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A soccer company scores with high fashion

Those laundry detergent commercials have it all wrong. Soccer clothes don't go straight into the wash -- they go straight to the streets, thanks to a fashion phenomenon that kicked in with the union of Victoria Adams, a.k.a. Spice Girl "Posh," and Brit soccer superstar David Beckham. And it shows no sign of clearing soon. Unlike the basketball trend, which clad kids in knicker-length shorts, or the geeky golf craze, soccer fashion is actually as stylish as it is sporty -- Jennifer Lopez wears the same brand as 10-year-old boys.

That brand is Hummel, an 81-year-old business whose clothes, bedecked with signature chevrons and bumblebees, have caused one of the biggest buzzes in the world of haute couture. Far from New York City's Seventh Avenue or the runways of Milan, Hummel operates from a humble space on Burlington's Kilburn Street. But its vision is grandiose: to revolutionize the way sport and fashion collide. "The industry said we were nuts," says Hummel America president and CEO Brian Kukon, recalling the moment when he introduced the world's first pink cleats. "Our feeling was that Hummel would ignite an industry."

From the smattering of girlish colors appearing on soccer fields to the line's iconic details showing up in gossip magazines, that ignition seems to be well underway. But will it fizzle out by next season?

In 1923 a Danish shoemaker, inspired by runners who wore spiked shoes, founded Hummel to bring similar footwear to soccer and handball players. Though it thrived through the 1970s, afterwards the company dribbled into obscurity -- until early last year. That's when Kukon, a former soccer player who had worked with Adidas and Asics during their hot streaks, came out of retirement to work for Hummel.

"All of a sudden soccer started coming back," Kukon says, recalling a couple of meetings with Diadora and Umbro, two other soccer companies that had hoped to recruit him and his marketing skills. "My feeling was, 'There's got to be a brand out there that somebody can blow the dust off of and rejuvenate.'"

After discovering that Hummel's American headquarters was only 40 minutes from his Pennsylvania home, Kukon picked up the phone, offered his consulting services and began the massive turnaround process. Hummel had been offering polyester tracksuits and other fashion items through a third party, but sales were sluggish, so Kukon bought out the licensee in an effort to streamline the business.

"The way we needed to grow this brand was always to be clear, concise, consistent," says Kukon. "Whatever we were thought of in the soccer community had to match what was thought of us in the fashion community."

After establishing a sparkling showroom with soaring ceilings in New York City's SoHo district, Kukon sought to relocate headquarters to an equally inspirational location. Hoping to be important to, rather than swallowed by, a community, he looked at small cities along the East Coast with access to major metropolitan areas, a strong and well-educated labor pool and a unique vibe.

"Burlington moved very rapidly to the top of the list," says Kukon, who had never visited the Queen City before drawing up a list of cities that included Annapolis, Maryland, and Providence, Rhode Island. Having been bumped up from consultant to president and CEO, he was quickly smitten with Chittenden County once he toured the area, met with city leaders and considered the Vermont vibe. "This state thinks it can always be independent and do whatever it needs to do to have its own identity, which matched Hummel. And Burlington -- minus the Birkenstocks -- matched Hummel."

How important was a thriving soccer community? "Not at all," says Kukon. "We don't look at anything the industry typically is doing, or other brands are doing; we can tune out all of the other stuff that's going on around us." Nor did it matter that the Green Mountain State had a reputation for grunge, and had been mocked for its lack of fashion sense in an August 2003 New York Times article. "Vermonters don't seem to think much about style," wrote Valerie Frankel during the time of Howard Dean fever. "Brace yourself, perhaps, for Timberlands and Cherry Garcia T-shirts on Inaugur-ation Day 2005."

That same month, Hummel moved into its Kilburn Street office space, which is small but bright, open and stocked with rainbows of samples. Rows of high-tech soccer gear display jerseys, shorts and cleats in everything from basic black-and-white to Carolina blue, lavender and tangerine. Meanwhile, delicate halter-tops with splashy chevron and bumblebee graphics dangle alongside tiny denim hot pants, gold satin "Geisha" jackets and "Thai" boxing pants.

Chances are, many of these fashion pieces will next appear not only in boutiques such as Fred Segal and Henri Bendel but in the pages of In Touch or Us Weekly, thanks to Hummel's current It-status. No Doubt's Gwen Stefani wore Hummel in her "Hey Baby" video, while J. Lo's chevron-flecked tracksuit earned a best-dressed nod from People. Ethan Zohn, winner of Survivor: Africa, sports Hummel nearly everywhere, it seems, and has partnered with the company to promote Grassroot Soccer for international AIDS awareness.

For Hummel, which doesn't advertise -- yet -- it's free publicity, without product placement. "People call us and say, 'You guys are doing great on MTV -- Ashlee Simpson looks great in Hummel, and Carmen Electra...'" says Kukon. "And I'm like, 'I'd love to take credit for it, but it wasn't our brainchild; they went into a store and bought it. For whatever reason, Hummel has become the brand with celebrities, and they're willing to pay for it."

Designed by both Danish artists and Burlington's Select Design, Hummel's street wear is high-end, with prices to match. A black T-shirt emblazoned with a shiny, multicolored silhouette of a stiletto-clad, nude woman leaning on a chevron, part of the spring 2005 collection, will set you back $70, while a denim hoodie vest will cost $150.

Kukon is confident that Hummel can out-maneuver the fickleness of the fashion industry and celebrities' tastes. "We're a brand that's been here since 1923, so we have heritage," he says. "And we're a two-pronged company. Between fashion and soccer you're going to have your dips and your growth, and we're not even close to being in a mature cycle yet." If fashion falters, Kukon reasons, Hummel can fall back on its core business among soccer players.

But while some athletes have swarmed around the hot, new, head-to-toe color lines, others are suffering from some sticker shock from Hummel's cleats, which range from $110 to $400. (Other brands go for $35 to $200.) "I had some hummel's [sic] last season, before they moved 'upscale,'" writes one participant in the soccerpulse.com forum. "This new line of 'vault collection' shoes is ridiculous...Who the fuck wears yellow cleats anyway?"

You'd be surprised, says Kukon. Sure, the cleats, which are hand-sewn from ultra-thin kangaroo leather (to help the player feel the ball better), appeal to well-paid athletes. "I see a player put this on, and his eyes roll in the back of his head," says Kukon. "It's the comfort factor... When you go into a Mercedes dealership, you don't ask the salesperson why this is an expensive car."

But regular folks are also buying these shoes, which are less expensive than a new pair of skis. Recently, Kukon received a call from a soccer mom in tears -- not because she was upset, but because her son had just played the game of his life in a pair of new $350 Hummel Golden Goals. "It was 7:30 in the morning," says Kukon. "I got goosebumps. I said, 'That's a great story.' I'm so glad we heard it from a mom."

While Hummel doesn't sell direct to consumers, its products are widely available in outlets across America, and the popularity stretches beyond major cities. "It's as fast as we can get it to any area in the country," says Kukon. "Wherever we are in the United States is where the kids gravitate to and the players gravitate to."

So how's Hummel faring in its own back yard? "Sometimes we've walked into The Waiting Room [in Burlington] and there's somebody wearing a Hummel jacket -- that's pretty neat -- or I'm driving down the street and I see a person wearing the pants," says Kukon.

In Chittenden County, Hummel is sold at Ecco on the Church Street Marketplace and at New Horizons in Sports, a Williston-based catalog company. Though Ecco did not return calls for comment on Hummel's appeal among downtown strollers, Kukon says his products sell as well there as they do at Amy Chan's super-stylish shop in SoHo, Manhattan.

"We like the head-to-toe color combinations," says Nancy Johnson of New Horizons. So far, the new line of colors for women has gotten a mixed reaction among soccer players -- but the tide is turning. "Out of Vermont, it's been very well accepted," Johnson says. "In Vermont, the teams seem to want to stay with traditional colors. But I do see, across the state, a handful of teams who are beginning to -- I think the word here is brave -- something different."

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About The Author

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Bio:
Sarah Tuff Dunn is a frequent contributor to Seven Days and its monthly parenting publication, Kids VT. She is the editor-in-chief of Ski Racing Magazine and the author of 101 Best Outdoor Towns.

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