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Sports merchandise is ugly. Okay, not all of it. And it hasn’t always been ugly. But in 2017, the majority of fan gear stocked in stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods, college campus bookstores, and sites like Fanatics has a patently mass-produced feel to it, and probably involves an ironed-on vinyl logo that’s fated to slowly peel off with each wash.
The going motto for the brands that make this stuff seems to be “slap a team or college name on a crappy Gildan T-shirt and charge $45 for it.” And why not, when the formula is so successful? The sports licensing industry saw $12.8 billion in retail revenue in 2014, which includes merchandise for the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL, as well as collegiate licensing, the latter of which accounted for $3.88 billion of that total.
If the licensing industry can drive that much in revenue doing the least, imagine what it could do if the product was actually good-looking.
That window of opportunity is what inspired Woody Hines and John Shi to create Hillflint, the startup clothing brand that wants you to ditch your basic college sweatshirt for something better. The idea came when Shi, a Dartmouth alum, visited his alma mater for a homecoming game. While browsing the campus bookstore for something cozy — and stylish — to wear for the weekend, Shi found that he was bored by the utter sameness that dominated the racks of university mascot tees.
“None of the merchandise felt like it honored my four years and the fun that I had,” said Shi. So instead of wasting his money on some college gear he didn’t really want, he created his own alumni merch. It wasn’t anything too fancy — a 100 percent wool sweater emblazoned with the standard “Dartmouth College 2012” knit across the chest — but Shi received a lot of positive feedback.
“I sent it out to all of my friends and they loved it,” he said. “Then I got in touch with Woody, who I’d met at an internship the previous summer. He had built a reputation for himself as a style guy. He took the concept to Princeton and sent it out to a bunch of his friends.” As they got more and more positive responses from their peers, Shi and Hines realized they’d tapped into something real. With the help of Kickstarter, the pair turned that enthusiasm into a viable business.
The support from consumers was largely a response to the lack of nice college clothing options on the market, like the boring, low-quality campus bookstore sweatshirts that inspired Shi’s first sweater. “There’s this really funny problem in a really large industry, which is licensed clothing,” said Shi. Today, there’s desire among many people to dress better, which extends to clothing they buy to represent their schools. “But weirdly there’s a disconnect, because everything you can get at the bookstore is kind of crappy.”
Hines noted that another problem with college merch is how it all seems to look the same. “A lot of times, you look at college product, and you can find that same product in any other store. It’s just templated,” he said. “There isn’t much thought about who’s the end customer, because in large part the product is made is for the stores that they’re selling to, and not for the customers that those stores are selling to.”
To some extent, the lack of variety is due to the fact that it’s not a particularly easy niche to break into. It’s an operationally intense business because franchises (universities, in Hillflint’s case) are extremely restrictive about where and how their intellectual property is used. As soon as you write Georgia Bulldogs on a shirt, the university has to condone it, so Hines and Shi have to work with each school individually to get approval on every design before it moves into production.
Beyond adding a little variety, Hillflint is also focusing on making thoughtful collegiate apparel that appeals to customers beyond the passionate college sports team fans. Dogs foaming at the mouth and weirdly buff birds of prey not something you want to wear on your body? You won’t find any Hillflint merchandise with mascot depictions, which makes a lot of sense, considering mascots represent an appeal to the actual game and not so much the school itself. Instead, most of Hillflint’s sweaters show school spirit by maintaining the basic color palettes, decorated by letters fit for a Letterman jacket, old-school scripted logos, and lots of classic varsity stripes.
“At Princeton,” Hines explained, “you would go to the tailgate but not to the game. I think a lot of people identify with different aspects of their college — it’s not just sports — but a lot of the collegiate apparel is only tailored to the sports fans. So that’s also part of what we’re doing: trying to speak to the guy who crams on engineering ‘til 3 a.m., loves his school, and will look back on that experience fondly. There aren’t items in the market that cater to him or her to express that pride.”
The biggest factor setting Hillflint apart might be the quality of the garments, something that’s atypical in the world of collegiate apparel. Hines and Shi have coined the term “elevated sports merchandise” to describe what they’re doing, a category that’s somewhat inspired by, but distinct from, athleisure. “It’s a similar idea,” said Hines, explaining the parallel of taking a category that typically hasn’t looked all that great and creating product that you can wear in regular life. That re-vamped look and high quality do come at a cost: Hillflint sweaters start at $85 and run up to $120.
It’s a high price point, sure, but the company’s sweaters are meant to feel like an heirloom, hence the brand’s logo — a cicada, which, much like a college, symbolizes rebirth and longevity. These are garments meant to be treasured for years to come, reached for season after season, and passed down to the next generation. That’s why the design elements of the sweaters have a retro, but ultimately classic, feel. They almost resemble vintage football and cheerleading uniforms, but without being too on-the-nose.
And it’s working: In just a few years, Hillflint went from selling a few sweaters to their friends to working with a significant portion of the country’s major universities.
“In the beginning, it was us and our friends,” said Hines. After selling to students at Princeton and Dartmouth, they set their sights on the rest of the Northeast and the Midwest, where their extended communities were. From there, the pair targeted the most passionate collegiate communities, aka. the major sports conferences — the Big 10 (Michigan, Ohio State) and the SEC (Alabama, Florida). “As we expanded into those markets, we also expanded our styles to be more inclusive,” said Hines. They started producing sweaters for women, who now make up more than half of their customers, and began offering a variety of styles for each school.
Today, Hillflint works directly with more than 100 universities and counting. (Don’t see your favorite school on the list? You can make a request here, or make a custom order if you’re purchasing more than 100 pieces). Since the brand is offering about five unique designs per school right now, that’s a lot of logistics to handle, considering the schools have to approve each design before it goes into production — a process that usually involves some back-and-forth.
As far as production goes, the majority of Hillflint’s sweaters are made in factories in China, where a longtime family friend of Shi’s who’s been in the textile industry for 25 years oversees production. Hines and Shi visit the factories several times a year. “It’s important to us, even just from the product standpoint,” said Hines.
Because licensed clothing is an industry that’s burdened by a lot of its distribution dynamics, “at all points of our supply chain, we want our staff and our partners to be educated on, for example, the colors,” said Hines. Georgia Red is a totally different shade than Stanford Red, and maintaining the integrity of those details when they’ve been physically knitted into a sweater is absolutely crucial for Hillflint’s success.
Right now, Hillflint sells in many of the campus bookstores of the universities they work with, a few stadium stores, some independent boutiques, Nordstrom.com, and the brand’s own website.
The mix of brick-and-mortar and e-commerce sales works well because, as Hines explains, “you can’t really beat the foot traffic in a college bookstore on game day. At the same time, there’s a ton of fans who don’t live in the town of their favorite team.”
Even with fairly rapid growth, Hines and Shi said it took a long time to get their product into actual stores. “I spent probably three years calling Princeton’s Barnes and Noble before they even gave me the time of day,” said Hines. “You’re like, ‘I wanna sell a $120 sweater,’ and they’re like, ‘Get outta town. No college student would pay that.’”
For now, Hillflint is still working on diversifying its product offerings and partnering with more schools. (There are over 3,000 four-year universities in the US, so there’s plenty of room to grow.)
On top of that, there are more than 100 professional sports teams out there selling about $9 billion dollars worth of merchandise a year, too — that’s a lot of ugly fan apparel waiting to get the Hillflint touch. The company doesn't have plans to break into the professional leagues just yet. But in the meantime, here’s to better-dressed Saturdays come autumn.