Fashion

How Alyssa Milano Created a Fan-Gear Fashion Empire for Women


How Alyssa Milano Created a Fan-Gear Fashion Empire for Women

Photograph by Ramona Rosales for Bloomberg Businessweek

Alyssa Milano isn’t crazy about pink. “I was in Dodger Stadium, and I was freezing—it was the beginning of the season, before the poop smell sets in,” says the star of TV’s Who’s the Boss? and Charmed, recalling a baseball game she attended eight years ago. “I went into the store to get something warm to wear. And I was offended.” The only color available in women’s clothing was pink. “Their answer for female sports apparel back then was ‘pink it and shrink it.’ It was either that or buy something from the kids’ section. Which I did. I got a kid’s hoodie.” In Dodger blue.

Milano, 40, figured she could do better than the mini Pepto-Bismol tees. So in 2007 she paid a fashion illustrator to draw some less boxy, team-color-appropriate clothing. Her agent happened to be friends with someone at Major League Baseball’s marketing division and got her a meeting with some execs. They liked her idea enough to set her up with former New York Giant Carl Banks, who runs the sports clothing collection for G-III Apparel Group, the $1.2 billion company that has licensing deals with Levi’s, Guess? (GES), Calvin Klein (PVH), and the major sports leagues. G-III Apparel agreed to manufacture and distribute her nascent line, Touch by Alyssa Milano, which had this motto: “Where the game meets the after party.”

“My idea was to make Touch fashionable enough for women to wear outside the arena,” Milano says. The line, which was launched in 2008, now includes $85 quilted jackets in team colors, $45 jeans with logos on the back pockets, and $30 pendant necklaces with the logo in a crystal-lined silver heart. Milano chose the designs and modeled every piece on her website.

Still, her pitch meetings were a bust. She had trouble convincing team buyers that she even knew enough about sports to understand what she was selling. “It was a lot of work to validate my passion and knowledge. It’s probably what every woman goes through when she’s a sports fan. Except I was trying to validate it to Jim Rome,” she says of being interviewed by the loudmouthed sports talk show host. Milano grew up in Brooklyn, where she bonded with her dad and brother over New York Giants and L.A. Dodgers games. (Her dad stayed loyal even when the Dodgers did not.) She’s dated several professional athletes, such as hockey player Wayne McBean and pitchers Carl Pavano, Barry Zito, and Brad Penny. She’s also had L.A. Kings season tickets since she was 15 and Dodgers season tickets for the past 10 years. Milano blogs for MLB.com; hosts segments on the TBS network called Hot Corner; and wrote a book in 2009 called Safe at Home: Confessions of a Baseball Fanatic. Her Australian shepherd is named Dodger Dog.

When Milano failed to score much retail space in stadiums, she started selling Touch merchandise through MLB.com and her own website in time for 2008 spring training. The collection sold out in five weeks, which surprised everyone, including G-III, which had no quick response plan to supplement stock. It lost time and profits while restarting production overseas. The clothing was cute, fit well, and had an American Eagle (AEO) vibe. Most important, it filled a hole no one had realized existed. “We recognized that Milano was a go-getter. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s my name, you can make a hangtag and put it on there.’ This was, ‘I’m sitting in on the focus groups, and I’m sitting with the designers,’ ” says Tim Brosnan, MLB’s executive vice president.

After her one year of exclusivity with baseball ended, Milano added deals with the NFL, NHL, NBA, and some colleges, and has since added Nascar, MLS, and minor league baseball. Touch is now the only apparel company with licensing agreements for women’s clothes with all the major American sports. “You could identify her as the driver for what now is an accepted part of the business. Retail buyers now come to the table expecting that you have a full female offering,” Brosnan says. There’s a Touch boutique in the Mets’ Citi Field, and Bloomingdale’s (M) and Lord & Taylor (HBC:CN) carry the line.

Touch has grown every year, even during the recession, and Milano spends a few hours every day marketing the brand by showing up at playoff games and store signings. “I send a lot of stuff to players’ wives,” she adds. Milano still models nearly everything herself and even writes poems that she puts on ads and hangtags:

To rally for each other
To play fair
To run with abandon
To dance with life
Is to Touch

There weren’t a lot of poems at stadiums before that.

As soon as Touch proved that women will wear jerseys in public—away from games—and around other women, the big sports apparel companies, including Nike (NKE) and Reebok (ADS:GR), came out with more fashionable lines of women’s team wear. In 2010, Victoria’s Secret (LTD) introduced team-licensed clothing as part of its younger Pink line, including leggings, panties, and a shirt that says “Fantasy Player.” More recently, CoverGirl (PG) packaged groups of nail color and gave instructions for making “fanicures.” Marchesa sold a Swarovski crystal-bejeweled Jets top for $110 in 2012. And this fall, former pro wrestler and Baltimore Ravens cheerleader Stacey Keibler landed licenses with several teams to sell, through sportswear line Meesh & Mia, a $180 New England Patriots faux fur vest along with other items. “Milano gets all the credit in the world for being a trailblazer,” says Leo Kane, the NFL’s senior vice president for consumer products.

Photograph by Ramona Rosales for Bloomberg Businessweek

Milano was prescient: Some 46 percent of self-identified MLB fans today are women, and 44 percent of NFL TV viewers are women, up from 34 percent in 2011. More women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars—46 percent of the viewers for that game are women, up from 14 percent in 2002. In turn, the NFL reports that spending on women’s apparel has risen 76 percent since 2010. Milano’s line captures only a small percentage of that segment, but she still says Touch is one of her proudest accomplishments. “I could live off the money I’m making, but it’s not as much as you might think. You’re cutting the pie in many different ways because of the leagues,” she says. “It’s not Jessica Simpson clothing line kind of money.”

As in regular stores, women do far more buying at stadiums than men, and so the leagues realized they were leaving a lot of money on the table. “Men are likely to wear last year’s or, God forbid, something from 10 years ago. She will buy every year and buy for other people in her life,” Kane says. The NFL started its own women’s line in 2010 under Tracey Bleczinski, the vice president of consumer products (who recently left to head consumer products for the Ultimate Fighting Championship). The line includes maternity wear and is promoted with ads featuring Condoleezza Rice, Serena Williams, Melania Trump, and supermodel Karolina Kurkova. This season, the NFL put so-called style lounges, with dressing rooms, in 10 stadiums, and advertised its women’s clothes in a 16-page Marie Claire insert called “The Savvy Girl’s Guide to Football.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sat front row at designer Kimberly Ovitz’s show during New York Fashion Week, because women’s clothing is now something Goodell has to know about.

Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst at NPD Group, doesn’t credit Milano with creating the category but says she “ignited it.” Products that are made specifically for women, he says, now make up 17 percent of sports apparel, whereas eight years ago it was close to zero. “There are two big surprises in the world of fashion: Why they don’t make more plus-size clothing, and they don’t make sports-branded product for women,” he says. “The sports apparel business is steeped in tradition. It was too far-fetched from where they were. It took a jolt of recognition and an experiment.” In January, Milano will launch another venture, a comic book series called Hacktivist, about an Anonymous-like group. “I really like breaking into businesses where women aren’t as predominant,” she says.

Stein is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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