Champion Brand Clothing: Origins and Revival
The signature red, white, and blue “C” is a symbol of quality and authenticity. It’s the symbol of Champion—a clothing company with more than a 100 years of history.
The Champion brand’s captivating past reveals a story of innovation, quality, and reliability. The brand’s innovations (such as the hoodie!) have become so mainstream, hardly anyone questions their origins.
Over the last century, Champion experienced its heyday and downfall, but as the saying goes—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. In the last decade, Champion made an unexpected comeback, stepping into the spotlight once again.
From Gen Z latching onto the retro trend to millennials relishing ’90s nostalgia—Champion is all the rage right now, and doesn’t seem likely to slow down. As they describe it on their website: “There can be many contenders, but only one Champion.”
In this blog, we’ll discuss the brand’s origins and innovations, and how its recent revival can help grow your ecommerce store.
Champion brand history
The company was established in 1919, in Rochester, New York, by Simon Feinbloom and his sons William and Abraham. Back then, the company was called the Knickerbocker Knitting Company. In 2019, Champion celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Champion was created as a wholesale clothing company, yet the Feinbloom brothers soon noticed the lack of high quality clothing for athletes, and focused on manufacturing comfy and durable sportswear. The sweatshirt, first introduced as a wool undergarment for outdoor workers, soon assumed the role of keeping athletes warm during exercise.
The Champion sweatshirt was noticed by the Michigan University football team the Michigan Wolverines, who became the first of many collegiate sports teams to be outfitted by Champion. The company’s reputation reached other colleges across the US, and before long, Champion apparel was worn all over campuses by athletes and non-athletes alike.
In the ’30s, the Feinbloom brothers renamed the company Champion Knitting Mills Inc. Over the years, the company’s name changed twice more—in the ’50s and ’60s, it was called Champion Knitwear Company, and got its current name Champion Products only in 1967.
The Champion logo was designed only in the ’50s. At first, the logo was on the neck label and featured a running man crossing the finish line, but the brand gradually changed it to the iconic “C” placed on the left sleeve. However, the signature red, white, and blue colors stayed the same.
In the ’60s, Champion partnered with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). After conquering collegiate sports, Champion became the official outfitter for the National Football League (NFL) in the ’70s. The brand’s partnerships with professional sports leagues made them famous for the rest of the century.
Beloved athletes wearing the signature logo could be seen on TV in any household. From 1985 to 1988, Champion experienced its biggest growth yet, doubling profits in just a couple of years.
In the ’90s, when Champion was chosen as the official outfitter for all 27 teams of the NBA, their reputation went off the charts. Champion apparel was used for all NBA merchandise, and spread far outside the sports industry. Champion clothing could now be seen in movies, concerts, skateparks, and the hip hop scene.
Champion also designed uniforms for the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team known as the “Dream Team”. The team had a line up of possibly the best basketball players of all time, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Charles Barkley. It’s only fitting that some of that popularity brushed off on Champion clothing, as every fan wanted to copy their Champion-donning idols.
By the end of ’90s, Champion’s popularity started to falter. In 1989, Champion was purchased by the Sara Lee Corporation. At that time, the corporation was mainly focused on food, but wanted to expand their reach in the apparel industry as well.
In the ’90s, Sara Lee invested in expanding and distributing Champion, and gave the brand a boost. However, Champion had become a small cog in a large machine. By the 2000s, Sara Lee returned their focus on the food industry and didn’t pay much attention to Champion anymore.
The 2000s also saw an increase of smaller niche-oriented apparel businesses, and more stores started offering sportswear similar to Champion. Under Sara Lee’s management, the Champion couldn’t keep up with the trends. It wasn’t as diverse as its competition, and gradually lost its appeal.
Champion’s popularity was always largely influenced by its connection to professional athletes. In 2001, Champion was chosen to outfit the XFL league. However, the league fell apart after only one season. It’s possible that the league’s failure contributed to Champion’s decline.
Champion innovations and what you can learn from them
Part of Champion’s rise to fame can be attributed to their connection with professional athletes, yet it was never just a question of “who wore it better”. Champion’s success in the sports industry was largely determined by their high quality products and groundbreaking innovations.
In the ’70s, Champion introduced double-sided (aka reversible) t-shirts to the sportswear industry, and invented breathable mesh fabric that became the standard for basketball uniforms around the world. However, their most notable inventions are the hoodie and reverse weave.
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The brand’s most famous invention—the hoodie—was born in the early ’30s. By adding hoods to sweatshirts for extra protection against the cold, Champion had unwittingly invented what was to become one of the most popular garments of our time.
The hoodie quickly went from sportswear item to streetwear hero—by the ’80s, it was embraced by athletes, performers, and artists alike. Even now, the versatile hoodie hasn’t lost its appeal. It’s the go-to item for both sports and leisure, and with the right design, it can become a luxury garment admired on the runway.
Sportswear has always been in fashion, and since the turn of the century, more people are looking to combine comfort with personality. You can use this to your advantage, and create a line of comfy premium hoodies with designs your customers won’t be able to resist.
The Champion brand allows customizing their apparel for individual or commercial use. But keep in mind, it’s forbidden to decorate Champion apparel with any proprietary marks, names, or logos of collegiate sports teams or institutions.
The hoodie wasn’t the only invention that established Champion as sportswear industry leaders. One of their key innovations is the reverse weave—a knitting method that protects clothes from shrinkage and heat. The reverse weave was invented in 1938, and it’s still the brand’s signature technique more than 80 years later.
To prevent clothes from shrinking vertically, Champion changed the direction of the fabric grain, and added side panels to their knitwear, to prevent shrinking in the opposite direction. With this knitting method, Champion managed to minimize shrinkage and make sweatshirts more durable.
A Champion sweatshirt or hoodie guarantees style, comfort, and durability all in one. Coincidentally, in the past few years, there’s a growing public interest in zero-waste and sustainable, long-lasting fashion.
As a shop owner, you need to follow these trends to understand your customers and address their needs. One of the ways to address this is by choosing durable items that won’t go out of style. Make sure to mention these unique selling points in your custom product descriptions.
By the early 2000s, people had pushed Champion back to the discount section at Walmart. Thanks to the glorious revival of the ’90s in the past years, Champion is back in style and in business. The brand is now considered retro, and Champion’s signature sweats and hoodies are in sync with the athleisure fashion trend.
Over the last decade, Champion has collaborated with various designers and brands, creating premium streetwear collections with unique brand-specific twists. Supreme created all-over print designs, Vetements added their signature droopy sleeves, and Weekday turned the classic sweatshirt into a crop.
As Champion brand ambassador Manny Martinez told Esquire in 2017, the brand can stand on its own now. Yet it seems that now collaborations are part of Champion’s brand identity, as Champion continues working with various artists and fashion brands.
In 2019, the multidisciplinary artist Hebru Brantley decorated Champion clothes with his signature pop-art and basketball-inspired prints to celebrate the brand’s centennial. And in the spring of 2020, fashion designer Rick Owens and Champion released a capsule collection inspired by Grecian togas and robes.
What the future holds
Champion’s innovative designs changed the sportswear industry for good, so it’s no wonder the brand reached such fame in the 20th century. And with the fashion industry’s lasting love for ’90s nostalgia, it was prone for a comeback in one form or another.
Collaborations with high-end streetwear brands like Supreme, Vetements, Off-White, Monkey Time, Beams, and many others, helped make Champion relevant again and turned it into a premium streetwear brand.
So Champion clothing is no longer collecting dust in the corner of Walmart—instead, the signature “C” is shown off on runways, TV, and celebrity Instagram accounts.
From Rihanna donning Champion in paparazzi shots, to Chance the Rapper performing in a Champion hoodie on stage—everyone’s in on the trend, and you should join too.
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