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Driely S. for Racked
Driely S. for Racked

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How Athletic Brands Savvily Leverage Cool

Nike, Adidas, and other activewear giants rely on cool factor, and they know where to get it.

An army of models stand in precise lines in a dark room. Anna Wintour, Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and Alexander Wang populate the front row; Justin Bieber is in the second. The lights go up and each row of makeup-free girls and skater boys are illuminated in dramatic succession. The space, accessed by a loading dock on Manhattan's West Side, is packed with fashion editors and buyers. They're joined by A-list celebrities, mostly from the music world. It's Kanye West's presentation of his first collection for German active brand Adidas, and it's a big f-ing deal.

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A collaboration like this "connects culture with Adidas," Josefine Aberg, senior design director for Adidas Originals, tells Racked. Originals is the arm of Adidas that's responsible for, basically, cool factor: they keep the classic Stan Smith sneaker relevant, they issue track pants with prints designed by Jeremy Scott, and they do collaborations with high-profile influencers like love-him-or-leave-him Kanye West.

Every major athletic brand worth its salt has a department tasked with making buzzy, limited edition, fashion-forward product. Creatives take existing silhouettes, like a best-selling sneaker, and simply update them in high-concept colorways (such as New Balance's 530 style in a '90s pinball-inspired palette); they also enlist top designers, like Stella McCartney for Adidas, to push the boundaries of technical fabrics in color, silhouette, and material mix (such as a long-sleeve, flesh-toned "studio top" that looks like it could have walked a Margiela runway in the late aughts).

Adidas Originals x Kanye West Yeezy Season 1 fashion show. Photo: Getty

The practice of design studios within athletic brands isn't limited to sneaker companies. Gap Inc.-owned activewear giant Athleta has enlisted fashion designer Derek Lam for a collaboration due next month, and Lululemon has a dedicated small-run division devoted to experimentation. Lululemon Lab, as its called, produces just 20 to 100 of each style, including calf-length tunics and bomber jackets. The items are sold exclusively though the Lab's Vancouver storefront, which is also where the 12-member team works, physically distanced from the 900 employees toiling away at Lululemon's home office.

"It feels like a small business. We don’t have a ton of interference from the large company," Lab lead designer Jean Okanda explains of the lab's relationship to the rest of Lululemon. "We have this awesome, unique autonomy to explore," she continues. "[At Lab] we don’t sell the core products — the yoga pants we do sell are our own. We get to explore the parameters of what yoga pants are." Experimentation is encouraged, and is supported by the parent company. "We are not compromising design to achieve sales," says the Lab's general manager Audra Arbuckle. "But we do try to run a responsible business."

"We get to explore the parameters of what yoga pants are."

"Lab" is language Nike, uses, too. NikeLab boasts the tagline "innovation by innovators" and offers pieces made in collaboration with Japanese brand Sacai as well as special "packs," like one that uses layers of lace to "playfully disrupt athletic uniforms." A Nike representative told Racked that NikeLab "looks to innovators from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to help breathe new life into our time-honored sport classics and silhouettes to connect to culture in unique way," echoing Aberg's assessment of what Originals does for Adidas. There are freestanding NikeLab stores in cities like Paris and Tokyo, as well as shops-in-shops within the international network of Dover Street Market boutiques, notorious for carrying the very cutting-edge. It's attractive company to keep, if niche — but that's part of the point.

Lululemon Lab x Osei Duro

Certain products — almost anything collab-happy streetwear brand Supreme endorses — cause sneakerhead-types to line up for consecutive nights to get their hands on product, but that isn't the case across the board. Pricing on pieces from active brands's special projects isn't especially exorbitant (those pinball New Balances are $100, that Stella top is $130). Even when pricing creeps up, these fashion-focused collections are never the active brand's profit-driver. But they're incredibly important.

There are a handful of obvious reasons why. People line up for Champion x Supreme, they Instagram Raf Simons for Adidas, they participate in fierce eBay bids for the reselling of rare Nikes (at this moment, there are nearly 3,000 results on eBay for Nike items priced over $1,000). An Adidas Superstar sneaker with artwork curated by Pharrell Williams looks cooler than a plain sneaker, and it certainly generates press.

That's just not the case with $14.99 basketball shorts, even if they are the bulk of what an active brand is selling. "Training tops, training shorts, sports bras, black leggings —those do big volume for Champion," Ned Munroe, the company's global chief design officer, tells Racked by phone. But the brand knows it can't sustain itself on essentials. "No one wants a basic pullover hoodie any longer," Munroe says. "It’s gotta feel special." The company has carefully architected specific niches: a collaboration with the menswear designer Todd Snyder sells to a vintage-focused "heritage" customer at a higher price point; a partnership with Urban Outfitters lets Champion reach a younger audience with trendier pieces; work with Supreme reaches the streetwear and sneakerhead audience. "We talk about cool factor," Munroe says of his team's purposeful efforts to define and meet the needs of different sects of customers. "We have to make sure that our brand expands across audiences."

Fans outside an Adidas Originals event in Los Angeles, hosted by Pharrell Williams. Photo: Adidas

Another major contributor to the increase of fashion-focused active product is the rise of "athleisure," the sport-influenced day look that's walked Alexander Wang's runway consistently and influenced the development of subcultures like "health goths." It would be downright silly for an active brand not to jump on this bandwagon. "It's really changed the definition of athletic apparel," Munroe says. Clare Varga, active director for global trend foresights business WGSN, echoes the sentiment, saying, "the lines between fashion and sports are completely blurred. Consumers are demanding transitional sports products that deliver style and function."

While in the early days of athleisure it was okay for a fashion brand to make a jogger pant or an active brand to try a fashion-forward print, the two are best served when they work together. "Fashion brands are keen to move into this lucrative, growing sports sector," explains Varga, "and one of the best ways to do that with credibility is to partner with a sports brand." Jian DeLeon, deputy editor of Complex Style, is quick to note that "it's a two-way street," for fashion and sports brands. "For brands like Adidas and Nike, it gives them a little more fashion cred when they work with the likes of Raf Simons or Rick Owens," he explains. Another perk for fashion designers is "more of a democratic platform for their vision," DeLeon says. "And big athletic brands get a welcome dose of street cred and cultural relevancy." Varga agrees, saying, "For fashion brands, the appeal of partnering with a sports brand [allows them] to inject an edgier, youth-orientated street element to their collections," that they might not have the natural inclination — or right — to on their own.


Champion x Supreme (left) versus Champion mainline (right)

"It opens up your mind to see your brand through the creative eyes of others," Aberg says of the perks of collaborating with fashion designers, celebrities, and other creative types. "The goal is always to bring out the new from both sides." Jennifer Lynch, the senior project manager for New Balance's Lifestyle Classics division, has similar takeaways, telling Racked, "special projects allow New Balance to work with brands and retailers who have a specific point of view, resulting in a one-of-a-kind product that generates a lot of momentum. It has the opportunity to excite our existing consumer base while reaching out to new customers." Of working with Supreme, Munroe of Champion adds, "they push us; it makes us a little uncomfortable, but we end up with great, hot product launches that sell through within a day."

Some of this vision, this growth, can wind up impacting the main line, too. "We get to inspire and we get to educate what is coming up [for Lululemon]," Arbuckle says of Lululemon Lab. "If something works really well, they can adopt from us. It might be the fabric, a feature, or an entire piece." It works similarly at New Balance, where Lynch explains, "Special editions have the opportunity to create energy for our inline range." Josh Davis, an editor at Hypebeast, tells Racked, "athletes consider performance above style, so it's the role of a brand's design team to take fashionable shapes, colors, and silhouettes and translate them to something athletes can actually wear. In this sense, collaborations doubly serve as a survey of style." This is something Nike confirmed, writing, "Design has a psychological effect in sport. We often hear from athletes ‘When I feel like I look good, I play better." Nike is at its best when bringing true innovation in a compelling style."

Adaptation helps marketing efforts, too. The tease, launch, and purchase of a special or limited edition item gives the customer — or would-be customer — a news hook for their feed. "Social media platforms create viral marketing," confirms Varga. "It's especially key for limited edition pieces, with fans using social media for bragging rights." A user can regram Drake's Instagram announcement of his upcoming sneaker with Nike Jordan, proudly apply the official hashtags and handles, and be instantly dropped into a worldwide pool of likeminded users. A post on IG, a link shared on Facebook, or an excited tweet from a friend is more saturated with authenticity than any banner ad or billboard. Brands dream about being endorsed organically by users, but companies need to give potential buyers something to talk about. No one Instagrams a glass of skim milk — but they'll certainly post a beautifully-packaged bottle of Juice Press cashew mylk.

DeLeon says Nike and Adidas have done an especially good job of "embracing and harnessing the power of the hype machine," when it comes to marketing special projects but says, "Supreme are the kings of this. Images leak and the rumor mill powers itself, [then] they drop an official announcement the Monday before the big release, making [the product] available three days later." It calls to mind the Apple formula, wherein the company systematically makes a new edition of a product available 10 days after its announced. "There's a certain sangfroid to [Supreme's] approach that so many people try to emulate," DeLeon furthers. "The attitude is, 'We're releasing this with this company; if you wanna buy it, it'll be available here. If not, we don't care.'"

Supreme x Nike GTS

Backing up to the power of a good leak, he references next month's Drizzy sneakers. "Look at what's happening with Drake's collaboration with Jordan," he says, citing "information dropped in bits and pieces like Hansel and Gretel leaving crumbs towards the witch's house." After a release date for the shoes was confirmed, "the speculation process started anew when Drake wore yet another unreleased pair of Jordan shoes at an event. It's almost a science at this point."

When it comes to working with a celebrity, authenticity is key. "When you listen to Pharrell talk about his Superstar collaboration with Adidas, he talks from the heart, and you can see he has a genuine love for the brand and understanding of its heritage," Varga explains. "It's a huge part of the sell." DeLeon also makes note of the importance of "an aura of realness to a collaboration," ticking off, "Riccardo Tisci claims to have worn Air Force 1s for years before he designed his versions for Nike, Takashi Murakami swears by his collection of white Vans slip-ons, and one of Kanye West's first appearances on Def Poetry Jam has him wearing a pair of Adidas Forum sneakers."

Another way to enter the game of authenticity, perhaps the big direction active brands should look to, is locality. Lululemon Lab does the bulk of its collaborations with creative types from the Vancouver area, including a partnership with the workout group Tight Club. "It’s this exercise group that attracts creative people in the city," Arbuckle explains, "and were really interested in that because it’s hard to get creatives to work out regularly. Clearly, there was something that exercise and that lifestyle [creatives] weren't connecting to, and something about Tight Club was."

Adidas Originals "Brewery Pack"

Varga of WGSN sees collaborations with gyms as the exciting next frontier for active brands. "We can definitely expect to see more of these as gyms like Frame and SoulCycle become brands in their own rights," she says. "It's a natural fit and opens up new retail channels," with gyms being able to offer their own, cool product in-studio, and brands cashing on the loyalty built at these fitness temples (have you met a "SoulCycle person?"). "It's cooler to work closely with retailers, as opposed to brands, because it fosters the community in each respective city," says Davis, citing Adidas's Consortium program and New Balance's eagerness to work with and support other New England brands. "That's a 'culture driver' in the purest sense," he furthers. "One of my recent favorites was the 'Brewery pack' that Adidas Originals did with Sneakersnstuff in Stockholm. Sneakersnstuff's deep-seeded love for its home city bled from the sneakers: it was made by the people, for the people. I think that kind of organic passion is truly the defining factor of good collaborations — self-evident truth, or something like that."

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