Champion: From the Field to the Streets

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Founded in 1919 by the Feinbloom brothers, Champion began its journey as a premium sportswear brand. With a commitment to quality and innovation, it quickly gained traction, especially when it started producing sweatshirts and tees for the University of Michigan in the 1930s, creating the concept of "collegiate apparel."

This connection between sportswear and colleges became fundamental for the brand, helping Champion become the go-to manufacturer for many American colleges. Consequently, it became one of the most popular brands in collegiate apparel, influencing casual culture worldwide, from Japan to Europe.

This era marked the birth of one of Champion's most iconic products: the hoodie. Initially designed to shield athletes and workers from harsh weather, the hoodie soon became a canvas for the brand's innovation, incorporating features like reverse weave fabric to prevent shrinkage.

This aspect of the brand remained fundamental and continued to be essential as, through experimentation, Champion was able to innovate the sportswear sector with the introduction of new materials and garments, such as the “Nylon Mesh Jersey” in 1967, initially developed for football and later introduced to basketball.

The following decades saw a strong evolution in the brand, driven by the birth of a new subcultural movement in Champion’s home state: Hip-Hop. This movement integrated sportswear into street style, with early Hip-Hop pioneers wearing sportswear pieces in completely new settings.

As one of the biggest and most influential sportswear brands, Champion became a staple in this new subculture, symbolizing urban culture. The simple, minimalist design, durable quality, and adaptability of the garments made Champion products a perfect fit for the hip-hop community, which at its origins focused mainly on sportswear and workwear adapted with peculiar fits, colors, and styles.

Icons like Tupac Shakur, Nas, Beastie Boys, Naughty by Nature, and members of the Wu-Tang Clan were frequently seen in Champion gear, embedding the brand into the very fabric of hip-hop culture. This association was not just about fashion; it was about authenticity, resilience, and the raw, unfiltered spirit of the streets.

Champion's appeal to the hip-hop community was rooted in its practicality and affordability, making it accessible to the masses. The brand’s no-frills approach resonated with the ethos of hip-hop, a movement that thrived on realness and rebellion against the mainstream. As hip-hop grew from a subculture to a global phenomenon, Champion’s presence in music videos, album covers, and on the backs of rap legends solidified its place in history.

IThis relationship between Champion and the hip-hop community was further strengthened in 1989 when Champion became the official outfitter of all 27 NBA teams and outfitted every USA basketball team from 1989-2001, including the first "Dream Team," the first American Olympic basketball team to feature active professional players from the NBA. This deal arrived at the perfect time, as the ‘90s are considered the Golden Age of the NBA, where it became, thanks to icons such as Michael Jordan, a global league and sport with faces recognizable by millions of fans not only in the US but worldwide.

The NBA has always been closely linked to young consumers and hip-hop. In the 90s, this connection grew even stronger, with many of the biggest rappers frequently wearing NBA jerseys, thus also sporting the Champion logo. This direct relationship has only grown over the years, often humorously captured by the phrase “Rappers want to be ballers, and ballers want to be rappers.”

While many might think that this subcultural success would take the brand away from its pillars of high-quality products, the reality is quite the opposite. Starting from the '90s and becoming even more popular in the new millennium, Champion became the go-to brand for high-quality products to print on. This trend began earlier with many hip-hop groups printing their logos on Champion products for their personal looks. It became even more prevalent when early streetwear brands like Supreme, Diamond Supply & Co, BAPE and many more started by printing on Champion blanks, making Champion products a symbol of self-expression.

This use of Champion garments continued and reached its peak in 2012 with Virgil Abloh, who, then known primarily within industry circles, launched his first project “Pyrex Vision,” which would later evolve into “Off-White.” In this initial collection, one could see much of what would become Abloh's signature style and philosophy, often linked to his childhood memories of the '90s. It was no coincidence that Virgil chose to print his graphics on Champion items like t-shirts and hoodies, but most notably the iconic mesh shorts, showcasing his connection and affection not only towards Champion and the hip-hop world but also the sportswear realm, demonstrating that humble basics could be transformed into high-end statements.

Today, Champion continues to evolve, collaborating with contemporary streetwear brands and designers, ensuring its relevance in the ever-changing fashion landscape. The brand’s commitment to quality and authenticity has never wavered, making it a timeless staple in wardrobes around the world.

Champion’s journey from athletic wear to streetwear icon is a testament to its ability to adapt and thrive. Its influence on hip-hop and street culture is undeniable, and its high-quality garments continue to inspire and serve as the foundation for many emerging brands. As the lines between streetwear and high fashion continue to blur, Champion’s legacy as a pioneer and innovator remains firmly intact.

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