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Panther chic: Aeropostale helps Pitt's coaches, athletes sport hipper styles

Thursday, August 02, 2001

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Pitt football Coach Walt Harris strides along the sidelines at Heinz Field this fall, take a minute to check out what he's wearing. No, not the headset. The clothes.

"He's going to look much hipper than he did in previous years," promised Chris Finazzo, senior vice president and general merchandising manager for Aeropostale.

No offense, but this clothier to the teen market is confident its fashions will re-make the man.

Aeropostale (pronounced: Air-O-Post-Al), a New Jersey-based chain that operates more than 240 stores, has become the tailor of choice for Pitt's coaches on the sidelines and athletes in training. That means several hundred University of Pittsburgh's athletes -- from running backs to gymnasts -- will get practice gear bearing the Aeropostale label.

The mall-based chain, which targets the 13- to 22-year-old crowd, knows the value of partnering with sports teams. It has been building collegiate relationships for the past couple of years, sponsoring events and scholar programs with conferences such as the Big East, Big Ten and Conference USA.

Students on campuses already wear the retailer's clothes -- a line heavy on sweat shirts, sweaters and casual pants. But Aeropostale hadn't done an official collection for a school before getting the call from Pitt.

The Oakland school's contract with the Champion brand expired this year, so Pitt decided to talk to other vendors, said Rex Hough, assistant athletic director for corporate marketing. Aeropostale had done some work with the university last year.

There wasn't much time to design the Pittsburgh styles. As Aeropostale Chairman Julian R. Geiger remembers it, Hough called in March and the new lines were to start arriving last week.

As part of the development process, the retailer held a focus group with a panel of student athletes. "We basically left the room," said Pitt's Hough.

One thing they wanted was clothes styled for women. In the past, female athletes got by with men's sizes, usually cut too big. The new batch of clothing includes both men's and women's styles.

Other changes are more subtle. Instead of screen printing logos, Aeropostale might use full-line embroidery. Fabrics may be softer, colors adapted a bit to fit fashion trends.

Coaches got to preview the results, Hough said, but students had the most input.

Geiger said Aeropostale had already learned a lot through a program in which it gives university-approved gifts such as polar fleece pullovers to 23,000 student athletes around the country.

"When you give an athlete a gift, you want to make sure the athlete wears that gift," said Geiger. It doesn't help the company nearly as much if the clothes show up on a younger sibling or even a parent.

Sports-related apparel is a big market. Total sales this year are projected to reach $11.57 billion, up 4.5 percent from last year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

And for a company hoping to dress young people, an association with college athletes can be very valuable. Just ask Nike and Adidas.

Aeropostale is looking for exposure from the University of Pittsburgh connection, even if it's not going to be part of official team uniforms. Its logo will be on all the clothing, although much smaller and less obvious than the dominant Panthers presence.

It also has signed on as a major sponsor whose ads will be up on the sign boards at Heinz Field during Pitt games. Financial details of the arrangement weren't released.

Besides building its local presence, the clothier could get respectable sales from Panther fans. The new line will be available at the University of Pittsburgh bookstore on campus, game-day stores at Heinz Field and certain Aeropostale stores. Officials had planned to put more in the company's area stores, but the university outlets ordered more than they expected.

If the trial program works out, Aeropostale may eventually take its services to other universities.

What will Coach Harris be wearing at that first Heinz Field game Sept. 1? He'll have a variety of styles to choose from, depending on his mood and the weather.

Perhaps a chest-striped pique polo shirt with a Panthers logo on the chest and khakis designed specially for him. Or he might grab the new jacket with the Panthers logo on the back and doff a soft baseball-style cap done in navy and gold.

"He will," said Hough, "look good on the sidelines."

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