in my flashback earlier), they began to hit their stride again in the 2010’s. Like their fall from grace, it is quite difficult to establish causality for their rise to fame again. Indirect celebrity endorsements from icons such as Chance The Rapper proudly donning the ‘C’ logo definitely played a part, but arguably collaborations had a large part in the explosion to the mainstream.
Nowadays, it’s nigh impossible to mention streetwear or Champion in the same sentence without also naming ‘Supreme New York’. The skate brand turned clothing giant hailing from New York collaborated with Champion on their own invention, the hoodie in 2015, sparking many collaborations to come with one occurring almost biannually coinciding with the fashion season (Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer).
First Photo: StockX
Other Photos: Highsnobiety
Vetements, headed by Demna Gvasalia (current Creative Director of Balenciaga) initially warped the iconic ‘C’ logo without express permission from Champion, plastering their version over hoodies and sweatshirts. Instead of filing a lawsuit, Ned Monroe of Hanesbrand Inc. stated: “...we realized quickly they weren’t trying to bastardize the brand, they’re actually complimenting the brand.” - via Racked. This began Champion’s many collaborations with Vetements, bringing the ‘C’ logo to the runway. Supreme and Vetements paved the way for Champion to enter the world of fashion, both from streetwear and high fashion levels. Streetwear brands from across the globe like Wood Wood from Denmark and Off-White from America have joined forces with Champion. Even brands often associated with more traditional and formal wears such as BEAMS and United Arrows (both hailing from Japan) have collaborated with the sportswear giant.
Collaborations are not the only reason Champion has come back in recent times. Many startups have used Champion blanks, Reverse Weave or not to print their designs. Carrots by Anwar Carrots and Virgil Abloh’s original PYREX line are notable mentions with local designers such as Leo Leo using Champion’s well-made garments as a base.
The Impact Of The Brand Today
Although collaborations and use of blanks have made Champion rise again in recent times, not all of their success can be attributed to these factors. When it comes down to it, Champion is an honest American brand with a deep history and a serious passion for providing serious, well-made goods for their consumers. Fashion aside, Champion garments still fulfil their original purpose. They are hard wearing, super warm or super breathable when needed, great for performance but also translate well to the street.
Left Photo: In The Rough Style
Right Photo: Getty
There is definitely care put into their garments, whether that be on the steeper end with Reverse Weave (which is a time-consuming textile style to produce) or on the budget end with their Eco lines (made from polyester derived from recycled bottles). Their garments are designed to be worn over long periods of time, and will always fulfil a purpose, hence not being subject to trends. As consumers become more aware and educated on the garment industry, and the message of circumventing the current path of overconsumption is pushed more, the value of well-made garments, that is not only going to last long (in terms of construction and trendiness) becomes more important.
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Author: Mitchell Tan