This Sportswear Icon Is Celebrating Its 100th Year — After Starting Out Making Sweaters

The secret history of collegiate and athletic apparel purveyor Champion, which just hit the century mark.


Champion is arguably one of the most well-known athletic brands — and for a good reason. After all, colleges across the country stock collegiate branded Champion sweatshirts by the thousands. However, the brand has made much more since 1919 than just sweatshirts. For 100 years, Champion has put out reliable and durable apparel, pivoting from sweaters and sweatshirts to team uniforms and fashion runways, all while maintaining its classic look and feel.

“The thing that very few people know is that Champion started as a sweater company,” Matt Waterman, general manager for Champion North America, says. “So the founder made wool sweaters, and he sold them into department stores and dry goods stores, and those sweaters became the basis of Champion’s Athletic line.” Born in 1919, Champion began as the Knickerbocker Knitting Mills company, thanks to the Feinbloom family, in Rochester, New York. “From there, [Champion] started to sell those sweaters to football teams and military academies, who started to wear them not only on the sidelines but also on the football field.” Back then football jerseys were wool-based, anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a leap.


Vintage football jerseys by Champion $17


Swapping jerseys from wool to cotton sparked a massive change in the game of football. Cotton is lighter and more affordable and that tweak really opened up the sport of football to a new generation of kids who probably could not afford wool apparel, Waterman says. Champion changed with the times, outfitting Wentworth Military Academy in 1926, then expanding into college apparel in 1934.

The first patent came in 1938, for Champion’s reverse-weave sweatshirts that don’t shrink. The model was updated (and re-patented) in 1952 — and has remained the same ever since. You can’t walk onto a college campus without spotting those classic reverse-weave sweatshirts featuring the school’s mascot or logo.


Patrol Logo Crewneck Sweatshirt by Champion $59


Another pillar of Champion’s legacy started in 1967. The company designed a mesh nylon jersey — changing the game of football once again and expanding quickly to basketball and a plethora of other sports. And in the ’90s, Champion partnered with the National Basketball Association (NBA) to outfit all 27 teams (today there are 30). Then 1992 brought with it the Dream Team, the first American Olympic team that drew its roster from the professionals — and jerseys from, you guessed it, Champion.


Jerseys from 1992 Olympics by Champion $150


Throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s, Champion’s popularity resurged thanks in part to streetwear. Everyone from Kanye West to Selena Gomez to the Kardashians was spotted wearing a Champion piece. The love for the brand didn’t stop there — in 2017, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibited one of the brand’s hoodies in the ‘Items: Is Fashion Modern?’ Exhibition and in 2018 it became a fixture in the collection. You can shop MoMA x Champion hoodies online today, and they’re a best seller.


Champion Hoodie – MoMA Edition by Champion $80


The brand has come a long way from sweaters to fashion week. And while Champion continues to push out apparel that’s budget-appropriate, everything it does is still for the team — whether that’s your dance, running or golf crew.

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