Apparel brands are putting a new spin on the term “sportswear” by tapping into a new generation of athletes to act as ambassadors for their brand.
“There’s been a cultural shift that’s focused on what athletes wear,” said Suzy Biszantz, group president of Centric Brands, which owns denim brands like Joe’s Jeans, Hudson and Favorite Daughter. “Athletes are more involved in fashion than ever. They are putting more effort into it and their appearances are being covered up.”
In January, Hudson kicked off his 20th anniversary celebrations with a partnership with Tyler Herro of the NBA Miami Heat. The point guard has a penchant for colorful fashion, which he often documents and shares with his more than 2.3 million followers on Instagram. The brand signed the 22-year-old athlete to a two-year ambassadorial deal, which includes a denim collaboration and marketing campaign this spring.
Tyler Herro for Hudson
“It’s very valuable for brands to leverage sponsorship from athletes at the professional and elite levels,” said Jasmine Chou, former Kona Ironman sponsored triathlete and author of “#Sponsored: How Athletes and Brands Can Leverage Each Other to Create Value.” “Ambassadors have an audience that brands may want to access, and they can stay on top of trends and sentiments of the brand’s target consumers.”
The connection between sports and fashion runs deep, with many athletes now known as much for their fashion sense as their athleticism. In early 2022, seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady launched his own line, Brady Brand, consisting of “tech apparel for performance-minded people.” Tennis great Serena Williams made a cameo appearance during the Off-White Fall 2022 show in which she walked the runway to pay tribute to the late Virgil Abloh. Collaborations between Gucci and the MLB’s New York Yankees in 2018 and Tiffany and Wilson basketballs earlier this year further underscore the popular crossover. And now that college athletes are eligible for brand sponsorship, the opportunities to fuse fashion and sports continue to expand.
Not all sports offer brands the same level of influence. Recent data from research firm Nielsen Sports names basketball the favorite sport among Gen Z viewers in the US. Globally, the sport ranks second only to soccer. Perhaps not coincidentally, for years the NBA has held its own version of a fashion show before every game, with players preparing game-day outfits for their “tunnel walk” into the arena, presenting styles from Gucci, Valentino and more. Russell Westbrook of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns have all left lasting impressions with their tunnel appearance.
For millennials in the US, soccer ranks first, followed by basketball, baseball, and soccer.
Still, soccer players have the highest percentage of followers among Gen Z globally. Mixed martial arts athletes are also becoming more popular with younger generations who are likely drawn to the sport’s fast, easy-to-consume format and high-intensity matches.
Brands that choose ambassadors strategically can expect to see the benefits. Nielsen reported that 16-29 year olds are 27 percent more likely than consumers 40 and older to consider a brand based on its sponsorship activities.
According to Mark Foxton, head of global partnerships and collaborations at Levi’s, now is the time for brands to harness the power of athletes as brand ambassadors. “Athletes allow us to engage with a different customer, including not just sports fans but fashion fans as well,” he said. “Now more than ever, athletes are amplifying their individuality and self-expression through their fashion.”
Levi’s featured several athletes in its 501 Originals campaign last May, including NBA point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, tennis champion Naomi Osaka and English soccer star Marcus Rashford.
Levi’s x Naomi Osaka
In August, the brand launched a recycled denim collection with Osaka. Working closely with the Levi’s design team, Osaka created four distinct pieces with silhouettes and design details that capture her sporty yet feminine style, as well as her Japanese heritage. A second collection will launch this fall.
“Consumers look for brands that represent their core values, and brand partners are an extension of those values,” said Foxton. “By working with athletes as ambassadors, we can tell a story in a much more authentic and real way that consumers can connect with.”
Wrangler also has a penchant for selecting athletes as brand ambassadors, as evidenced by a recent rodeo-focused campaign that underscores its position on Western heritage. To celebrate Women’s History Month, the 100-year-old brand unveiled a video focused on female rodeo athletes, including barrel racer Nellie Miller and champion breakaway roper Madison Outhier. The video follows the story of a young female cyclist practicing her craft at the Riata Ranch in Three River, California, dedicated to training girls in the sport. To support the organization, Wrangler donated plays to the nonprofit to help them “embrace the cowboy spirit.”
A personalized approach
Working with athletes gives denim brands the opportunity to showcase their styles including sizing. With the body positivity movement of the last few years and the innovations in stretch technology surrounding the denim industry, denim brands are uniquely equipped with the necessary tools to appeal to different body types.
Herro con Hudson’s capsule collection features three new fits in a total of seven washes, some available in longer rises geared toward athletes and taller individuals. Biszantz said Hudson plans to continue adding denim options in a 36-inch inseam to cater to athletic figures. In the past, sister brand Joe’s Jeans worked with former Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman to create a jean for a muscular body that was roomier through the thighs and tapered at the bottom for a modern fit.
Popular retailers like Banana Republic, Bonobos, and Old Navy offer athletic leggings, which are often sized by their extra inches around the thighs to accommodate the larger leg muscles typical of athletes. The term is typically used for men’s lines.
While household names are finding ways to fit athletic builds, custom denim brands remain the brands of choice for athletes with specific fit needs.
“The vast majority of people constantly struggle with fit with out-of-the-box denim,” said Ray Li, co-founder and CEO of custom denim brand Sene. “With athletes, there tends to be a gap in the waist and their quads are bigger, which may not fit in denim. They usually have to measure up and have it tailored or wear jeans with 40 percent stretch material that borders on jeggings, but more often than not, many simply wear sportswear due to the difficulty of finding jeans that they fit well.”
Sene x Emma Lovewell
Sene teamed up with Peloton instructor Emma Lovewell in November in part to draw attention to the brand’s personalized offerings and alleviate a sense of frustration felt by the fitness-focused group. She offered four silhouettes of jeans for women, denim shorts for women and a pair of skinny jeans for men. With 575,000 Instagram followers hyper-focused on all things wellness and fashion, Lovewell was a top choice for the brand.
Similarly, custom denim brand Lasso, which recently rebranded itself as Neems, tapped American Olympic hammer thrower Dawn Ellerbe to help launch the label last year. Ellerbe appeared in the brand’s lifestyle images, advertisements and product photography.
Dawn Ellerbe for Neems
Neems co-founder Dani Rodríguez-Firmani said Ellerbe, who is 6’1, was chosen to represent the brand because of her “fun and bubbly personality” as well as her height and athletic build.
“Certainly, we’ve worked with many athletes to make tailored jeans that fit perfectly, from cyclists to weightlifters to volleyball players and more,” he said. “The athlete showcase has definitely proven to be a success for our brand, especially as it strives to cater to all different body types.”