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Are Heritage Brands the New Millennial Baby Blanket?

In a world of unpredictability powered by technology and social media, millennials are turning to heritage brands for comfort. Ten years ago, edgy brands ruled the fashion of the young. Today, it’s nearly impossible to walk down a hip city street without seeing Adidas Stan Smith sneakers, Fjällräven backpacks and Patagonia pullovers.

These heritage brands, along with Fila, Champion, Levi’s and others, are enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to their rich history, superior durability, value and comfort. Millennials came of age during the economically traumatic Great Recession and now find themselves in an era of widespread political malaise. The rise of durable, reliable brands represents the quest for security in an unsteady world.

“I see heritage brands as the next iteration of athleisure,” said Chris Walton, Principal at Red Archer Retail and editor of Omni Talk. “They check off some really important boxes for young consumers. Their products are comfortable, of high quality, and provide tremendous value. Millennials are on a tighter budget than older consumers, so affordability is key.”

Champion has enjoyed a huge resurgence in recent months. Founded in 1919 by the Feinbloom brothers in Rochester, NY, it originally sold high quality sweatshirts, T-shirts, and athletic socks, and quickly became the brand of choice for college athletic teams. In the 1960s, Champion began an expansive licensing program that started with the NCAA, and expanded, in the 1970s, with an NFL partnership. It was in the ’70s that Champion street fashion and music culture adopted the brand, and in the ’80s strengthened its popularity off the sports fields.

However, in the decades to follow before its most recent revival, Champion became a brand relegated to grocery, discount and low-end sporting goods stores, eventually ending up in the HanesBrands portfolio after the spinoff from Sara Lee in 2005. When millennials like Selena Gomez, who was photographed wearing sweatpants bearing the Champion logo, decided that vintage and outdated retro styles were cool again, Champion began its rapid comeback.

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Champion was one of the first heritage brands to use influencer marketing (which, according to a Nielsen study, generates 11 times more ROI than traditional forms of marketing) and to collaborate with premium luxury and streetwear brands, like Vêtements and Supreme, helping to elevate the heritage brand while making the luxury products seem more down-to-earth.

“Influencers are putting a unique twist on these traditional styles, giving the luxury brands they’re paired with a certain ‘groundedness,’ or accessibility, making them relevant to a wider audience on social media,” Walton said.

On the most recent quarterly earnings conference call, Hanesbrands executives called Champion’s recent growth trajectory “phenomenal,” and said they expect brand revenue to reach $2 billion by 2022, with most of the gains outside the mass channel. Which makes the recent decision by Target to not renew its contract with the C9 diffusion label a potentially good one for Champion’s brand positioning.

Without C9 diluting the perception of authenticity, Champion can continue what it calls its “brand elevation initiative.” It has bought back its Europe and Japan businesses, and the success of its flagship Los Angeles store in the trendy La Brea district has sparked the planned opening of other full-priced stores in Boston, Chicago and Soho in New York City.

Fila is another miracle story of heritage brand resurrection. The company was founded in 1911 in northern Italy as a maker of high-quality textiles before going on to become a sportswear powerhouse in the ’70s, helped by the endorsement by tennis superstar Björn Borg. In 2007, all of the company’s trademarks were acquired by Fila Korea, which relaunched apparel in the U.S. some years back via Kohl’s, and simultaneously launched the direct-to-consumer Fila Heritage channel targeting retro aficionados and sneakerheads.

The retro fashion trend all over the runway these days includes “ugly” or “Dad” sneakers like those worn by Gigi and Bella Hadid and other trendsetters. The throwback Fila Disruptor II sneaker launched early this year, an updated version of the 1996 original saw-tooth-soled clunky classic, is reportedly one of the hottest selling sneakers at retail right now.

The Fila “F” that was used by Fendi in its Autumn/Winter 2018 collections came about through a collaboration between Scottish insta-collagist @hey_reilly and Karl Lagerfeld. The result was a Fila x Fendi collection for busy women that elevated sportswear to a new level and further established Fila as an apparel brand worth watching. Industry sources claim that Fila has not used paid influencers to support its products, relying instead on the strength of its brand and existing networks to share its messaging. Time will tell whether we can expect a Fila exit from Kohl’s anytime soon.

Are Heritage Brands the New Millennial
Fila x Fendi (Autumn/Winter 2018 Collection)

Adidas has dusted off its classic pedigree of late, opting to reinforce its fashion credentials rather than focus on just performance.

The company’s brand strategy is to focus on “what the consumer wants,” according to Adidas North America head Mark King, which lately has translated to athletic-inspired lifestyle sneakers like Stan Smiths and the three-stripe track pants and hoodies that seem to be so  popular among young consumers right now.

And it’s not only activewear brands that are benefitting from the heritage trend. Outdoor icons are having a moment with the stylish crowd as well.

Fjällräven is Swedish outdoor equipment company founded in 1960 to encourage and enable consumers to get out and enjoy trekking for its social aspects. Patagonia is the leading outdoor lifestyle brand representing eco-consciousness. It gives lifetime guarantees on its polar fleece jackets and athletic wear, and its founder, Yvon Chouinard, encourages consumers to own fewer pieces of clothing. Seattle-based Filson was founded in 1897 by homesteader and railroad man Clinton C. Filson to supply prospectors with outdoor apparel and gear during the Great Klondike Gold Rush. The durability and longevity of these brands are striking a positive chord among hipster millennials who view their day-to-day as a journey that requires rugged clothing and accessories.

So what should heritage brand owners do to keep this momentum going?

According to product development executive Nesli Danisman, maintaining—or even improving—product and design integrity while ensuring best practices in sustainability and social responsibility will be critical to remaining relevant with young consumers: “First, these brands should look at their design and materials,” said Danisman, whose consulting firm, Angora Group, provides product development and sourcing solutions for rapidly growing young fashion brands. “Think about where they can elevate and evolve to be more appealing to this customer, while remaining true to the brand. What better fabrics can be used for differentiation, longevity, durability, aesthetics?”

Danisman thinks Fila could get a bit edgier in its designs, and that Champion should consider a return to the beefy, soft, never-pilling fleece that it used 20 years ago in its flagship sweats. It will also be critical for heritage brands to seek out factories that are compliant and able to maintain quality while expanding volume, Danisman said. Many of the premium brands catering to millennials are currently working outside Asia, in factories in the U.S., Turkey and Portugal, for example.

What other brands might be ripe for the plucking by this authenticity-seeking cohort? Already showing accelerating signs of life are Birkenstock, Dickies, Burberry, Doc Martens and Tommy Hilfiger. Even Crocs and Juicy Couture might be ready for a comeback.

And although it hasn’t happened yet, all that may be needed for a resurrection of Hanesbrands’ signature men’s tighty whities is for a special edition pair with giant logo on the waistband to appear front and center in Travis Scott’s next music video. If it does, watch out.