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NEW YORK — Serena Williams, watch out.

This story first appeared in the July 15, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

From Missy Elliott’s new collection with Adidas to Philippe Starck’s fall footwear designs for Puma, sports firms are increasingly pairing up with musicians, big-name fashion designers and celebs — not athletes — to help develop products and create buzz for their brands.

These new collaborations are helping companies connect with a broader, often younger, audience and gain wider retail distribution — and also pump up sales. Reebok, Puma, Adidas and Fila all now have collaborative collections with people outside the sports arena, and because of the success of these pioneer lines, it’s likely more will come.

“The sporting goods industry has changed dramatically over the last five years,” said Michael Michalsky, global creative director at Adidas. “Sport products used to be designed for function, and now there are influences from outside the world of sport. There needs to be fresh perspectives.”

Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey stores, which carry Y-3, the Adidas collection by Yohji Yamamoto, said, “These out-of-the-box collaborations with sport companies are exciting for fashion clients.”

Companies are taking distinct approaches when it comes to these partnerships. Reebok, for example has focused on collections with hip-hop stars like Jay-Z and 50 Cent, while Puma has deals with designers and celebs, including Starck, model Christy Turlington, Japanese designer Mihara and Neil Barrett, formerly with Gucci. Adidas’ first collection with Elliott will launch in the U.S. this fall.

Fila, meanwhile, teamed up with yoga master Jodi Guber for its line of Beyond Yoga products.

Nike, the world’s largest sport company, has ventured deeper into fashion in recent seasons with edgier and trendier looks, and it has collections with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and other athletes, although it currently doesn’t have any notable collaborations with nonathletes.

Puma was one of the earliest sports companies to tap talent outside the sports genre. The German giant first partnered with a top designer in 1998 when it teamed with Jil Sander for footwear. Puma then ushered in a wave of celebrity fashion lines when it developed Nuala with Turlington four years ago. That line was quickly picked up by stores including Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue, opening more upscale distribution for the brand.

“It’s really important to Puma to bring in new perspectives,” said Antonio Bertone, Puma’s global director of brand management. “It is rejuvenating to the brand because they come from the outside in.”

The Nuala brand, which has its roots in yoga, has now evolved to include more luxury sportswear offerings, and a secondary line with Turlington, Mahanuala, bowed this year and is designed for serious yoginis.

Puma’s collection with Neil Barrett, called 96 Hours, was introduced this spring. For fall, it will have its first ad campaign, created by Base, a New York design agency. The stark black-and-white ads show men and women in a setting designed to fuse fashion and sport, said Bertone.

While the company doesn’t break out sales of these collaborative brands, it is clearly a growth area. Futurenet, the international sales agency for Puma’s upscale labels, recently opened a showroom in New York that is exclusively devoted to the company’s collaborative efforts, marking the first time these brands have all been sold in one location in the U.S. Overall, Puma’s sales last year were $2.11 billion. While Bertone declined to reveal any specific sales information, he said Puma sees its collaborations as “an important division with growing sales.”

“The secret with these partnerships is to not overformulize them, but to let them grow organically,” Bertone added. “We like to take our time because we view them as long-term arrangements.”

Reebok, meanwhile, has been among the most active sport brands in the music arena with its two-year-old Rbk division, which houses its collaborations with artists Jay-Z and 50 Cent, and music producer-performer Pharrell Williams.

Nonetheless, the company doesn’t plan to limit itself to rap music.

“We are not trying to be the hip-hop rapper sneaker company,” said Que Gaskins, vice president of global marketing for Rbk. “What we are trying to do is connect with people that are influential to the culture and have impact. We envision the Rbk division to be the fusion of sports and lifestyle. This is the voice for Reebok that speaks to youth culture.”

While its deals have been somewhat limited — the 50 Cent and Jay-Z arrangements are just for footwear now, for example — the company is interested in taking these collaborations a step further.

“We have had such a good experience with these artists that the next one we will probably look to do is a head-to-toe arrangement that includes apparel,” Gaskins said. These collaborative brands are sold both in traditional sport stores like Foot Locker, as well as urban specialty stores including Dr. Jay’s, he noted. The brand is also scouting female artists and partners to work with.

Rbk is one of the company’s fastest-growing business segments and executives trumpet this division often on conference calls and in earnings reports. While Reebok doesn’t break out Rbk’s sales, the company said its volume surged 48 percent in 2003. Reebok’s overall sales were $3.49 billion last year.

Meanwhile, Adidas’ deal with Missy Elliott marks a new direction for the company, which has long stressed its performance and sport heritage. The Elliott line, called Respect M.E., has been picked up by such stores as Against All Odds, with 32 units, as well as Dr. Jay’s and Jimmy Jazz, an upscale urban chain of about 45 stores. Adidas officials project multimillion-dollar sales for the brand.

“We have been approached by many musicians, but we hadn’t found anyone in the entertainment industry we wanted to work with until Missy,” said Michalsky. “She is really into our brand and is often seen sporting our products. It’s a collaboration that makes sense for us.” He said the line has so far exceeded expectations and will officially launch in the U.S. in September.

Vincent Jung, athletic buyer at Against All Odds, said: “I think this is great for Adidas and will introduce [the brand] to a new customer.” Jung said the chain hasn’t carried Adidas for some time, but that this collection is fitting for his stores, which also carry urban-oriented brands like Baby Phat, Rocawear and Ecko Red.

Adidas also has had Y-3, the Yamamoto collection, for the last two years, and is expanding the label this year. For the first time, Y-3 is offering a holiday line in addition to fall and spring, and will stage its first ad campaign this fall.

“Y-3 has been totally new territory for Adidas,” said Michalsky. “In the beginning, people thought it was a novelty. But we want to develop this into a long-term label and keep expanding it.”

Jeffrey has carried Y-3 since its debut. “I love that Y-3 is from such a talented and well-respected designer, but done with such a well-known athletic brand,” said Kalinsky. “My clients love that also. They understand that they can wear a Y-3 sweat jacket with a $1,000 skirt to give it a modern spin, or they can wear the jacket as a cardigan, with jeans.

“There is a huge luxury consumer [base] that has a very active life,” Kalinsky added. “That customer loves to wear blue jeans and cashmere sweaters, and active clothes that have some sort of luxury infused.”

Fila, meanwhile, last year introduced a yoga collection with Guber, a Hollywood agent-turned-yoga master. The line brought the company new distribution, such as yoga specialty stores, and has also already been picked up by celebs like Charlize Theron and Reese Witherspoon, said Mark Westerman, Fila’s vice president of marketing.

“This is an important strategic initiative for us,” Westerman said. “It’s authentic to sport, which is important to us, and is consistent with the values of our brand.”

Westerman said that while Fila is interested in building its brand in new ways, he said the company is not looking to team up with the next up-and-coming musician or model.

“At the end of the day, we are an authentic sports brand,” he said. “We are not interested in diluting our brand. We can only do collaborations that make sense for us and that help us fill a void.”