The History of Champion

The 90’s were arguably the most important decade when it comes to fashion and how we view it today. The looks, the styles, the celebrities — the “golden era” of street style. Emerging brands and trends screamed for our attention while others were so quietly cool they’re still staples in our personal style. Timeless classics like Guess Jeans, Mochino and Calvin Klein held down the high-end spectrum, while sportswear brands such as Reebok, Adidas and Fila were embraced by the youth and became pop culture royalty. 

90s Sportswear also saw the rise of Champion brand, perhaps the trendiest— and most nostalgic of them all. The classic “C” logo, cozy sweatshirts, it would be hard to overstate just how popular Champion sweats were back then. With everyone from Jay-Z and Michael Jordan, to skaters, punk rockers and probably your parents sporting the brand with pride, It’s safe to say that Champion was one of the defining brands of the 90s. And up until the arrival of the 2000s, the brand remained at peak popularity. So, how did Champion become cool again? And where did they go to begin with? 

The company was established over 100 years ago in 1919, by brothers Abraham and William Feinbloom. Based in Rochester, New York, the brothers originally named the brand the “Knickerbocker Knitting Company,” primarily manufacturing knitted goods to surrounding New York areas.

In 1923, the Feinbloom brothers changed the company name to “Champion Knitwear,” and three years later began selling their signature line of sweaters and sportswear directly to universities. Word quickly spread about the brands durability and comfort. Even during the great depression, the newly named “Champion Knitting Mills” was thriving, becoming the first brand to develop a sweater durable enough to shield laborers from the harsh outside elements. 

Champion Knitwear partnered with Moe’s Sport Shop in 1934 to introduce collegiate sweaters and tees with the University of Michigan insignia. This partnership gave birth to collegiate apparel as we know it, including the first ever hooded sweatshirt. The “hoodie” was designed and developed for practical reasons as a warm-up or sideline garment for athletes to wear in between game time or practice sessions. Fast forward to today, and the modern hoodie is an essential in everyone’s wardrobe. 

Four years later, Champion patented the reverse-weave sweatshirt. To overcome the shrinkage that came with frequently-washing sports apparel, the worlds first engineered sweatshirt was invented. Cut on the grossgrain, the reverse weave sweatshirt prevents shrinkage and was quickly picked up by sports teams across the nation. And as the 1950s rolled around, Champion introduced modern P.E. uniforms for America’s youth that would be the standard for decades to come, even going as far as to pioneering the sports bra. The product line was of such high quality, that it was the first to become certified by the American Institute of Laundering. The infamous “C” logo was adopted in the 1960’s, as Champion grabbed the attention of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, resulting in a licensing partnership with the NFL. Champion continued to pioneer styles and fabrics like breathable materials and reversible T-shirts, which trickled into hip-hop streetwear from the early 1980s. 

By the late 80s, Champion was officially cool in the eyes of celebrities and musicians, as pop culture warmly embraced the fresh athletic wear. In 1989, Champion was acquired by the Sara Lee Corporation, and the following year, began producing uniforms for all NBA teams throughout the 90s, and was also the kit manufacturer of the 1992 Summer Olympics which featured the legendary Dream Team. 

Champions monumental run in the 90s was nothing short of iconic. There was no escaping it. Frequently appearing in TV shows and movies like Good Will Hunting, the different looks and styles that the brand offered made sure that there was a piece everyone could rock. But by the time the new millennium came around, the brand was beginning to flag. Though they were known as the brand of 27 NBA teams, Champion was often associated with the prudent “dad” look of half-zip sweaters, chunky white running shoes, and baseball caps. Their products were usually sold at department stores like Walmart or Target, and cultural tastes were beginning to shift away from heritage sportswear towards brands like Nike and Under Armour. 

That is, until 2017 when the brand seemingly started popping again almost everywhere. In 2017, Champion grew 33% in sales, followed by 40% in 2018. Their parent company, Hanesbrands, expects that Champions net worth will increase to $2 Billion by 2022. And since 2016, their number of followers on Instagram has increased from 200K to nearly 6 million. 

So, what’s with Champions sudden ressurection? Well, part of it is nostalgia. The resurgence of ripped jeans, record players and Volkswagen buses, are not all that different from Champion’s. They are part of a zeitgeist: millennials associating marketing and material to childhood memories. Susan Hennike, Champion’s North American president told Time Magazine the “newfound discovery” comes not only from social media, updated designs and collaborations but also people’s own memories. 

Another aspect is the current streetwear takeover. Champion resonates with modern hypebeasts who are thirsty for vintage logo sportswear. The brand collaborated with Supreme on a coach jacket back in 2010, and since then they’ve gone on to collaborate with streetwear-adjacent brands like Vetements and BEAMS. Young people in particular are latching onto Champion, with 9% of upper-income boys and 5% of girls identifying the brand as something they’d wear, according to a recent survey. 

While some people might be buying a Champion hoodie at Urban Outfitters or some other retailer for $90, that doesn’t mean that someone of a lower income can’t afford a Champion hoodie either. You can still buy one at Walmart for cheap, or if you sift long enough, you could find one at a thrift store for a few bucks. The high-low marketing technique might be what sets Champion apart from the rest. It’s difficult to think of other brands that sell at both department store and luxury shop prices, come in styles for every gender and age, and are recognized for quality and sustainability. 

So, what makes Champion what it is today? Is it the longevity of the brand, the nostalgic trends, the eco-friendly movement, Instagram influence, or the marketing prowess of reaching beyond the classist markets? It could be all of the above. Or, maybe, everyone just wants a cozy sweater.