It's an early April morning in the clubhouse of the famous Stade de France sports stadium in Paris, and the atmosphere is electric. World-class soccer players from top teams in Britain, France, and Germany stalk through the crowd in their sharp suits and diamond earrings. Along with some of France's leading business and political figures, they are here to celebrate the sixth anniversary of Airness, the hottest sportswear brand in France.
Airness is the one of the most exciting European companies you've never heard of. In just a few years, it has overtaken more established brands like Le Coq Sportif to become the biggest-selling French sportswear company, according to U.S. research firm NPD Group, as well as one of the top-10 bestselling sportswear brands in France. Founded in the troubled Paris suburbs in 1999 by a young Malian sportsman called Malamine Koné, the company is also a perfect counter-example of the racial and economic struggles encountered by most young black immigrants in France. Thanks to Airness' vibrant designs and powerful red and black panther logo, the brand has exploded in the past few years.
Today, Airness supplies the uniforms for five of the top 20 French soccer teams. In 2005, the private company, which sells everything from sneakers to eyewear and school stationery through licensing deals, had sales of $150 million, a 140% increase on the previous year. And 2006 promises to be just as scorching. Founder Koné says the venture is profitable.
CHASING THE BIG BOYS. Will Airness ever grow to challenge the likes of such giants as Germany's Adidas (ADDDY) or the American superbrand Nike (NKE)? Maybe not, but no one who follows the notoriously faddish sportswear industry doubts the company has running room. "It will certainly become a top niche brand in Britain," says David McNally, the managing director of Fulham soccer team.
Branching out into sports other than soccer will help. Last year, Airness signed its first contract to provide basketball uniforms for a French team. This year, it has added another basketball team, plus a rugby team. Luckily, the French company has so far avoided any disputes with representatives of U.S. basketball ace Michael Jordan, who's often called His Airness.
Just as important, Airness has gone mainstream in France, where it is a big hit with students. As popular with affluent children of French businessmen as it is with minority kids from the poorer neighborhoods, Airness has become a must-buy for many fashion-conscious French teens. One sure sign of success: The teenage children of French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin wear Airness. Even Laurence Parisot, president of the French industry federation Medef (a group that represents French employers) owns a pair of Airness sneakers.
EUROPEAN EXPANSION. Some compare the rise of Airness to that of U.S. basketball clothing brand And1. "Their blend of sport and street fashion has the same resonance among the young," says Renaud Vaschalde, a sports analyst for NPD Group. Koné, 34, prefers to see his company as unique, but should be flattered by the comparison. Since And1 was founded in 1993, the Paoli (Pa.)-based private company has built up annual sales of more than $150 million. For the moment, Airness has no plans to challenge And1 on its home turf.
Building on its phenomenal success in France, Airness is instead expanding across Europe. In January, Koné signed a deal with top-tier British soccer team Fulham to design its 2006-7 season uniforms. Airness already has brought on board a total of 11 European soccer teams, including Portuguese and Belgian teams as well as the French. Fulham's owner, Mohamed Al-Fayed, has also agreed to sell the French brand at his iconic British department store Harrods. Airness is currently in talks with distributors in other European countries, and is close to signing a deal in Ireland.
Airness is also expanding its product line. Earlier this year, the brand launched its first cell phone, Air99, which is sold through major French distributors, including the supermarket chain Auchan and the mobile handset store the Phone House. This month, Airness will unveil its second cell phone, called the Slide 99.
OUT OF THE PROJECTS. Like many sport and streetwear brands, Airness has its roots in the projects. But its founder's story is less common. Koné worked as a shepherd in Mali before moving to the troubled Paris suburbs when he was 10. Although he spoke no French when he arrived, he learned quickly. By the mid-1990s, he had a university law degree and intended to pursue a career in law enforcement. But when a road accident meant that he was no longer fit enough for the force, Koné cooked up a Plan B.
That plan came from the streets he grew up in. All around him, he noticed that kids were wearing the same sports brands, almost none of which were French. Against all rational advice, he decided to launch a sports label to rival those megabrands. "Back then it seemed crazy to try and compete against the likes of Adidas and Nike," he says. But compete he did, and soon built up a fan base for his clothes branded with the logo of a stalking panther, Koné's old boxing nickname.
Koné's sheer nerve rocketed the brand into the big time. In 2001, he met a rising soccer star called Djibril Cissé, who loved the Airness label, but had already been signed to represent the Italian sportswear brand Kappa when he played for his French team, Auxerre. So instead, Koné convinced him to sign a contract to wear Airness off the soccer field, which enraged his manager, but didn't break Cissé's existing deal. Soon, the soccer player was giving TV interviews wearing Koné's designs, advertising the small brand to millions. Today, Cissé is a high-scoring striker for one of the top British teams, Liverpool.
REMEMBERING HIS ROOTS. Airness has gone on to sign similar contracts with a host of soccer stars, including Didier Drogba, one of the best strikers for the leading British team Chelsea, as well as Sylvain Wiltord from Lyons, and Daniel Van Buyten from Hamburg.
Despite his success, Koné hasn't forgotten where he came from. After the riots in the Paris suburbs last November, he became part of a think tank geared towards inspiring young French people to start businesses. "We need to make an effort in France to see ourselves as we are and not as we would like to be," said the Medef's Parisot at the Stade de France event. "Airness helps us do both." Since its foundation, the brand has created more than 300 jobs.
One day Koné hopes to equip the French national soccer team. "Today, national brands provide the uniforms for the English and German teams, so why not France, too?" he asks with a smile. When bidding for the 2010 contract starts later this year, all he has to do is convince the team to give up Adidas. It's a long shot, but for Airness, the sky's the limit.