European Clothiers Cash In on U.S. College Ties

European clothiers are tying up with U.S. universities for extra cachet

F&M: From the school (left) and the clothier

Franklin & Marshall College may not have the cachet of Yale University in the eyes of many Americans, but for trendy European teens the Pennsylvania liberal arts school easily trumps the Ivy League icon. The school’s moniker is emblazoned on sweatshirts and other garb sold by an Italian company of the same name that Europe’s youth can’t seem to get enough of. While few of those wearing the clothes know about the school, “I don’t think they care,” says Entheo Leung, a salesman at London’s Selfridges department store, which sells the clothing line in a display with decades-old pictures of F&M athletic teams. “They just know it’s a brand everyone is wearing, and they want it.”

Italian designers Giuseppe Albarelli and Andrea Pensiero started the Franklin & Marshall clothing line after finding an old sweatshirt from the school at a New York flea market in the 1990s. Without getting approval from the school, located in the old mill town of Lancaster, they began selling $43 T-shirts, $265 tracksuits, and other garments, using the school’s name to stand out among preppy clothiers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Ralph Lauren.

Companies have long used imagined school logos such as “State University” or “Ivy Rugby Club” on their clothing. Now, Franklin & Marshall and other European brands eager to lure fickle 18- to 24-year-olds are forging business ties to real U.S. colleges. “This is a move by brands to reinforce some authenticity around what they do,” says Lorna Hall, retail editor at fashion forecaster WGSN in London. “The U.S. preppy college look translates well to Southern Europe. The Italians in particular love the formality and detail of it.”

British retailer Jack Wills, which calls itself the “University Outfitters,” sponsors club polo teams at Yale and Harvard (and has formal licensing deals with the Oxford and Cambridge rugby and polo teams in England). Gant, founded in New Haven in 1949 but now Swedish-owned, has a deal with Yale to sell $115 button-down shirts bearing the school’s name. This year, Gant took the collection to the U.K., Europe, and Japan and is putting as much as 25 percent of its marketing budget behind the Yale shirts, says Chief Executive Officer Dirk-Jan Stoppelenburg. “For us it was about rediscovering who we originally are,” Stoppelenburg says.

Franklin & Marshall (the company, which didn’t respond to requests for comment) signed a licensing deal with F&M (the school) in 2003 after using its name without permission for several years. The brand’s popularity has spread north from Italy and taken hold in Britain. In 2011 the company opened a store-within-a-store at Selfridges. “It’s selling really well,” says Leung, the department store clerk. “Christmas time was crazy. The higher prices actually attract [young people], and their parents are usually buying anyway.”

The college benefits not only from the additional revenue but also from greater visibility abroad, says Cass Cliatt, who helps oversee the school’s licensing deals. “We are fortunate to work with a European company that promotes F&M around the world,” she says. In 2010, the company also donated €100,000 ($125,000) to fund a four-year scholarship for one student, and this spring executives met with the college president for the first time, Cliatt says.

Apparel licensing deals are negotiated country by country and typically cost the licensee about 10 percent of the wholesale price of each garment, says Chris Evans of Oxford Limited, which manages licensing for the University of Oxford. Cliatt declined to discuss the terms of her school’s agreement with the Italian company.

One group of frequent collegiate consumers might not be shelling out to emulate the academic look any time soon: alumni, normally one of the target markets for such apparel. “It’s fantastic for the school that this company is marketing F&M as a high-end brand,” says Adam Marcus, a grad now working at a Boston venture capital firm. “But it’s unfathomable that I would pay $265 for a sweat suit that I got for free in college as a soccer player.”

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