Fashion brands

How athletes went from selling merchandise to building fashion brands

A crowd gathered outside a spacious showroom on chic rue de Turenne in Paris on Tuesday afternoon, eager to see the latest collection from Honor the Gift, a fast-growing Los Angeles-based brand. The founder is not a seasoned fashion school graduate, like others at Paris Fashion Week, but NBA veteran Russell Westbrook.

The nine-time NBA All-Star was in town to showcase his Spring 2023 assortment, “inspired by Black Working workwear.” [class] in 1800s America,” Westbrook told BoF. The offer includes dungarees, denim dungarees and collared overcoats, as well as more basic pieces, in orange, cream and dark gray colours.

Westbrook is one of a growing number of athletes who have successfully expanded their fashion businesses in recent years, with offerings that go far beyond branded sports jerseys and t-shirts. Others include English footballer Raheem Sterling’s minimalist menswear label Sixteen Ninety Two; Beautiful Struggles, the streetwear label created by ex-footballer Danny Williams; Re-Inc, a fluid clothing brand founded by four American footballers; and Saysh, a footwear and athletics brand co-founded by Olympian track runner Allyson Felix.

Of course, athletes have long embarked on entrepreneurship as their careers have progressed, such as Serena Williams and David Beckham (not to mention René Lacoste, the French tennis star who founded his brand in 1927). But the appetite for celebrity-backed ventures is greater than ever, and the likes of Westbrook and Felix can be a major influence on social media.

Top athletes have traditionally favored lucrative licensing deals with established fashion brands – often marketed as collaborations – in which retailers like Nike and Adidas use an athlete’s name, image or likeness to sell a pre-produced line of clothing or equipment. Lewis Hamilton’s ongoing deal with Tommy Hilfiger, for example, includes t-shirts, jackets and shoes bearing Hamilton’s initials.

Today’s new athlete-backed brands go against this formula. Labels like Westbrook’s Honor the Gift are full-line fashion companies, producing seasonal collections without using their founders’ names on a logo to attract fans. Athlete founders like Westbrook are leveraging their large Instagram following to publicize their new ventures before branching out and targeting a wider audience.

It’s a new category of apparel startups that’s also attracting investor interest, as venture capital firms and large strategic retailers see the potential in celebrity-backed e-commerce brands with an angle of social impact. Last week, Saysh closed an $8 million Series A funding round led by Gap Inc. Re-Inc received an investment from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in 2020.

follow the money

With few exceptions — Roger Federer’s $300 million sponsorship deal with Uniqlo, for example — most athletes’ lucrative licensing or partnership deals only last until the end of their professional careers.

A thriving standalone business, on the other hand, can generate profits for years to come and result in a large payout when sold. But building a brand is hard work. To drive sales and brand awareness, athlete-backed fashion lines need to attract consumers other than their most loyal sports fans, who would buy their clothes on merit, according to Safraz Ali, sports and cultural communications specialist. at Roc Nation, a talent agency by Jay-Z.

The most successful athlete-owned brands are the ones you come across without even knowing there’s a sports star behind them.

Athlete-backed brands face the same hurdles as any fashion newcomer today, including the rising cost of online advertising and customer retention in a saturated market. But they can also remove a page from the DTC playbook to succeed; building strong leadership and focusing on social impact are essential elements of labels such as Honor the Gift and Saysh.

“It’s very easy to see when an athlete has nothing to do with the label they’re supposed to have created, but have been told to use their name to promote it,” Ali said. “The most successful athlete-owned brands are the ones you come across without even knowing there’s a sports star behind them.”

A more practical approach

In 2015, Russell Westbrook teamed up with high-end retailer Barneys to create a fashion line called Russell Westbrook XO, under which he co-designed clothing and accessories with established brands including Public School and the Jordan brand. from Nike.

The experience was a valuable transition into the world of design, Westbrook said, but he now relishes running his own label with complete creative and financial freedom, allowing him to have the final say on concepts and design. – that is, when he’s not playing for the LA Lakers.

“I do everything from curating mood boards to casting for shoots,” said Westbrook, whose adventurous love for clothes has changed the way basketball players and fans view the role of fashion in sports.

Honor the Gift posted $5 million in revenue last year, and Westbrook expects it to grow 30% year-over-year in 2022. The brand is focused on steady growth and “partners with a select list of high-end retailers and boutiques, to ensure it only appears in the right places,” said sales manager Chris Josol. The latest collection is offered by more than 13 retailers worldwide, including Selfridges in the UK, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom in America.

Other athletes, such as former British footballer Recce Wabara, have also found success through this entrepreneurial model, controlling day-to-day decision-making in design, distribution and marketing.

Wabara retired from professional football in 2013, aged 22, to launch his fashion brand, Manière de Voir. Spending less than £16,000 ($19,400) of his own savings, Wabara turned Way of Seeing into a profitable business that now employs over 60 people, generating £33 million ($40.1 million) revenue last year, without outside investors.

“I’m still into all aspects of the brand,” Wabara said. “I oversee logistics and operations and I’m on every product we sell, every marketing campaign.”

Operating an entirely direct-to-consumer business model, Wabara expects revenues to reach £50m in 2022. As of today, it retains full ownership of the brand and currently has no plans to exit or search for foreign investment.

“While running a DTC brand, I found that if you can make and sell clothes efficiently, the margins are good enough that you never have to raise capital unless you’re trying to open stores,” did he declare.

A particular social purpose

Some recent athlete-backed brands have been able to cultivate a following based on a unique message of social justice. Allyson Felix left her sponsorship deal with Nike in 2019 after speaking out against the retailer for paying her less during her pregnancy. Instead, she launched her own brand, Saysh, in June 2021 with her brother, Wes Felix – a brand founded in advocacy for pregnant women.

For example, the company recently announced its “maternity return policy,” which allows customers to exchange their Saysh shoes for a better-fitting pair when their shoe size increases during pregnancy.

He was able to attract social impact investors such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, a gender and policy specialist, and Sabia Wade, founder of mother support fund The Black Doula.

Re-Inc, too, was created out of frustration. Its founders, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press, were among 28 football players who sued their league to fight for equal pay to their male counterparts. Their colorful loungewear line is often adorned with slogans such as “revolution” and “queer, queer, queer.”

Earlier this year, the US Soccer Federation settled the lawsuit, awarding the athletes $24 million and pledging to equalize salaries between the men’s and women’s teams.