Blast from the past

The Inventor of the Sweatshirt Is Now Making a Premium Line


May 31, 2019 Style By

“The year was 1926 and a college quarterback named Benjamin Russell Jr. was tired of chafing. Tired of asking a wool sweater to do cotton’s job. So he worked with his father to invent the sweatshirt, and in so doing invented arguably the most versatile clothing item of all time.”

So goes the origin story of Russell Athletic, proudly displayed on the front page of its website. Greg Galbraith, Russell’s senior director of brand communications, happily reiterated similar high points when we met on a sunny hotel patio to chat about the company. I wanted to know where Russell Athletic had come from and what the brand’s history was — how it had suddenly gone from a standard-fare athletic uniform supplier, overshadowed by behemoths like Nike and Adidas, to a hyped modern brand collaborating with the streetwear nobility at Kith.

As for athletic uniforms, Russell actually powered down its main line of on-the-field gear in 2017. This move was necessary for the brand to make a shift into what Galbraith calls “pinnacle-level sportswear,” the workout apparel and vintage-styled sweats now popular at boutiques across the country. There are still Russell Athletic uniforms being produced in 2019, but the manufacturing is handled through a partnership with Augusta Sportswear, another longtime maker of athletic gear.

You may be saying to yourself, “But wait — isn’t Russell Athletic a brand I’ve seen at Walmart?” Indeed, Russell continues to produce an affordable line of clothing exclusively for Walmart; there’s a good chance you could jump in the car right now, drive to the nearest location, and pull a Russell t-shirt off the rack. But it wouldn’t be quite the same thing as what the brand is putting its primary concentration on today.

“What we’re doing now is focusing on premium, sturdy construction with the best materials, reproducing and riffing on designs from the Russell archives,” Galbraith said. “We started to look into the heritage of the brand and there was all this great stuff — heavy knits, chenille patches, logo flocking, stuff that isn’t really done anymore.” He beamed and handed me an iPad which I used to swipe through dozens of pages of old lookbooks and catalogs picturing young athletic models from the 1960s and ’70s, decked out in Russell’s finest. It was easy to see how the brand’s new Heritage Collection is an homage to these archival pieces, and how this new range fits into the fashion market’s current obsession with nostalgia.

So with a firm grounding in its history, Russell Athletic joins the likes of sportswear favorite Champion in making modern basics that riff on timeless designs. Even the aforementioned streetwear collaboration with Kith skews classic — a sort of elevated blank-canvas situation — allowing modern designers, influencers and artists to make their marks with hand-altered one-off designs.

While items from the Russell Athletic x Kith collaboration are highly limited and sought-after, you can find the brand’s main line of colorful heritage-inspired sportswear, activewear and accessories on its website now. Prices start at just $30.

Today in Gear

The best way to catch up on the day’s most important product releases and stories. Read the Story