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Fashionable apparel for fans in spotlight

Small, innovative designers struggle to get their looks seen

By BROOKE SCHULTZ, Associated Press/ Report for America
Published: February 17, 2024, 6:05am

It started as a fun project. A white bodysuit, emblazoned with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning’s number and initials.

Taylor Damron had made it for her cousin, Browning’s girlfriend Stephanie Niles, to wear to the Jan. 7 game against the Cleveland Browns. Then, the outfit went viral.

“The next day, I woke up, and the world had kind of fallen in my lap,” Damron, 29, says.

Damron’s design rocketing to internet fame is just one story of how women’s fan apparel has found itself in the spotlight. Just a few days later, Taylor Swift would don a red puffer jacket with boyfriend and Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce’s number for his game against the Miami Dolphins. Within a month, that jacket’s designer, Kristin Juszczyk, would score an NFL licensing deal.

These meteoric success stories have illustrated the potency of a market for women’s sports apparel that merges fashion and fan culture. They have also highlighted how hard it is for smaller, independent creators to break into the business — especially Black designers, who popularized and innovated sportswear-as-womenswear two decades ago.

Before Swift catapulted Juszczyk’s clothes to a new level of attention, the 29-year-old designer built a following online by repurposing jerseys into more high-fashion pieces — corsets, suits, skirts — for herself as she attended San Francisco 49ers games to support her husband, fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Her NFL chic couture has spread to other players’ partners and supporters across the league, including Simone Biles, Taylor Lautner and Brittany Mahomes.

Before Juszczyk sent Swift and Mahomes jackets for the Jan. 13 game, she had about 100,000 followers, according to Social Blade. Within a month, she had more than 1 million.

With her official license in hand, Juszczyk designed puffer vests commemorating Super Bowl LVIII, sported by celebrities. One such vest sold for $75,000, with proceeds going to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Juszczyk herself wore a jacket stitched from jerseys, an ode to her husband’s football career, for Sunday’s big game.

While players’ wives and girlfriends have long represented their partners with custom designs, adopting team colors, logos and numbers, the interplay of fashion and game day apparel was energized in the ’90s and early aughts, when Black artists were “pushing the needle of what was cool and trendy,” says Tayler Adigun, a culture and style writer.

“A lot of up-and-coming entertainers in the Black sphere maybe had difficulty getting larger names or fashion houses to want to outfit them or costume them for events and award shows and performances, so they kind of had to be a little bit more innovative in their approach,” Adigun says. “It’s something that was definitely born out of necessity.”

It led to a fusion of sportswear, fan merchandise and cutting-edge design, she says. And, of course, iconic looks: Mya’s blue North Carolina jersey dress was one. Then there was Mariah Carey in a floor-length Washington Wizards dress. Carey’s dress prompted a surge of interest and the NBA increased the designs they had in their NBA4her collection, according to a 2003 Baltimore Sun article.

When Larena Hoeber began doing research on women and sports, she didn’t set out to study apparel. But women kept bringing up how difficult it was to find something they actually wanted to wear to rep their teams. A decade ago, licensed women’s merchandise was often made with three key principles: “pink it, bling it, shrink it,” Hoeber says.

Sports leagues not taking risks on smaller creators is to their own detriment, says Hoeber, a University of Regina professor who has written about women’s sportswear and its perceptions. Smaller designers sometimes understand the market, and women’s varying desires, better.

“What’s really critical for women, I think, as sports fans, is they want the official logo, like they want it to look like, ‘This is it. I’m supporting my team,’” she adds. “So they want that, but they want it in clothing that matches their style.”

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