A Path To Reviving Heritage Sports Brands

In the thriving sportswear market, a handful of sleepy heritage brands are finding relevance again.

Kappa, Superga and K-Way — decades-old European sport and lifestyle brands whose products have iconic status, but which never rose to the status of global leaders — have mounted a turnaround after their Italian parent company, BasicNet SpA, struggled to get sales back above pre-pandemic levels last year.

By maintaining a laser-focus on marketing their most recognisable products, leaning into wholesale as sportswear giants pulled back, and by forging partnerships with sports teams and luxury fashion labels, BasicNet’s brands appear to be enjoying a renaissance: The company, which also owns American boat shoe brand Sebago, posted first-half revenues up 26 percent year-on-year, reflecting an 18 percent increase over 2019′s pre-coronavirus levels. Aggregate sales of BasicNet products (including through licensees who distribute its brands) climbed 28 percent to €568 million ($569 million) while net profits more than doubled, the company said in July.

“We don’t have to reinvent the brands every year. We don’t really have to invent anything, really, so much as we have to tell the brands’ story,” said vice president Lorenzo Boglione, whose family owns a controlling stake in the group.

“For our sports brand [ Kappa], we’re competing against humongous giants but there is always space for challengers,” he added. “Everyone knows about their strategies — where they are going in and out of markets — that leaves room for smaller players if you are fast and reactive.”

Nike and Adidas have limited their exposure to wholesale, creating a key opportunity for smaller brands to fill the gaps in their wake. In addition to BasicNet, Puma and running brand On are among other sports companies to have seized the chance to stock smaller wholesale boutiques where the giants have cut doors and reduced orders.

BasicNet has also fuelled momentum with a full slate of partnerships and collaborations: A tie-up between Sebago and Kering’s Saint Laurent was released Monday, on the heels of recent collaborations including Superga x Alaïa, K-Way x Fendi and K-Way x Comme des Garçons Play. The latter is an ongoing partnership, which BasicNet hopes could be similar to Play’s longstanding tie-up with Converse, whose heart-emblazoned high-tops are a pillar of its business.

While BasicNet’s portfolio seems to have turned a corner, economic uncertainty is on the rise. Rapid inflation, accelerated by soaring energy costs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, risks sparking a downturn, particularly in BasicNet’s home European market.

In the case of slowing consumer spending, the company is hoping that some aspirational luxury consumers may be inclined to trade down from luxury prices to its more accessible propositions like €100 K-Way windbreakers and €160 Sebago boat shoes.

“We try as much as we can to be fair on prices,” Boglione said. “If we do our job properly we can do well no matter the economic background.”

Meanwhile, Kappa is branching out of its historic focus on football with new sports sponsorships with the US snowboarding and ski team that will run through the next two Winter Olympic Games, in 2026 and 2030. It’s also producing a line of jerseys as a partner of the Formula 1 team for French carmaker Alpine.

BasicNet has also sought to solidify its business by operating more of its activities directly, reducing its dependence on licensees by acquiring key distributors including the operating company for K-Way France earlier this year. “It’s the fastest-growing brand of the business, and a big part of that growth is now coming from our own retail stores,” Boglione said.

The Turin-based group is also set to open a new campus in Milan, which will include not just showrooms and offices, but also a restaurant and 10 apartments. The aim is to increase BasicNet’s attractiveness as an employer, as well as its convenience for wholesale buyers and licensees. “In Italy, the talent for our industry is in Milan—it’s hard to take them outside that ecosystem. And when you want to attract talent from [outside Italy], it’s easier to bring them to Milan,” Boglione said.

BasicNet is set to inaugurate the new campus Wednesday during Milan Fashion Week.

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