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Champion’s Head Designer on the Vetements Effect

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Wide shot of model walking in Vetements x Champion on the runway Photo: Getty Images

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The latest collection from radical Paris-based juggernaut Vetements — which debuted, incongruously, at Haute Couture Week in Paris — is essentially one big D.I.Y.

In a truly groundbreaking move, founders and brothers Demna (the designer) and Gurum (the businessman) Gvasalia, and the rest of the design collective that makes up the Paris-based brand, collaborated with a whopping 18 other brands to produce the collection.

Many of them, like Hanes, Champion and Levi’s, are about as far away from couture as you can get. Which is, of course, the whole point. According to Demna, who is also the creative director of Balenciaga, the idea was to go straight to the brands who have perfected each category; the first name you think of when you think of any given product. But according to Ned Munroe, Chief Global Design Officer of HanesBrands Inc (which also owns Champion), there’s a little more to the story.

Munroe says he and his team were thrilled with Vetements’ original use of Champion’s logo — so long as they agreed to make the brand a partner in some capacity. All of which makes you wonder how many of the other brands had a similar reaction, and just what role that played in this unprecedented mass collaboration.

So what does all this luxury attention do for the brands you normally find at K-Mart or Kohl’s? Has the Gvasalia brothers’ endorsement made a difference to their bottom line or brand image? Munroe had the answers.

In its debut collection, Vetements produced a hoodie that riffed on the classic Champion style complete with twisted logo that cost close to $1,000. It was all over street style blogs and stars like Selena Gomez. What was your reaction when you first saw it?

Champion Europe [which is in the process of being acquired by Hanes Brand International] and I collaborate very closely in terms of product strategies, collaborations and aesthetics and it was funny because I saw it at the same time as their team and we were both like, “Hey wait a minute. Who is this? What’s going on?” I knew of the Vetements brand, but it was the first time that we had seen the Champion logo twisted like that.

Blogger Chiara Ferragni wearing Vetements’ Champion-style logo sweatshirt
Blogger Chiara Ferragni wearing Vetements’ Champion-style logo sweatshirt

Did you reach out to them immediately?

We did. First of all, anyone who messes around with our logo, of course we’re going to contact them. But once we talked to them and we understood the strategy and why they did it, we realized quickly they weren’t trying to bastardize the brand, they’re actually complimenting the brand. They were recognizing that Champion is an iconic athletic brand and we do the best fleece out there. So once we understood that, that’s when the conversation [about possibly collaborating] started. We said to them, we love your strategy and we love your positioning but you can’t [use our logo] without us being a partner.

And that’s how the collaboration, which debuted at Haute Couture Week, came about?

That started the conversation. I’m thrilled about it; it’s a very exciting concept. To have both of our brands—Hanes and Champion—partnering with Vetements on this collaboration makes it even more exciting.

Model wearing pink Vetements x Champion outfit on the runway

What was it like working with the Vetements team?

They’re a great group of people—very talented and very respectful to both of our brands. Getting the product to where it needs to be has been a lot of fun. It was definitely a new challenge and it was a very creative challenge (we manufacture performance styles, after all). But their team was very respectful in twisting these iconic styles in a way that’s right for their brand as well as ours.

Tell me about the process.

Well, for instance, Hanes is all about the iconic tee. So it was about taking the classic crewneck silhouette and figuring out how you put it into their design aesthetic, interpreting the Hanes classic in a way that felt true to the Vetements brand in neckline, shape silhouette, and overall aesthetic. We had to use different resources to get it done, and a different factory for some of the styles, but it’s still Hanes fabric. It still has integrity.

Closeup of Vetements x Champion sweatshirt on a runway model

What about for the Champion products?

Champion is known for its fleece. So the challenge was: How do you manipulate the fleece in such a way that it’s a modern interpretation? We played with a couple of different fabrications that really go back to the iconic heritage pieces of the brand. We did a version of the iconic Champion hoodie—and then it was figuring out, okay, what’s the bottom of that? So we made track pants, a track suit.

Do you think the collaboration will have an impact on sales of regular Champion gear?

I think it’s too soon to answer that question. Vetements is so hot right now so there is certainly a strong buzz. But we’ve got our own pretty strong collaboration strategy; the Champion brand and our lifestyle strategy are on fire right now. That’s why it’s great partnering with Vetements. We help each other tell a good story together. And it’s fun playing in a different parts of the market.

What’s the benefit, then, of partnering with Vetements?

Vetements has a more modern aesthetic. It’s connected to designer and to streetwear, it’s tapping into this amazing influencer in street culture right now, and that’s super important.

Model walks runway wearing Vetements x Champion gray outfit

In the past, you’ve also collaborated with Urban Outfitters and Supreme. Why is important for Champion — a brand that is known for making nondescript basics — to collaborate with other labels?

It’s part of a halo strategy. With our Vetements collaboration, we’ll sell at Barneys. We also sell at Urban Outfitters and at Dr. Jays. Both of our brands are approachable for all channels and all retailers. It’s not unrealistic that someone would not believe that Champion is sold at those retailers. But what makes the balance is that we’re also in your big box stores and department. We’re very strategic in who we partner with to what extent and in what channels. Champion is all about authentic and heritage—and we’re very careful not to get too far from that.

For a brand that’s always made sweatpants and sweatshirts, it must be kind of funny to see fashion editors running around in $1,000 versions. Has the rise of athleisure impacted business?

Absolutely. We’ve seen our business grow and categories extend. Performance is still really important but now it’s performance with fashion. It still does what it has to do but you still look relevant, fashion-wise. You don’t look like you’re wearing basic.

What categories, specifically, have grown?

It’s been amazing to watch the black bottom category [i.e. leggings] explode into an everyday must-have that’s being used to work out in as well as run errands. Women are even wearing them to dinner! It started out with a black poly dex tight that evolved into different silhouettes, different lengths, different stories and novelty fabrics, pockets, waistbands — so that’s a massive category that’s hugely evolved. What’s interesting, now, is to think, okay, now, what’s the men’s version of the legging. What’s the new track pant? Today, guys want utility, they want pockets and they want comfort—so what is that hybrid category that you can work out in, but also have a place for your cell phone and run errands without feeling like you’re in training shorts?

So overall, athleisure has been positive?

Well, we have a lot more competition than ever before. There are so many active brands now. Every time you turn around there’s a new activewear collaboration or athleisure collection. But when you think about, who does the best authentic hoodie? It’s Champion, right? We’ve got amazing product and we were the true innovators in the active apparel market. We were the first ones to patent the reverse weave [a revolutionary and technical procedure that minimizes a garment’s shrinking and warp]. We’re authentic, we’ve got an amazing heritage, and we’re authentically invested in sports. We were the original so we’re still relevant.

I love seeing someone on the street wearing Champion, and it could be a hip young girl in an oversized worn-in Champion sweatshirt that’s cropped to whatever length she loves. And it probably used to be someone else’s favorite sweatshirt. Today we have a lot more competition, but it keeps us on our toes.