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Volume 20 No. 45
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‘Capsule collections’ tie MLS clubs to fashion

D.C. United players Luciano Acosta, Lloyd Sam and Steven Birnbaum and members of the Screaming Eagles supporters group (Mitchell & Ness).
Courtesy of: MLS (3)
While at a wedding in Mexico, Denver-based clothing company and boutique Jiberish co-founder Pete Drago was introduced to an MLS employee by his wife. Aware of the league’s work with several brands he’s familiar with — and knowing that Colorado Rapids players shopped at his store — he commented over drinks that he’d be interested in working on a project together, an idea he thought wouldn’t go further than the bottom of that glass.

Returning to work on Monday, he got an email from MLS. Soon afterward, he found himself in conversations with the league’s licensing team, and then in a design process with the Rapids. The collaboration culminated in an 11-piece collection released earlier this season.

“To see this level of awareness about what is going on in the fashion world from a large organization like MLS is really cool,” Drago said.

This “capsule collection,” as the league calls it, is one of 19 between brands and the league’s clubs since 2013 and is part of MLS’s effort to reach new fans through fashion.

“It helps create noise and buzz in the markets, and gives the clubs and players another opportunity to talk about a side of themselves, potentially with a certain audience that may not be part of their fold at the moment,” said Maribeth Towers, MLS senior vice president of consumer products.

Stefan Frei of the Seattle Sounders (Reigning Champ).
For Sporting Kansas City, which released the league’s latest collection last month with soccer streetwear brand Live Breathe Futbol, fashion has been a key piece of its marketing messaging, especially as it competes with the local NFL and MLB teams.

“In a competitive sports marketplace here in Kansas City, making really relevant statements about fashion has been something that has helped us penetrate into the culture,” said John Moncke, Sporting Kansas City vice president of stadium and brand revenue. “Having stylish, fashionable products as opposed to some other licensed merchandise is one of the things that has helped make us successful.”

By their nature, capsule collections are limited runs of just a small number of products, usually featuring unique designs or fabrics not often seen in other branded merchandise. Towers said that while that limits the revenue opportunity for the clubs, it does not hamper the intended effect.

“It’s more about the halo effect for both parties in terms of brand messaging and brand equity,” she said.

Brendan Hannan, LA Galaxy vice president of marketing, communications and digital, said the two collections that the club has done further builds upon its efforts to permeate the fashion and art subcultures in the city. “Working with brands that have appeal within your local community and to a bigger national audience can only open more doors for your brand,” he said. “To be able to reach the pop culture audience that are on blogs like HypeBeast and Highsnobiety gives us another way to differentiate ourselves and tell a story.”

Towers said that because the agreements are solely for a single collection of limited items, MLS has not had any issue forging the agreements, which are also quite common in the fashion industry. Typically, the clubs and the brands will split the revenue from the collection, each offering half of the line at their individual retail channels, often a team store at the stadium and in the retailer’s brick-and-mortar location.

Gerso Fernandes of Sporting Kansas City (Live Breathe Futbol).
Towers said that while Adidas, the league’s official apparel provider, had “perhaps a little trepidation” as the league moved more into this area, it quickly understood the hyperlocal branding exercise, especially as MLS clubs worked with brands Adidas itself had done capsule collections with. Those include Reigning Champ, which the league now does an annual collection with around the previous year’s MLS Cup winner.

Fourteen of the league’s 22 teams have now done at least one collection, and Towers said MLS’s goal is to have all teams have at least one, as well as expand into other product categories. Typically, the collections have centered on T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats.

It also allows the clubs and leagues to take a different approach to marketing, giving them the opportunity to create lookbooks and host invite-only launch parties. Players have also gotten more involved in these collections, ranging from posing in promotional images to designing some of the pieces themselves. NYCFC defender Ethan White photographed all of the images for the club’s collection with Mitchell & Ness.

Drago said the gradual blending of athletics and fashion that has helped fuel trends like streetwear and athleisure has aided Jiberish’s collaboration with the Rapids. More leagues and teams are paying attention to the trend.

“The day after the collection launched, we got a message from another one of Denver’s teams who said, ‘We have to do something like this with you too,’” he said. “The reach that fashion can provide sports is something it seems everyone is becoming aware of.”