The line between fashion and sports has become increasingly blurred. Interest in athleisure has propelled brands like Lululemon and Athleta, while fashion labels such as Tory Burch and Telfar have rolled out activewear collections to capitalise on consumer demand. Athletes including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have become bonafide fashion icons for their style on — and off — the court.
Now, Wilson Sporting Goods Co., best known as a sports equipment company that manufactures products like basketballs and tennis rackets, is hoping it can make the transition into fashion too, in an attempt to build buzz and renew the brand’s relevance.
“They look across the landscape and see the success of a brand like Champion right now. I think they’re saying ‘Okay, let’s get a piece of that business as well,’” said Matt Powell, senior sports industry advisor at NPD.
Wilson is new to this — the company only introduced sportswear in May 2021 — but it’s ramping up its fashion-focused efforts fast. In April, it hired H&S, a public relations firm that has worked with fashion brands like Alice + Olivia, Hugo Boss, Jimmy Choo and Kering. This summer, it opened its first retail location in Chicago’s upscale Gold Coast neighbourhood, on the same block as Versace and Dior, as well as a tennis-themed pop-up shoppable museum in New York in honour of the US Open. (A permanent New York store is in the works.) To sell its new sportswear line online, Wilson has implemented a streetwear-style drop model. It’s also pursuing high-profile fashion collaborations: in July, Wilson launched a Louis Vuitton basketball it created with Virgil Abloh for the NBA Finals. Most recently, on Tuesday, it dropped a collection with Kith, complete with a short film by the streetwear brand.
“I hate to say it, and I say it with love, [Wilson had] latent potential — potential that was unrealised,” said Gordon Devin, Wilson sportswear president.
Wilson doesn’t want that potential to sit dormant any longer. It doesn’t hurt that now is a particularly good time to enter the space: according to data from NPD, activewear grew 28 percent in the first six months of 2021 over 2019. In the US, the brand is hoping its status as a premium equipment dealer will mean there’s a built-in respect for and excitement around its sportswear. Internationally, it wants to use its new, more fashionable look to build consumer awareness, particularly in China, where a recreational athletics boom is ongoing.
Wilson is clearly willing to invest in the tools it needs to play in the fashion space. But the success of those efforts hinges on whether the drop model, urban retail locations and collaborations with high-profile brands will be enough to generate hype and translate Wilson’s reputation for equipment to its apparel products.
“In the world of even equipment we already are creating objects of desire,” Wilson chief of design Joelle Michaeloff. “When we talk about existing in sportswear those same attributes are very important.”
To make consumers think of Wilson as not only a sporting goods company, but a fashionable sportswear company, the century-old brand is making shifts throughout its business, from marketing to retail strategy.
One of the earliest steps was a social media revamp. In January, Wilson launched an official, unified Instagram account filled with photos of models in crop tops and basketball shorts shown on city streets or at coffee shops. It was a shift from the brand’s previous social strategy of operating sport-specific accounts for its tennis or basketball businesses, focused on photos of professional athletes.
It’s also embracing a direct-to-consumer selling model, a shift from its past — Wilson had primarily sold through wholesale partners like Dicks Sporting Goods and Target. The choice to go DTC for its apparel business, a well-tread path in the fashion world, was made in order to better control and create a more personal relationship with consumers, said Devin.
“We want to provide a very specific message to the customer, a very specific value proposition to the customer,” said Devin. “We didn’t feel that we can do that in any other way other than directly.”
The most direct way it’s attempting to do so is through its growing retail presence. Both the Chicago location and its US Open pop-up in New York, dubbed “Love All: A Wilson Tennis Experience,” draw on Wilson’s history as an equipment maker used by top athletes to argue that its sportswear has the same level of efficacy. Tennis superstar Billie Jean King, for example, visited the New York store to give a talk and sign autographs. The pop-up will transition to tell a new story about the brand’s self-proclaimed status as the “Official Ball of Everything” in October, and it expects its permanent SoHo store to open in January (construction schedule permitting). Wilson’s store in Chicago, its birthplace, is being used to gather feedback from shoppers to implement in its products. Alongside the limited-edition items it created just for the store, Wilson even developed a leather glove inspired scent for the space.
Its future brick-and-mortar ambitions include a pop-up in Los Angeles timed to the Super Bowl, as well as Beijing and Shanghai storefronts next month.
Expanding within China is a major goal for Wilson, but growing there, said Devin, will be different than growing in the US. Stateside, the brand has fairly widespread name recognition in the sports sphere. In China, Wilson wants to “to proliferate that idea of sport being a luxury,” said Devin — it’s the world’s second largest luxury market — to sell the idea of sport as well as its products.
It’s all something of an experiment, but Wilson’s corporate structure makes it easier for the brand to take risks and bring them to scale. Its parent is international sporting goods company Amer, which is owned by a consortium led by investors including sportswear giant Anta and Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.
“When you’re part of a big corporation, a massive corporation like the size of Anta, there’s room to grow without having to make a profit,” said Powell.