Vanessa LeFebvre joined HanesBrands in 2022 as global president of activewear, overseeing the Champion brand as well as a portfolio of brands in the apparel space, including Hanes, Alternative Apparel, and Gear for Sports. Prior to joining HanesBrands, she was senior vice president of commercial at Adidas, where she oversaw wholesale retail stores, e-commerce, and the license business.
Together we delve into her leadership approach, emphasizing the importance of maintaining the Champion brand’s heritage and culture while also embracing innovation and change to meet the demands of today’s global consumer.
FROM ADIDAS TO CHAMPION—WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO MAKE A CHANGE AND BECOME THE GLOBAL PRESIDENT OF CHAMPION AND HANES ACTIVEWEAR?
I’ve had several career stops, but being a mother and my curiosity define me. My husband’s love for change has allowed me to explore, and that’s what my career has been about. I started at Lord & Taylor in New York and worked at various places like Macy’s, TJX, Adidas, Stitch Fix, and even returned to Lord & Taylor. Now, I’m at HanesBrands, which has amazing teams worldwide and over 100 years of history. Joining a heritage brand with an undeniable mark on the industry was a no-brainer.
AS SOMEONE WHO GREW UP IN THE RETAIL INDUSTRY OVERSEEING WHOLESALE, SUPPLY CHAIN, AND LICENSING, HOW HAVE YOU NAVIGATED YOUR EXPANDED ROLE AS GLOBAL PRESIDENT, WHICH NOW INCLUDES BRAND AND MARKETING?
The interesting thing about my origin and my various stops is that they’ve given me a well-rounded view of different consumers and different segments. Lord & Taylor gave me exposure to a lot of different design houses. I love to tell people that when I first moved to New York City, I did not own a pair of jeans, but I ended up cultivating a denim department, having foresight into the journey of premium denim.
I also had an opportunity to work with Michael Kors and got great exposure in my early days to brand building, merchandising, and consumer insights. At Stitch Fix, we did not have a website, and we also did not have stores. It was such a unique relationship with consumers.
It is always about listening to the consumer, having great products, understanding their habits and desires, and creating stories to connect to them. I am always imagining where my consumer is and what they are doing in the moment that they would buy that item.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE CHAMPION BRAND AND HOW YOU ARE BRINGING IT INTO THE RELEVANCE OF TODAY’S CULTURE?
When I stepped into this role, I wanted to understand our heritage. Champion started as a sweater and knitting company in Rochester, New York, and evolved into making performance products. We trademarked the first reverse weave in the 1930s and continued to innovate, creating the reversible mesh jersey and sports bras. While it’s important to be rich in heritage, we also need to continue to innovate and expand our reach. It’s about finding the right balance between storytelling and pushing forward.
HOW DO YOU THINK OF THE CHAMPION BRAND AS A CANVAS FOR EXPRESSION?
Unlike some other brands, we can bring graphics to market in a week or two. We can do pop-ups and reactionary movements because that is what we are engineered to do. We think about how can we use our capabilities and our connection with culture to really be a canvas for creativity and purpose.
When you look at how many brands started with Champion and used our product as a mechanism and a canvas for their own creation, it’s clear there is an opportunity to expand beyond sports, music, cultural moments, festivals, etc., because that is actually what we are really good at doing.
So, if you can do NCAA, like last-minute games, you can show up and celebrate artists and communities and smaller moments that are just really personal in a more interesting way, and that is really where we want to go.
HOW HAS THE MISSION OF CHAMPION EVOLVED?
Our mission is to provide every champion with a canvas to live with purpose. Instead of viewing “champion” as a noun or something to obtain, we want to see it as a verb that connects people with their why. Our aspiration is to help people understand what truly matters to them and to inspire our consumers to not just win, but to Champion.
We have patents on the original hoodie and fleece, and these components are deeply ingrained in our brand. We’re exploring how to reinvent the hoodie and have more ownership of the category.
THE CHAMPION BUSINESS IS QUITE DECENTRALIZED, WHICH IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER BIG APPAREL AND FOOTWEAR COMPANIES. CAN YOU SHARE MORE ABOUT THE CURRENT SET-UP AND YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
In the ’60s and ’70s, we licensed the Champion name to Tokyo and Europe, creating Champion Japan and a European team overnight. We later expanded through acquisitions and now have a design team in Australia. While each market had success doing their own thing, we see an opportunity to create greater value by globalizing and we have begun that journey.
We have a new chief product officer who is working to connect all of our design teams. In spring 2024, we will bring one pinnacle range to the globe for the first time. It was no easy feat to pull off in just nine months, but the team deserves credit for working together and demonstrating how we can show up as one brand.
CREATING LOCALLY AND CONTEXTUALIZING GLOBALLY IS KEY, BUT IT MUST BE RELEVANT TO THE CONSUMER IN EACH MARKET. HOW DO YOU BALANCE LOCAL RELEVANCE WITH GLOBAL SCALE?
I think the definition of globalizing is not that we are going to do the same thing everywhere. It is so important that you have a micro-community strategy, and that means you cannot approach Europe as one market.
Even in the U.S., you need to have multiple moments and consumer approaches, and I think that is definitely something that we want to think about. But as we globalize, what we do want to do is make sure that the brand is showing up in a recognizably coherent and connected way.
In Europe, we come across as more Americana due to our MLB relationship, while in Tokyo, our focus is on high-end fashion and culture. Targeting and segmentation, including age, also differ between markets. However, we’re focusing on unifying our purpose of helping our consumers express themselves and make a lasting impact. In our stores, we are adding more mechanics to do personalization and create your own experience.
The important part is that people feel like there is a sense of who Champion is, regardless of where they are on the globe. We’re never going to lose the celebration of the regional component. There should be that component of variation, but there’s a lot of opportunity for us to have some of the same logo treatments across the globe and not uniquely represent that differently.
HOW EASY IS CUSTOMIZATION FOR YOUR BRAND?
A lot easier than it was in my past life. Honestly, it is so much of what this brand has been built on. Our brand has a strong heritage in performance sports, sponsoring NBA and college sports for a long time. Our capabilities in that space are really strong, and it is a differentiation. We have a range of capabilities, including sublimation, embroidery, burnout, and laser technology, which we want to bring to other countries. We created some of the techniques and application processes, such as flocking, that are now ingrained in our brand.
HOW DOES CHAMPION DIFFERENTIATE ITSELF IN THE SPORTSWEAR MARKET AND
WHERE DOES IT FIT IN COMPARED TO OTHER BRANDS, LIKE UNDER ARMOUR, NIKE, AND
At Champion, we are proud to have our own fabric mills and amazing innovation teams. For example, we have an amazing group in El Salvador that does innovation and technology with washes and components, which is an incredible experience to witness. We recently brought on board a new designer, Jay Escobara, who has a unique background having worked for Foot Locker, Urban, and Pacsun. He is quickly leaning in and has brought a fresh perspective on how to reimagine our icons.
In spring-–summer 2024, you’ll see the first step in our journey to reintroduce silhouettes and fabrics. We’re reimagining our icons by changing their silhouettes and fabric details to make them exciting again. We’re also playing with how our branding shows up, with a lot of attention to detail that goes beyond what most people recognize. We’re also working on some exciting partnerships, but I can’t reveal them just yet.
We’ve been on an amazing journey, and our team has pushed many boundaries. I believe that you’ll see more of our focus on craftsmanship and purpose when it comes to our icons.
WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES THAT YOU THINK ARE REALLY IMPORTANT TO BE AN
First and foremost, I think it is communication. It takes more than saying, “Hey, I need you to do this,” to really get into ensuring everybody understands our purpose, our mission, and why we are bringing about change.
The other is really listening. In my first 90 days, I visited Asia, Europe, El Salvador, and Kansas to see as much as I could. I was always asking the question, “What don’t you want to tell me but you think I should know?” I made sure it was not just the leaders that I talked to. The retail employees, the store employees, I spent a lot of time listening to customers or consumers and just taking it in, and I still do that.
There is first listening, and then there is ensuring clarity, which I think is so important. Then, lastly, hire great people and make sure all of them do not think like you.
Be honest with yourself and ask, “What am I good at? What am I not? What do I need help with?” We’re bigger in consumers’ minds than in actuality, and I want our global teams to understand our brand relevancy and push the envelope to tackle that potential. At Champion, we work hard, play hard, and go for the win.
AS A NEW BRAND LEADER, HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO GET YOUR NEW TEAMS ONBOARD
WITH YOUR VISION OF THE BRAND AND COMPANY CULTURE?
It’s important to showcase our goals and get people to speak up. One of the first things I did was change the dress code, which still makes me laugh because I’ll be forever known as that person.
I learned on my first day that there was a dress code because I was wearing sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, and we had had a more conservative approach to certain components of our business. It’s just one example of the little symbolic things that you can do to get people to understand your culture.
We have a young professionals group at HanesBrands. I suggested we have an internal conversation about culture and generational differences. We just invited everybody to a conversation. I was part of it. But they took the lead, and talked about why they were different from other generations.
It’s the small details versus the big ones that you need to inspire people—that you’re hearing them, that you’re believing them, and that you’re with them on the journey. We’re part of this brand, a consumer experience, and a culture that’s bigger than any one person.
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