Russell Breaks Out of the Middle School Locker Room With Its First Store

(Bloomberg) -- Russell Athletic, the Warren Buffett-owned sportswear brand, wants to step off the field and onto the street.

The 117-year-old apparel maker that claims to have invented the sweatshirt is opening its first-ever store on Thursday, situated in Manhattan’s tony SoHo district. It’s a far cry from the sports field or the aisles of big-box stores, where customers might be used to seeing a brand better known for durable-yet-dowdy activewear. The question now is whether a clothing line that your high-school gym teacher wore can reach the TikTok generation.

By aiming younger, Russell is taking a page from the playbook of rival Champion, another old-school sportswear maker that’s thrived in recent years thanks to the popularity of throwback, logoed apparel and a burgeoning resale market. Champion, owned by HanesBrands Inc., opened its first U.S. store last year, offering on-site customized garments alongside its traditional hoodies. Russell may be late to the retro game, but its leadership still thinks the brand with its ubiquitous “R” logo has a shot.

“We deserve the right to be playing in this space and, frankly, leading it,” said Russell’s senior director of marketing Greg Galbraith.

Russell Breaks Out of the Middle School Locker Room With Its First Store

Russell’s revival faces other challenges. Wells Fargo analysts recently said that the retro trend—where shoppers buy up styles popular during the Reagan and Clinton administrations—has reached its peak. Galbraith disagrees, saying Russell’s comfortable gear won’t go out of style.

Several tailwinds could support Russell’s decision to move beyond its traditional wholesale business and reach shoppers directly after more than a century without standalone stores. The athleisure trend has goosed demand for comfort over more constraining clothes, and throwback sweatshirt designs are now prominent on online secondary apparel markets, which have grown in popularity amid mounting criticism of the throwaway nature of fast-fashion purveyors.

That’s a brave new world for Bowling Green, Kentucky-based Russell, which spent most of its history producing thick glossy catalogs of team uniforms for coaches to thumb through. Its comfortable sweaters and hoodies have already spread from athletic fields to campus bookstores, plus retailers like Walmart Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired the business in 2006, adding it to its other apparel holdings like Fruit of the Loom.

Russell Breaks Out of the Middle School Locker Room With Its First Store

In recent years, though, the company’s leadership sought to have a more direct connection with consumers. Although Russell still outfits teams across 1,000 U.S. schools, that portion of the business is now handled by another sportswear maker that churns out gear under the Russell brand. That allows the Russell team—which grew headcount 17% in the past year—to focus on new ventures like the pop-up shop, where the majority of merchandise will be its core sweatshirts.

If the SoHo store works during its limited October run, Russell could open more pop-up shops or even a permanent store. And in a nod to who its crosshairs are set on, Russell’s 2,500-square-foot store will open just down the block from Champion’s New York City location.

“If the time is now for a category that we invented,” Galbraith said, “we need to be out there putting our stake in the ground.” 

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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