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Athletic Wear: It’s Still Personal

Why customization continues to dominate athletic wear and team uniforms.

By Michael J. Pallerino, Contributing Writer

April 30, 2019

Why mess with a good thing, right? If you’re looking to define the athletic wear and team-uniform categories in 2019, look no further than where things stood last year — with customization. In a time when everybody wants to “have it their own way,” customization continues to make perfect sense for athletic apparel.

Why? Pick a reason. Designs on athletic apparel and team uniforms need to allow as much space as possible for creative embellishment — more open canvas equals more of an opportunity to customize and personalize.

“It’s fun to see how customization in athletic wear and teamwear continues to elevate with the ability to constantly change up messages and colors and to introduce new design techniques,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager for HanesBrands. “In this way, less is more. As manufacturers, we need to not over-design in a way that limits customization.”

That last sentiment — manufacturers needing to avoid over-designing — helps paint a picture of what to expect in the category for the foreseeable future. Customization now is the expected norm, driven mainly by sublimation and a desire for personalized styling and fit. Because of its overall decreasing cost and ability to create a wide variety of graphic results, sublimation is acknowledged as a go-to decoration method. Designers say it’s great for vibrant color and detail; is long-lasting; and doesn’t interfere with performance proprieties.

“Customized fit helps with overall team presentability, but more importantly, it’s the ultimate in delivering comfort,” says Jeanene Edwards, vice president, Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES Printable Apparel. “You don’t want the garment to get in the way of the player’s performance.”

Expressing Individuality
Thanks to newer, lower-cost technology, teams now can get customized styling and personalized fit. The competitive nature of the game spills over into the teamwear selection, as coaches seek styling, colors and fabric choices that offer a “cool factor” and help them stand out.

In recent years, because fashion played a major role in team sports, amateur teams wanted to emulate their heroes. It’s a trend that Adam Waugh, vice president of marketing, A4, says will continue.

“The pros in any sport represent the pinnacle of success in that sport,” he says. “It is only natural that kids and amateurs want to emulate them. But with the ability to customize becoming easier, teams and individuals at every level can have more creativity and may soon be driving some trends up to the pros.”

But Waugh says manufacturers must be careful because they can’t create the number of variations needed to satisfy the market. Instead, they can develop superior stock styles that meet the needs of most and provide options to customize through increased decoration or sublimation, so those customers can let their creativity shine.

“Decorators will still sell a ton of stock uniforms because they are high quality, readily available, often less expensive, and meet the needs of most teams and organizations,” Waugh says.

Another trend influencing looks in men’s athletic wear is streetwear. Highly stylized designs, comfort and utility continue to gain broader acceptance among consumers. Other trends to watch include the re-emergence of 1990s athletic brands and styles executed in today’s more contemporary fabrics, with military-inspired looks, such as camo backgrounds, making a play.

“As a demographic, Millennials and Gen Z are trend-conscious and express their individuality through apparel choices that fit their lifestyle and show an appreciation for design,” Edwards says. “With social media, it’s easy to follow their favorite professional sports hero. What their heroes wear on and off-field can significantly influence style preferences.”

Another future market force to consider is Generation Alpha — consumers born in 2011 and after. These young players already are on the playing field and Edwards says they will be the most fashion-conscious generation to date, presenting creative opportunities for decorators and athletic wear brands.

“Born with digital technology in hand, this generation already has global fashion bloggers their own age that they follow,” she says. “They’re breaking the rules of traditional kids’ fashion, opting instead for mini-version styles of their favorite adult.”

You Gotta Feel It
When you get right down to it, the central benefit for every person who wears athletic wear or a team uniform is performance. This continues to be a major driving factor for using synthetic fabrics in such apparel.

“Every athlete is looking for an edge,” Waugh says, “something that helps make him or her better. If the uniform can do that by keeping them cooler, maximizing mobility or enhancing recovery, then it will win. Synthetic fabrics provide those benefits in ways that cotton, for instance, just doesn’t. The blends are purpose-driven and specific to the needs of the sport.”

Synthetic fabrics offer benefits that are critical in sports, as it’s easier to engineer wicking, antimicrobial and UPF features right into the fabric. Today’s textile-construction technology can deliver these characteristics not only better than in previous generations, but also at a lower cost, Edwards says.

For those reasons, performance polyester will continue to have a strong presence in the market. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for cotton and cotton blends, which are making a comeback in some areas on the field, HanesBrands’ Davis says. Take Hanes’ X-Temp baseball tee, a retro style that features a soft, ring-spun cotton blend that also wicks moisture. Another example includes new releases to classic Champion styles, such as the ringer and baseball tees. Champion elevates these retro favorites with a lighter-weight (4.7-ounce), 100% ring-spun, textured fabric and new colors like bright sage and chalk white to add fashion pop.

In the fashion/lifestyle segment of athletic apparel and fanwear, cotton plays more of a role, too. Traditional ultra-heavyweight cotton-poly fleece now is on-trend, especially in streetwear. Color-blocking and increased use of drawcords, grommets and other trims are key.

“These styles often call for more updated fabrics with cotton and cotton blends,” Davis says.

Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at

Women & Older Consumers

Two areas to watch for growth-market potential are women and older consumers. Women, in particular, still present a significant growth opportunity for athletic apparel brands.

“Women control the majority of consumer spending and women now have a much higher sports-participation rate,” says Jeanene Edwards, vice president, Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES Printable Apparel.

For proof, she points to the 2016 Rio Olympics, which posted the highest-ever percentage of female participants (45%). In addition, more women identify as sports fans than ever before.

“Both the female team player and female fan present opportunities for decorators and — in both cases — women demand apparel designed specifically for them, not just unisex apparel sized down,” Edwards says.

Older consumers continue to be in play as well. “Older consumers are staying active longer and have a higher participation rate in sports than previous generations,” Edwards says. “They have more disposable income for apparel and equipment. This demographic will never age out of play.”