College clothing is more popular than ever among Europe’s youngsters. But how much of the original U.S. on-campus look is still visible in street styles today? We took a closer look at the fascination with “college fashion.”
“I love college.” The lyrics by American rapper Asher Roth from his 2009 hit of the same name has become the benchmark for young, trend-conscious fashion consumers. A collegiate look typically features raglan shirts, sweaters, polo shirts or T-shirts graced with oversized lettering or logos of the most popular brands of the segment. These are worn with chinos or sweatpants, and for girls, sometimes a flared skirt with knee-high socks. All of it combined with the requisite baseball cap. And the most significant trend piece of all: the college jacket. This look, now a staple in everyday American life, is becoming more and more popular in Europe.
If it was brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Gant who first supplied Europe with preppy fashion in the ’80s and ’90s, a new wave of American brands such as American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister came to Europe in the noughties and have quickly captured the hearts of Europeans who wanted to have the All-American look. Wearing clothes with the Abercrombie moose was once proof of having visited the States–but in 2007, the brand started its European expansion with its first store, in London. Now also on this side of the Big Pond teenagers loyal to A&F standd in long lines to breathe some strongly perfumed, Californian store air and buy relatively unspectacular, but highly American leisurewear. But what is it about the product that fascinates customers?
In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch and its subsidiary Hollister, it is certainly the perception that having these clothes automatically makes you one of the “attractive all-American kids with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” as CEO Michael Jeffries defined his company’s target group in a 2006 interview. According to Luca Innocenzi, chief marketing officer of Italian label Franklin & Marshall, “The fascination comes from the world behind the college look: team spirit and the aura and ambition of young students who have just set out to define their future for themselves. The idea of an active and athletic lifestyle also plays an important role.” Christian Arkins, creative director of the McGregor sportswear brand, also attributes the enthusiasm for a collegiate look with its underlying image. “It’s the smart-ease of it all. Students never take themselves too seriously and shouldn’t if you asked me. This look does just that: It’s intelligent, sporty, preppy, cool, timeless and comfortable all at the same time.”
European fashion labels have long been aware that these qualities capture the imagination of more than just North Americans in their mid-twenties. For example, Giuseppe Albarelle and Andrea Pensiero, co-founders of Franklin & Marshall, have pulled out all the collegelook stops in their collections–but with an Italian take. That 92% of their vintage sportswear is manufactured in Italy is a commitment to quality and ensures that cuts show off the body. The label’s hoodies emphasizing the waistline and its narrow sweatpants are leagues away from the loose-fitting look of old college sweats. Christian Arkins of McGregor, once the top Ivy League brand for the US East Coast that is now based in Holland, also knows “A slimmer and more modern-minimal look is important. In Europe, there is a higher demand for ‘fashion’ in the quintessential sense, for instance being a bit more trend-relevant is generally more important over here.” Is this Europe’s take on US collegiate apparel?
Founded in 2009, the French label American College’s core products are apparel displaying Brooklyn, NYC or Santa Monica prints and the prototypical letterman’s jacket, but the label can still be distinguished from US brands. “The difference between American College and the ‘real’ US Amercian Colleges’ brands is about the cut, style and philosophy. We tried to give our garments a new cut, more fitted and close to the body and we try to take the college items out of the sports universe to bring them to the music, artists and moreover the urban people who love to dance and go to clubs,” explains Laurent Guiselin, founder and CEO of American College. It worked. After four years, the brand is sold in 15 countries and has–especially via its college jacket collaboration with traditional New York-based label Schott– even caught the eye of Hollywood stars such as Bradley Cooper.
The close link to sports is an integral part of the original college look. For many students, the baseball, football and basketball teams of many major US universities are the key to a professional career. It’s obvious that the name of your college and team is worn on clothes with pride. Within Europe, this level of attachment to a school can be seen, if at all, at elite universities in England such as Cambridge and Oxford. Even if some European college brands also get involved in team sports (Franklin & Marshall, for example, sponsor an Italian rugby squad and a Spanish basketball team), this is less critical to their success in Europe. What counts with the currently popular college look is not the name of a given university or the success of one athletic team, but the outlook on life conveyed by the sweatshirts, preppy polo shirts and other items. This attitude is bravely and humorously, or even ironically, included in the outfit. The varsity jacket sometimes takes the place of a blazer, or a football jersey and sweater are combined with a sequined skirt. That is how the college look works in Europe just now, and ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the brand behind it is Tommy Hilfiger, Superdry, Lyle & Scott, Urban Outfitters or 21 by McGregor and whether it is from Connecticut or Cannes.
Still somehow Europe’s fascination with the American way of life and matching look does have its limits after all. Plans by Abercrombie & Fitch to open a children’s clothing store in prestigious Savile Row in Mayfair, London, were recently scuttled through protests by Savile Row Bespoke Association and a ruling by the Westminster City Council. It seems there are still boundaries between the US and Ye Olde Europe.