Resurgent Champion opens Center City store amid demands for nostalgia, trends

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- There was a line this past weekend outside 1507 Walnut Street just waiting to get inside for the grand opening of the newest store from one of the hippest brands on shelves these days.

If you happened to have been walking down Walnut Street in Center City Philadelphia on that particular day and saw this scene of eager fashionistas, you may have felt as if you had stepped into a wormhole that put you smack into the mid-1990s.

In the era where vibrant, neon colors ruled the clothing canvas, one brand was champion of loungewear. Appropriately enough, it was Champion.

The grey sweatshirt with the "C" patch was a top-seller and Champion was happy to meet the demand.

Now, some 25 years later, Champion has stepped back onto the fashion field after being relegated to decades on the style sideline.

This past weekend, the athleisure brand owned by Hanes opened its fifth retail store in the U.S., at the former Diesel location in the heart of Philly's downtown.

"We are excited to come to Philadelphia with a new store that truly celebrates the city and the rich culture that makes it so special," David Robertson, Director Champion Brand Marketing, said.

The 3,040 square foot space is the company's first two-floor store, complete with fixtures made from reclaimed basketball gym floors and custom benches made from lockers.

But a few years back, it would have been a far-fetched idea to think the company, created in 1919, would open a mega-store in Philly's elite shopping district.

"After the brand's peak around the turn of the millennium, people weren't exactly mobbing stores for Champion sweats anymore. The market had fragmented into a thousand pieces, each of which was tended to by a host of new athletic companies catering to niche clientele," an Esquire article from March 2017 said.

The business world was not kind to Champion during the next decade.

"The athletic clothing company was more popular with budget-conscious parents than their kids," is how USA Today described it.

But like a certain persistent hero in a boxing film, Champion did not give up. It has bounced back to success and it is seen once again as a force in the fashion industry.

Its resurgence did not happen overnight, though. Through a series of vital moves, Champion was back on the road to, well, championship status.

In recent years, Champion has collaborated with designers that have kept their brand on the minds of trendy conscious consumers, including partnerships with Vetements, Weekday, Beams, Wood Wood, Supreme, and Undefeated.

As Esquire explained, "The collabs not only kept Champion's name in everyone's mouth, but also highlighted the brand's versatility. Weekday cropped the iconic Champion sweatshirt, Supreme covered it in allover print, and Vetements added tears and its signature droopy sleeves. But they all still read loud and clear as Champion sweatshirts."

Then there were the influencers - including Kendall Jenner, girlfriend of 76ers star Ben Simmons - whose millions of social media followers saw them wearing Champion.

Even those close to celebrities are sporting Champion. When Bryce Harper arrived in Philadelphia Monday evening, a member of his security team was wearing a Champion hat.

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Action Cam Video: Bryce Harper arrives in Philadelphia on March 25, 2019.

"If celebrities are seen wearing a certain label or style, people will flock," Farla Efros, president of consultancy HRC Retail Advisory, told USA Today.

Champion is also riding on the demand for 90s nostalgia that has also made its mark on television with revivals Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, The Connors, and Fuller House.

"Anyone who watched '90s nostalgia swallow the fashion world whole could have guessed years ago that Champion was due for a revival, so it was no surprise to see its iconic logo start popping up recently on fashion-forward media stars and trendsetting Instagrammers," Esquire wrote.

Along with people reliving their glory days, the fact that Champion is made for leisure is another positive for them. In 2017, according to Forbes, athleisure-wear or "sport leisure" sales were $9.6 billion.

Financial website The Motley Fool said "the trend is becoming a wardrobe staple for many."

And that means "those grey sweatshirts and sweatpants you wore in the 1990s are now considered high fashion."

Now Champion is being highly regarded by those in the clothing industry, arguably more so than its in heyday.

In fact, The Motley Fool said by 2022, Champion sales, outside sales from stores like Target and Walmart, are expected to reach $2 billion.

With the influx of teens and 20-somethings getting their first taste of Champion, the company has made sure customers get an unquestionable Philly experience once inside its Walnut Street location.

The store features a mural by Alloyius Mcilwaine, and a yard-bombing installation by Ishknits. Both are artists within the Philadelphia artistic collective, Tiny Room for Elephants. There is specialized Champion products exclusive to the store including a Philadelphia capsule collection.

"From vintage Champion Philadelphia sports memorabilia to exclusive Philadelphia pieces, we're creating an immersive hub of activity that helps us to genuinely connect with our customers beyond our quality Champion products," Robertson said.

Robertson said the company looks forward to becoming part of the community. Its apparent goal is in a two-word phrase covering the walls of the store - Authentic Philly.

It wants the customers to know they are shopping not just in a Champion store, but the one in Philadelphia.

"The Center City location is the perfect place for our brand to build an impactful connection with the city for years to come as we look to further enrich the community through events and unique products," Robertson said.

Though it has changed somewhat with the times, Champion has stayed true to its roots from when it was created 100 years ago in Rochester, New York.

Its iconic "C" logo still stands for Champion, but, with its rising popularity and trendiness, these days, the "C" might also mean current. But it's anyone's guess how long the ride will last this time.

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