We listed Russell Athletic Archive as one of the brands to watch this year back in June. We fed you a very brief introduction, and now that you've met formally, here's an interview with one half of the duo that spearheads the brand, Russ Gater. Gater, alongside Daniel Savory, are designing a "vintage" collection for the iconic brand and reacquainting shoppers with the golden age of true sportswear. Fabrics are not of this time and designs are not of this era, but they have resurrected the beauty and practicality of Russell's archive garments. We had a chance to speak with Russ about the line, what sets it apart from the rest of the company, and what's to come for SS14.
What is the mission behind the collection?
Our number one goal is really to tell the stories behind such an important brand. The t shirt and sweatshirt are almost taken for granted as some timeless design thats always been around, they're completely multifunctional garments that transcend all cultures, races and walks of life, everyone owns a t shirt and a sweatshirt. What the majority of people don't know is that these designs can be specifically traced back to the Russell Manufacturing Company that started out in Alabama in 1902. Not only were they the first athletic wear brand but Benjamin Russell was the first to adapt woollen undergarments in cotton sports garments in the early 1910's. As vintage collectors and designers, this is what we're passionate about, the narratives behind individually pieces of clothing that essentially changed the world.
How is it differentiated from the competition?
I think there are a lot of great brands out there (mostly Japanese) that drawn inspiration for vintage sportswear and do amazing jobs of replicating those garments, however many of those are amalgamations and hybrids created for contemporary markets. What we offer is an exact replica of an original Russell garment from a specific period right down to the neck label weave density and rayon construction. Every garment in the collection and every graphic or applique is based on an original piece, there is no artistic license here, just straight reproductions for a discerning consumer. One of the main differences is the fabrications, with John Lofgren we've gone right back to the source and developed the garments on authentic period hanging looms that were used at the time, every fabrication element has been specifically developed for this project.
Who is John Lofgren, and why did you appoint him to the brand?
It wasn't really a case of appointing John, it was more the fact that there was only one partner I'd consider for this project. John and I worked together previously on a series of Heritage Research collabs and prior to that I was a customer of his and a fan of his own Lofgren line. For me it was a natural decision to ask John to be part of this.
John is a native Californian who cut his chops in the vintage clothing industry in the 80s and 90s, he relocated to Japan around 14 years ago and opened one of the best stores out there in my opinion, Speedway in Sendai. Since then he's focused on developing his own John Lofgren brand using the finest fabrications and workshops in Japan, in terms of authenticity and quality nothing comes close. The combination of Johns product knowledge with the level of production skill in Japan makes for a seriously beautiful garment, probably the reason why his clothing is a favourite among discerning collectors and serious revivalists worldwide. Everyone should own a pair of his Engineer Boots, best out there!
What's the Inspiration for SS14?
SS14 is a starting point, so introduces the basic ideas behind 3 different stages in the Russell history books built around 3 different eras of Russell t shirts and sweatshirts.
The 1940's - it was around this time that Russell's 'Athletic' division really began to develop and start supplying team apparel for baseball, football and basketball. It was also in this period that the company secured US military contracts to supply shirts, drawers, t-shirts, athletic garments and special outer garments for the US Army and Navy.
The 1960's - by then, the 'Athletic' division was the largest marketer and manufacturer of athletic apparel and uniforms in the country. In 1962, Russell Manufacturing Company's name was changed to Russell Mills, Inc and held the accolade of being the only athletic apparel supplier to have contacts with all 8 of the Ivy League Universities.
And the 1980's - it was during this revolutionary decade that the concept of streetwear really developed and Russell found a whole new customer base around the World looking for authentic American sportswear. By the 80's Russell was the uniform provider for the majority of the NFL and all MLB teams securing the companies place in sports history as the first brand to do this.
What is special about this line in comparison to the main Russell Athletics line?
I would say they're at completely different ends of the spectrum. The Russell Athletic main line is what you'd expect from a 111 year old corporate company, its a large line aimed at a basic sports consumer, the branding is diluted yet retains original elements but is focused on value and volume. The RA Archive collection is made up of very specific product focused on fabrications and details and aimed at a very discerning end of the market. The sheer depth of product and fabric development in Japan by John Lofgren has ensured that these products will exist in the top tier of the industry and appeal to people who have same high expectations of product as we do.
What interests you the most about vintage apparel and goods?
That's a question that requires a long and detailed answer! I'll keep it short though - design, quality and patina. Design because the majority of vintage garments that interest me were made for a specific purpose and designed with that in mind, they weren't fashion but functional clothing made to protect and endure. Quality because in days gone by things were made to last and take some real wear and tear, in todays transitory fashion world nothings made to last more than a season. Patina because like a lot of other collectors the thing that really interests me is the lives that these pieces have led which is illustrated by the wear, marks, holes, patches and fading that tells their story. There's nothing better than a trashed sun faded 50 year old sweatshirt thats still going strong!
What should people be on the lookout for from Russell Athletic in SS14 and beyond?
For me the key pieces are the beach cloth 1930's shawl collar Coach's Jacket, the 1940's Herringbone Ballcaps and the Attached Hood Parka sweatshirt. All 100% authentic Russell Southern Co pieces reproduced in exacting detail in Japan by Lofgren. Going forward we'll be looking at some of the very interesting projects Russell had going on for the US Military during WW2, introducing outerwear from various periods in the brands history and focusing on more specific Collegiate athleticwear and footwear.