Ponder the most popular types of athletic apparel. Perhaps sweatshirts, soft, breathable shorts and mesh jerseys come to mind. Rightfully so, they're worn almost universally by professional athletes, amateur ones and everyone in-between. But where do these designs originate from? Did they suddenly appear on the market to widespread acclaim?
Not necessarily, but they all stem from one company: a lesser-known manufacturer named Knickerbocker Knitting Mills founded in 1919 by Rochester, New York-based wholesale clothier Simon Feinbloom and his sons Abraham and William. At first, they specialized in woolen undergarments and protective uniforms for industrial workers. Eventually, the family shifted their focus to a fledgling category for which plenty of apparel was needed: athletics.
By 1930, the family formalized a name change, opting for Champion Knitting Mills as a nod to their proclaimed quality — a notch above the wholesale items they promoted a decade prior. A century later, Champion's designs reside in the MoMA's permanent collection, the closets of millions of consumers worldwide and the mind of creatives all over ideating their ideal collab. But, before we get ahead of ourselves here, let's start from square one.
It was in 1926 when Champion — although this was prior to their official name change — made their first major move. Impressed by the company's durable designs, the Wentworth Military Academy reached out about outfitting their students with Champion-made team uniforms. These uniforms were the first official use for the Feinbloom family's ingenious innovations: sweatshirts penetrated the public sphere.
Nearly eight years later, iconic Ann Arbor sportswear store Moe Sport Shops — the originator of the striped referee shirt — asked Champion to produce University of Michigan branded sweatshirts and T-shirts for their store located on the school's campus. They were an instant success and paved the way for the collegiate apparel industry. (Perhaps even college sports as a lucrative business considering this was, at the time, one of the widest scale branding campaigns yet, but... We'll save that for a different story.) Champion also, rather nonchalantly, introduced the hoodie — initially called the "sideline shirt" — as a part of this initial collection.
By 1938, Champion launched their reverse weave iterations. The rise of commercial laundry machines meant shrinkage for oft-washed cotton clothes and uniforms. The reverse weave technology — heavy-duty cotton cut on the cross-grain — prevented the common complaint and was a proprietary patent by 1952 (even though they applied in 1938). Further into the '50s, Champion became the official apparel for Physical Education classes at the elementary and high-school levels; certified by the American Institute of Laundering for their ability to produce clothing that could withstand constant washing; and recognizable by their new logo, the "C" they still use today.
Through the '60s, '70s and '80s, Champion established merchandising partnerships with the NCAA and NFL, and in the '90s — before Nike, Reebok or Adidas owned the rights — Champion produced NBA jerseys and apparel, plus the uniforms for the US' National Basketball team. Plenty of individual athletes donned the designs, too — Muhammad Ali perhaps most famously.
In 2000, Champion's contract ended with the NFL. Their longest-standing collegiate sponsorship — five decades with Notre Dame's Fighting Irish — ended in 2001. Once the 2001-2002 season concluded Champion no longer owned a license with the NBA, but they continued working with the Italian National Basketball Team (through 2016), soccer club AC Parma (until 2005) and a few teams in the Basketball League of Serbia (the first league of future NBA MVP Nikola Jokić) as recently as last season.
Their high-profile sponsorship deals may be a thing of the past, but Champion — since it separated from Sara Lee Corporation (yes, the commercial bakery) with current owner Hanes in 2006 — has been on a quest for reconciliation. In 2016, three priors to Champion's centennial, they reacquired the brand's European rights. Then they bought back the Japanese edition, shoring up their international image.
By 2018, business was better than ever. Annual reports detailed an astonishing $1.4 billion dollars in revenue — $2 billion by 2022, the company claimed. The company's C Lab incubator launched a hoodie for Esports players. Then styles made from organic cotton, recycled polyester and food-based dyes dropped. Collaborations suddenly sprouted in every direction: Supreme (for the second time), Rick Owens, Craig Green, Peanuts, Todd Snyder, Off-White, Kith and Kelloggs, to name a few.
Long before these high-profile collaborations, Champion was adopted into youth and street culture by New York hip-hop and dance groups. Skateboarders gravitated toward the style, too, and so did, suburbanites and stiffs assumed, seedy individuals inclined to commit crimes. At the height of the Internet era, celebrities seeking anonymity relied on them to traverse crazed crowds. In 2012, the murder of Trayvon Martin sparked protests against the notion that Martin was a "suspicious guy" because he had his hood up at night. Protestors put their hoods up in response and helped #HumanizeMyHoodie trend nationwide.
Champion's initial design was utilitarian and duty-oriented, arguably anonymous, but its plainness made a profound impact — and there's no sense it'll go extinct any time soon. It's difficult to describe what exactly draws us all to the hooded sweatshirt. It is ubiquitous yet uniquely your own; an overt statement and yet a signal for being left alone.
While institutions, workplaces and event venues, and even the NFL, loosen their dress codes to accommodate their omnipresence, consider the history of the humble hoodie, which, in just 100 years, has seen itself transformed from functional sportswear solution founded by the Feinbloom family to fashion statement to protest piece to canvas for creative expression and back again. It's even been immortalized in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.
Crew: This is a reference to the round, close-fitting neckline on a sweatshirt without a hood or front pocket. They often have ribbed cuffs and waists.
Hoodie: This is a reference to a sweatshirt with an added hood.
Jersey: Contrary to cotton, jersey is not a fabric but rather a type of knit. This knit offers stretch and shape retention without the employment of additional material or synthetic fibers.
Kangaroo Pocket: This is the front pocket found on most hoodies. They typically have two points of entry on either side.
Reverse Weave: This is a technique invented in 1938 that calls for heavy-duty cotton cut on the cross-grain to prevent shrinkage. Rather than stitching the sweatshirt vertically, Champion did so horizontally and with side panels to nearly eliminate the possibility altogether.
City Sport: This is a Champion style made from 93 percent polyester and 7 percent spandex. It offers stretch and breathability but is less robust than the reverse weave options.
Midweight Jersey: Champion makes hoodies from a fabric they call Midweight Jersey. The material is meant to mirror the softness and thickness of their most popular T-shirt. Expect something light and meant for layering.
Lightweight Fleece: This is Champion's lightest fabric. It's certainly better than others' iterations, but it produces thinner and less structured sweatshirts.
Powerblend: Powerblend is Champion's new eco-friendly fabric. It's made from traceable US-grown cotton, with two to five times less water and with 10 percent recycled polyester. It's just as soft and doesn't pill or shrink.
Natural State: Natural State is Champion's second sustainable fabric. A combination of organic virgin cotton, a percentage of recycled polyester fabrics and botanical-based dyes derived from saffron and indigo root.
Champion Reverse Weave Hoodie
A 20th-century design in a modern fit and an array of updated colors.
Champion Reverse Weave Crewneck
The aforementioned, anti-shrink icon minus the hood and kangaroo pocket.
Todd Snyder Champion Athletics Sweatshirt
American designer Todd Snyder produces limited edition Champion merchandise for his eponymous label and NYC store. They're thicker, just as timeless and often found available in more stylish colorways.
MoMA Edition Champion Hoodie
Yes, a Champion hoodie from the '80s is in the MoMA's permanent collection (along with Salvador Dali's The Persistence of Memory and van Gogh's The Starry Night). As such, the MoMA Design Store collaborated with Champion on some museum merchandise.
Supreme Champion Outline Hoodie
Notorious streetwear label Supreme collaborated with Champion for their Spring/Summer 2019 collection. It sold out fast and is only available via resellers like StockX now — for well above retail.
Kith Champion Logo Hoodie
NYC-born streetwear store Kith collaborated with Champion on a co-branded sweatshirt cut from reverse weave French Terry fabric. The rare rainbow text logo makes an appearance, and it can be yours for over six times suggested retail.
Champion City Sport Hoodie
While all of these are fit for the gym, this might be Champion's most performance-focused piece.
Champion Powerblend Fleece Ombre Hoodie
A hand dip-dyed technique affords individualism to each of Champion's Powerblend Fleece Ombre hoodies. Plus, this iteration emphasizes sustainability: it's made from traceable US cotton, requires far less water and really, truly lasts longer.
Champion Midweight Jersey Hoodie
Think of the midweight hoodie as a cross between your favorite sweatshirt and Champion's iconic t-shirt. These are meant for layering and prove less structure in the neck and shoulders.
Champion Natural State Reverse Weave Crewneck
The Natural State line by Champion's C-Lab relies on virgin cotton, recycled polyester and food-based dyes, limiting pollution and the employment of synthetic materials or modifiers. As such, they are free of harsh chemicals like bleach but boast all of the same admirable features as their more iconic styles.