On June 16, The Houston Chronicle published a story with a headline that is the stuff of publicists’ nightmares: “Stephen Curry's Under Armour Shoes Among Ugliest Basketball Shoes of All-Time.” The latest sneaker the sportswear giant released in conjunction with the NBA MVP, the all-white “Chef” Curry 2 Lows, had received a brutal, near-universal roasting everywhere from the feeds of Twitter trolls and sneaker blogs all the way to the late night monologues of Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert. The general consensus was that they were, in a word, awful.
But save for some embarrassment—and allegedly, a few people’s jobs—one unfortunate-looking sneaker doesn’t matter that much. Under Armour, founded by current CEO Kevin Plank in 1996, is on track to sell $160 million worth of Curry’s shoes in 2016, according to Morgan Stanley, and the company has set their own goal of reaching $7.5 billion in overall sales in 2018. It did, however, hurt in one area where Under Armour hasn’t gained much ground, unlike competitors Nike and Adidas: reaching the fashion-forward consumer, who expects more from their athletic brand than functional compression shirts and serviceable cross-trainers.
Luckily, Under Armour had a plan for that. In June, just a few days before the Curry 2 fiasco, the company announced that Belgian designer Tim Coppens would serve as creative director for a new line within the existing Under Armour ecosystem, called Under Armour Sportswear (UAS). By the time Fallon was workshopping “dad shoes” jokes in his writers’ room, Coppens had already logged roughly seven months toward creating and refining a collection of men’s and women’s apparel and accessories that appeal to a style-savvy consumer who may or may not already wear Under Armour in the gym. Under Armour’s goal for UAS is to extend their product offering from the court and the field to the sidewalk, the workplace, and the wardrobes of people they call well-dressed “professional millennials.” Under Armour hopes to do that relatively quickly, too; when the debut collection is revealed in full at the brand’s first New York Fashion Week presentation today, it will go on sale immediately on the brand’s own website, and will soon be available at high-end retail partners like Mr. Porter and Barneys.
“Everybody wonders what this will be,” Coppens, 39, says three days before the presentation, sitting down in the small UAS showroom space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “It’s not athleticwear. It’s stuff that you can wear on the street.”
The first taste of what UAS will be suggests a streamlined, grown-up assortment of subtly stylish tailored pieces alongside sweatpants and hoodies, many with baked-in performance features like water-repellency and extra elasticity for movement. Primary layers, like T-shirts, are priced at $59, with coats topping off at $1,500.
If all of this reminds you of a certain A-word that has haunted the fashion industry for a few years now, you’re not entirely wrong. “The athleisure thing is a bit played out,” concedes Sam Lobban, buying manager at Mr. Porter. “But in real terms, ‘athleisure’ was a made up marketing spin on product which guys have been wearing for some time. It was a way of labeling this more fashion-forward, very casual sportswear. Guys still want to wear that stuff.”
"it says a lot about the thought behind the product, rather than just, ‘OK, let’s get a celebrity behind this.'" -Tim COppens
Although Coppens is firmly outside of the target millennial demographic, he’s as good a poster boy for making this category of clothing look cool as anyone else. He’s most commonly spotted in a T-shirt and sneakers, and he still maintains the lean build from his days as a skater in the ‘90s, with a close cropped haircut and light stubble. He carries himself with the same type of easygoing confidence that he looks for in his cast of multicultural, approachably edgy UAS models, whose oversized, framed photographs decorate the showroom walls. The models—all athletic, but not jacked—are part of the distinct branding and design point of view Coppens has bestowed upon UAS to separate it from Under Armour proper. “I think it looks great,” Coppens adds, surveying the collection as it hangs on sparse metal racks. “It’s not something that people will expect to see.”
The same could be said for Coppens helming the new arm of a surging sportswear powerhouse. The surprise at his appointment is not for a lack of fashion world credibility; Coppens graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in 1998, the same school that educated Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, and Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia. After launching his namesake label in 2011, Coppens won the Ecco Domani Award for Best New Menswear Designer the following year, took home the CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2014, was an LVMH Prize finalist, and was nominated for a 2015 CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award. Instead, the element of surprise comes from the fact that, at a time when Puma is putting Rihanna front and center with her own runway-ready collection and Adidas is investing a significant sum in Kanye West, Under Armour is pinning its hopes on a designer with limited name recognition to carry a business it says could one day be worth $15 billion.
“My album is coming out next week,” Coppens jokes. He views Under Armour’s decision to hire a bona fide designer, rather than a famous figurehead, as a sign that the company is looking to build UAS into a legitimate brand with long-term prospects. “To me, it says a lot about the seriousness and thought behind the product. Thinking about what that product has to be, rather than just, ‘OK, let’s get a celebrity behind this.’”
Ben Pruess, president of sports fashion at Under Armour, who has been working closely with Coppens on UAS, agrees. “It comes back to us being clear about authenticity,” he says. “When we were talking about this ‘professional millennial,’ this ambitious generation that is ready to leave a mark on their own, the authenticity comes from working with a real, credible fashion designer. They don’t need the pop culture [star] to empower them. They’re out of adolescence.”
Coppens comes to UAS with a resume full of relevant experience. He and Pruess first met years ago in, as Pruess jokes, “a small town in Germany”—a reference to when both worked at Adidas’ HQ in Herzogenaurach in the aughts. Coppens was a leader in conceptual development there, and later spearheaded Ralph Lauren’s RLX performance line before going solo. Coppens’ own label—which will continue to exist under his leadership—never dips wholeheartedly into true performance wear, but often features an athletic influence; his Spring 2017 collection, for example, was inspired by skatewear and judo. Another trademark of his, the juxtaposition of contrasting fabrics, is reflected in the UAS collection, too, bridging the gap between both projects. “That’s the main thing,” says Lobban. “Whilst we didn’t expect Tim to suddenly become the creative director of Under Armour, it was seamless. It felt like a very good move.”
It was a good move for Coppens’ eponymous label, too. “Having this allows me to be freer within my brand and to take bigger risks,” he says. “They might not be risks [now], but they were risks when I didn’t have this, because you really have to focus on your own brand as the main way of income.” Coppens’ own line has a cult following: It’s been spotted on celebrities like Common, Diplo, and Bella Hadid, and Desiigner wore one of his T-shirts in a recent Interview Magazine spread. But it doesn’t have the type of heat that keeps it top of mind for retailers or consumers.
“When I think of Tim Coppens, I also think of Patrik Ervell,” says Lawrence Schlossman, brand manager at Grailed and former editor of Four Pins, referring to the menswear label that debuted a few years before Coppens' collection. “I look at them as two menswear designers in New York who were a little bit ahead of their time, trend-wise. Sales and reception on a consumer level are reflective of him coming onto the scene a little too soon. What they were doing—more technical flips of classic menswear pieces—feels more relevant today than when they came out.”
Schlossman says that the increased visibility the UAS role affords Coppens—he is, for all intents and purposes, the face of one of the season’s biggest product launches—could reignite interest in his own label. Mr. Porter, for example, no longer stocks Coppens’ own line, but will carry about 20 UAS pieces. “Tim is getting a salary, and he can put that money back into his eponymous collection to jump-start that business [again], as well,” Schlossman says.
Conversely, if it doesn’t perform, Coppens may shoulder the lion’s share of the blame. He admits to feeling pressure in the lead up to the fashion show, but seems remarkably relaxed for a man in his position. That may be attributed in part to the confidence Under Armour has demonstrated in his ability. “If you know Tim’s background and you know his pedigree, he’s almost unlike anybody else out there,” says Pruess. “Outside looking in, I couldn’t think of a better partner.”
If enough shoppers agree, this new endeavor could pay off big time. To that end, the line already has one major fan: On a recent trip to China, Curry sported a new UAS hoodie and a tracksuit. “I think it’s nice that somebody who is an athlete for Under Armour also has a part of his wardrobe that’s been decked out,” Coppens says. “The tracksuit looks great.” Here’s hoping Twitter critics and late night comedians think so, too.
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