NEW YORK — Two well-known sport companies with different heritages are pumping up their women’s businesses and extending their brands into new arenas. The Danish company Hummel has just launched performance women’s soccer apparel and is going deeper into fashion-forward streetwear, while Boston-based New Balance is courting women with an expanded selection of activewear and new licensed categories as it seeks to modernize its image and build its brand.
Here, a closer look at their strategies.
While attire for sports such as tennis and golf has gotten more fashion forward in recent years, soccer hasn’t exactly followed suit. But Hummel is shaking up the look of the sport with items such as pastel pink apparel and footwear, and high-end cleats that sell for $400 a pop. This spring marks the first time in its 80-year history that the company has sold performance attire for women, which is now only available in the U.S. and Japan.
“People thought we were crazy when we came out with the pink cleats — we took a huge risk,” said Brian Kukon, president and chief executive officer of Hummel’s U.S. division, in an interview at the company’s new showroom in SoHo here. “But we feel we can achieve fashion consciousness through soccer.”
Hummel’s performance business is being helped by overall growth in the soccer arena. In 2003, soccer equipment and apparel racked up sales of about $245 million at wholesale in the U.S., about $10 million more than the previous year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
Hummel, which is privately held and has sales of about $140 million, is one of the oldest and best-known soccer brands in the world. It was started in 1923 in Aarhus, Denmark, as a soccer footwear company and in the Seventies expanded into apparel, including jerseys and shorts, and also began selling in the U.S. and other international markets. The company faced mismanagement and sales problems in the Eighties and scaled back its U.S. operations, but a new chief executive officer, Soren Schriver, took over in 1993 and quickly began to modernize and update Hummel with more fashion-forward offerings.
Two years ago, Hummel decided to try again in America and opened a subsidiary here. Kukon, a former Adidas executive, started off consulting for the brand, and was brought in-house last April to head up the North American operations. He oversees a team of 10 people who are based in Burlington, Vt., a city he describes as similar to Aarhus. The company takes a two-part approach to the business by selling fashion and performance apparel that don’t cross paths, Kukon said.
The brand is now sold in about 75 stores in the U.S., including specialty soccer stores for the performance line, as well as Saks Fifth Avenue and boutiques such as Amy Chan for the fashion offerings. The U.S. business accounts for less than 10 percent of overall sales; however, plans call for it to grow to 20 percent of the overall business in the next five years, Kukon said.
The women’s performance apparel is available in 10 colors, which are available in coordinating shorts, tops, long pants, jackets, footwear and even backpacks in the same hues and designed to be worn as a head-to-toe look. The tops have the company’s signature Hummel chevron marks on the sleeve, while footwear includes cleats and matching fashion footwear. Wholesale prices for the performance apparel are $14 for shorts, $22 for jerseys and $50 for matching warm-ups.
“Women’s soccer can be very conservative,” observed Rebecca Henderson, marketing and merchandising manager at Big Toe, a soccer retailer based in Madison, Wis., which picked up the women’s performance merchandise this season. “Hummel has added something new to the market with the colors and the idea of head-to-toe dressing. The company’s penetration in the business continues to grow, and we are finding that even people who don’t play soccer want the shoes.”
Hummel is also delving deeper into fashion. The direction of the line comes from Christian Stadil, who founded the fashion division in 1997 and is the son of Hummel International owner Thor Stadil. Its fashion offerings include polyester track suits and fitted sweats, as well as zip-up jackets and even some denim, and carry wholesale prices from about $25 to $100. “We have seen that it is a good alternative to Juicy Couture,” said Amy Doidge, a buyer at the Amy Chan boutique in Manhattan. “People are starting to catch on to the brand more, and we are seeing increased interest in it and more recognition. We have bought more for fall.”
While Hummel shuns advertising and doesn’t actively seek out celebrities, some big-name stars have been seen sporting the brand recently, including Carmen Electra and Jennifer Lopez, which has helped cement Hummel as a fashion label, Kukon noted.
In another development, this fall the company will introduce MLS Originals, a licensed line consisting primarily of T-shirts based on the heritage of the brand and of MLS soccer, Kukon said.
After facing a sales dip in the U.S. in recent years, New Balance is moving far beyond its roots as a sneaker maker.
The privately held firm earlier this year signed seven licensing deals to expand its business in areas such as eyewear, socks, bags and exercise equipment. In addition, New Balance is getting more serious about apparel and has taken the category in-house after previously licensing it. While NB has had apparel since the mid-Nineties, until recently it was not a big focus for the company. Apparel currently accounts for about 3 percent of total domestic company sales of $918 million, said Jim Howard, New Balance’s global apparel manager.
“We have come to the business decision that it is time for us to be a true sports brand, and that includes apparel,” Howard said in an interview. “Our five-year goal is to grow apparel to about 15 percent of the domestic business and 20 percent of the international business.”
The company’s domestic revenues slipped to $918 million last year from $935 million in 2002, but remained constant at $1.3 billion worldwide.
The apparel offerings for fall reflect the first effort for the in-house design team, Howard said. He brought the apparel design in-house when he joined the firm a year and a half ago, and there are 24 staff members dedicated exclusively to the category. Most of the offerings are performance-oriented and comprise a range of sports, with products geared toward yoga, tennis and running, as well as an “elements” collection, which is designed as loungewear. For fall, there are more colors and style twists, especially in the women’s arena.
“For women, we have oranges, blues and pinks, where in the past we were lagging when it came to color,” Howard noted. “We are also doing more with moisture management and using mesh.”
For the first time, this fall the company is introducing a zone layering system designed to move perspiration away from the body. NB apparel will also be the focus of a major advertising and marketing campaign scheduled for fall.
While New Balance has been in business since 1906, the company has been relatively low on the radar screen compared with some of its competitors, such as Nike and Adidas, which sponsor numerous teams and athletes and now offer a range of product categories. New Balance doesn’t sponsor athletes, and this year marks its first big push into licensing, a division that is headed by Edward Haddad, a 22-year veteran of the company.
“The brand has been quiet,” Haddad said in an interview. “But we see a big opportunity to build on our sports heritage and expand our brand in different categories.” He said the company projects the licensed business to hit wholesale volume of $100 million within its first few years.
Some of the categories such as socks and hats had been made in-house, but those businesses never got off the ground, since “we never really had the expertise or knowledge,” Haddad said. For now, the licensed products are focused on categories that fit in with New Balance’s sporting heritage, including performance eyewear, socks, active and casual bags and kids’ apparel. Some categories began hitting store shelves this spring, and all are sold in the same channels as the footwear and apparel, namely sporting goods chains such as Sports Authority and Gaylan’s.
“We are seeing sales growth in New Balance this year in the double digits, after having a flat, single-digit increase last year,” said Paul Tordella, owner of the Front Runners store in L.A., as well as two franchised New Balance stores. “With the licenses, they are better able to fill our needs.”