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The Top 10 Sportswear Brands

The most recognized brands are a mix of activewear, mainstream denim and vertical retailers.

A visual from the Calvin Klein campaign
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD 100 issue 12/13/2012

The 10 most recognized brands in sportswear are a mix of activewear, mainstream denim and vertical retailers. What they have in common is they make popular fashion basics that aren’t too expensive, they cater to women, men and children, and their brands have high-profile images.

A great pair of jeans, basic Ts and sweaters, sweatshirts and sneakers appear to be what customers conjure up first and foremost when asked about the sportswear brands they know best, and the survey’s results support that.

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Brands that made the Top 10 in sportswear have global recognition, owing to generous ad budgets that use a combination of print, TV, outdoor venues and social media to keep their names in the public eye. Several brands have affiliated themselves with charitable endeavors, and many have significantly invested in overseas distribution.

Gaining and maintaining top awareness is no easy feat. For the year ended Sept. 30, 2012, U.S. women’s sportswear (jeans, pants, shorts, active bottoms, sweatpants, sweatshirts, athletic sets, skirts-skorts) generated $109.6 billion in sales, up 4 percent from a year ago, according to The NPD Group’s Consumer Tracking Service.

Old Navy came out as the most recognized sportswear brand. In recent seasons, the retailer has shown product improvement and continues to drive business with compelling price points. This year, Old Navy opened its first store outside of North America — in Tokyo — and said it would begin an international rollout.

Executives at Levi Strauss, which took the number-two spot, have been feeling positive about the brand’s business with J.C. Penney Co. Inc., noting that 700 JCP remodeled units with Levi’s in-store shops had experienced “dramatic positive improvement,” while those is stores not yet remodeled fairly closely followed “the overall J.C. Penney decline.” To counteract softness in the global economy, Levi’s licensed its boys’ business in the Americas and is phasing out the Denizen brand in Asia.

Coming in third was Nike, the Beaverton, Ore.-based activewear giant. In February, Nike unveiled a series of cutting-edge, lightweight performance innovations designed for track, basketball and other activities. Multiple products were unveiled, ranging from Nike Flyknit footwear to the Nike Hyper Elite basketball uniform to the next generation of Nike Lunarlon footwear.

Placing fourth is Lee Jeans, whose awareness is boosted by 537,186 “likes” on Facebook and its sponsorship of Lee National Denim Day. Since its inception in 1996, the program has promoted “One Day, One Cause, One Cure” and become one of the largest single-day fund-raisers for breast cancer—and one of the most captivating social action campaigns in the country. The event has raised more than $80 million.

Fifth-ranked Gap has shown improved sales and began a new global marketing campaign called “Love Comes in Every Shade,” celebrating the many forms of love—from puppy love and married love to best friend love and sibling love. The holiday campaign features different relationships, such as actor Michael J. Fox and his wife, Tracy Pollan; rapper Nas and his father, blues musician Olu Dara, and the cast of NBC’s The New Normal. Puppy love is represented by actor Jack Huston and his dog, Orso. As part of the campaign in the U.S. and Canada, Gap has partnered with online communities Postagram and Pinterest.

Ranking sixth is Calvin Klein, known for decades for jeans and underwear all over the world. Klein also produces in an array of categories from sportswear, active performance, knitwear, jackets and outerwear to handbags, accessories, footwear, sunglasses and dresses. In October, parent PVH Corp. said it would acquire Warnaco Group Inc. in a deal valued at $2.9 billion. The transaction is expected to turn PVH into an $8 billion global lifestyle and fashion giant, and will reunite Calvin Klein with its two largest apparel categories: underwear, owned by Warnaco, and jeanswear, licensed to it.

In May, Calvin Klein boosted its profile in a strategic marketing alliance with Barclays Center, the new sports and entertainment venue in Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Nets. The sponsorship agreement includes Calvin Klein branding throughout the venue, a major advertising presence and special Calvin Klein VIP rooms.

Seventh-ranked teen specialty retailer Aéropostale, which operates more than 980 stores across the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, in October unveiled a prototype at Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y. The store’s technology-enabled features include a jukebox where teens can vote for the music played in the store, iPods in fitting rooms and Apple desktops and iPads for scanning products and reading reviews. Aéropostale is also the sponsor of the Z-100 Jingle Ball for the second year.

Adidas placed eighth. Ceo Herbert Hainer said,  “We have a full pipeline of game-changing product innovation and fresh brand activation that will shake up the market.”

Hainer attributed much of the brand’s success—overall sales rose by 10 percent in the third quarter—to high visibility at global sporting events. In North America, the brand grew 11 percent in the quarter. Adidas America president Patrik Nilsson said, “We had one of our strongest back-to-school seasons, with our Originals business up nearly 40 percent during that time. We also saw great results in our basketball business, with sales up nearly 60 percent thanks to Rose, AdiZero Crazy Light 2 and our NBA partnership.” Adidas signed teen idol Justin Bieber as the face of its teen Neo sports lifestyle line.

In ninth place was VF Corp.’s Wrangler. In the U.S., the brand has two big businesses: the western outdoor specialty trade and the mass market. Wrangler Jeans opened its first stand-alone store in Europe, a 1,500-square-foot shop in Leipzig, Germany, in September, and plans to roll out the concept to major cities throughout Europe in the next few years.

Reebok, which took the number 10 spot, continues to face challenges, especially since its 10-year contract with the NFL expired. Revenues for the brand, part of Adidas AG, fell 25 percent in the third quarter and 20 percent year-to-date.

“We do see encouraging signs for the brand, particularly in markets led by our own retail and controlled-space initiatives,” said Adidas’ Hainer. It opened its first Reebok Fitness Hub in the U.S., this summer, on Fifth Avenue in New York. “Our Classics business is moving into a sustainable upward trend, [having increased] double digits in the third quarter, supported by strong new product introductions such as those with new brand ambassador Alicia Keys.”

Sportswear Top 10

1. Old Navy
2. Levi Strauss
3. Nike
4. Lee
5. Gap
6. Calvin Klein
7. Aéropostale
8. Adidas
9. Wrangler
10. Reebok