It almost sounds like a fairy tale that could evolve into a Hollywood script.
It starts with a three-year-old girl who learns to sew in her grandmother’s bedroom. Then as a teenager, she rises early in the morning and designs, stitches and wears her day’s outfit to high school.
Finally, this suburban wife spawns a national apparel company, snares a licensing agreement with the galaxy’s premier professional sports league, flies to Asia four times in 12 months to meet with her suppliers and markets her products on a television network and in print publications such as the New York Times, Vogue and People Magazine.
But this is not a folkloric fantasy that features elves, goblins and mermaids. It is a true life story that has been unfolding in Zionsville and involves a ground breaker who is rewriting an entire book in women’s sports apparel.
Yes, Lena Ward and her All Sport Couture brand have turned into one of the hottest items today in the National Football League and who someday soon may charge into numerous other college and professional sports marketplaces.
“Sometimes it has been hard to believe,” said Ward. “Everything is moving so fast.”
Indeed, it has been a whirlwind trip for Ward, who after securing a financial associate in 2012 has All Sport Couture on fast forward. The company roared out of the gates after meeting with NFL marketing and licensing executives in the league’s New York office. Discussions centered on different scenarios that All Sport Couture could become a licensed vendor with its line of apparel targeted for female fans. One possibility included linking up with Nike, who replaced Adidas as the league’s official team supplier. The thought was that Ward could seamlessly take her concepts to the Oregon based heavyweight.
“I said I’ll do it myself,” she recalled. “The league puts you through the financial ringer. There are fees and guarantees involved and the application is 40 pages. But in the end, we wanted to drive the car.”
And the NFL journey has been a remarkable one that has filled numerous lifetime experiences. In its first year of life, All Sport Couture dispatched product to 31 of the 32 NFL teams. Only Dallas, which has its own licensed program, has yet to climb aboard.
Enthusiastic player wives from the Kansas City Chiefs, the New York Jets, Washington Redskins and Tennessee Titans have purchased a variety of outfits. The wife of Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz wore an All Sport Couture outfit during an interview on NFL Network. Ward has also handled one-on-one meetings with NFL owners Arthur Blank of Atlanta and Jeffrey Lurie of Philadelphia. During the 2012 NFL season, Ward and All Sport Couture anchored Style Lounges on game day in several NFL stadiums, including stops in San Diego, Pittsburgh and Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We blew it out at the Colts game,” Ward remembered. “We had men and women stopping in to buy from us.”
But the relationship with the NFL has expanded beyond the stadium and team stores. Recently, Ward was called to the New York league office to meet with officials of Macy’s. Yes, that Macy’s.
“The NFL is a great partner,” she said. “Our meeting with Macy’s was phenomenal. We were able to set up in the NFL showroom and show our line. If you are willing to step up, the league will put their marketing and media behind you.”
That partnership philosophy spilled over into numerous marketing and advertising campaigns last season. All Sport Couture and the NFL were co-op partners in advertising ventures in several national print publications and in advertising on the NFL Network.
The NFL has longed to have a creative women’s apparel provider. The league has recognized that is has a huge female base of fans and not all women wish to wear Uncle Joe’s jersey to games. In fact, Ward began her mission 12 years ago when she took a Peyton Manning replica jersey, sliced it up and pieced together a more fitted, stylish look for her trips to Colts games.
“People were stopping me and asking where I bought it,” Ward recalled. “I realized there was something there.”
Perhaps there was a seed of an idea but not for a few years. Ward did submit artwork to the NFL after her Manning jersey episode but the league was not prepared to move too quickly on a partnership. The NFL was involved in negotiations with Reebok/Adidas and Nike. Those talks involved millions of licensing dollars. The door finally cracked open for All Sport Couture when the NFL adopted its Fit for You platform for female fans. The league was now searching for a teammate.
Ward’s previous artwork was revisited and a game plan was hatched.
Among its growing line, All Sport Couture line offers individual team halter tops, hooded pullovers and snakeskin knits. A colorful, classy catalog touts that the “franchise” hooded full front zip sweatshirt is just the “bling piece you need for the upcoming season.” It features side entry pockets, metal-tipped draw cords for the hood and the softness of the foil print fabric. The nickname of the team is tucked in the lining of the hood.
The catalog also inspiringly notes that the halter jersey “is not your daddy’s, brother’s or boyfriend’s jersey…this is all female and fun.”
Ward concedes that her line – which must be approved by the NFL — may not be for every female.
“Our line is not for everybody,” said Ward, who has been pleased by the elasticity shown in age range for her items. “We are higher end because of our quality of fabrics. We understand that not everyone will buy our brand. You are not buying us just for a logo on a tee-shirt and sweatshirt.”
And those fashion lessons were not learned in grandma’s sewing room or three years at Florida State University. Ward’s tour of fashion included stops at the Paris (France) Fashion Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. An internship followed at Betsey Johnson, a legendary New York shop known for feminine and whimsical approach to fashion.
This background led to a position with Bullfrog Clothing, a professional sports licensee. While at Bullfrog, Ward met CEO Tom Shine of Logo Athletic in Indianapolis. Shine selected Ward as an architect in building a licensing program at the new Logo 7.
“I found out that licensed apparel was for me.” she said.
But the career moved to the backburner in 1993. She married husband Pete and the couple had two children, Mady and Sam.
“I was a stay at home mom,” Ward recalled. “I missed working and playing with designs. I designed the Colts cheerleaders outfits but I didn’t keep up with the high fashion world.”
That route changed after a meeting with NFL executives and an ensuing telephone call to her husband. His response was simple. Go for it, girl.
A key element to Ward’s approach is being a designer of the apparel used by All Sport Couture. She doesn’t consult catalogs for items to purchase. Instead the owner travels to Viet Nam and China to huddle with vendors and develop her concepts into actual clothing. Telephone conversations adapt to dramatic time differences, samples are exchanged and orders are placed.
In the meantime, Ward is still constructing a young organization that is not trying to get too far ahead of itself. Two recent hires have provided a framework for growth but the days are stretched into late night sessions of planning, organizing and executing.
“You can pick out one of 20 things to do and there are still so many things to do,” she said. “Our philosophy is to crawl, walk and run. But it seems like we are sprinting all the time.”
The sprint may turn into a marathon. All Sport Couture is starting a pilot program with the NCAA this year and someday hopes to land licensing programs with the NBA and NHL.
And this voyage all started when a grandmother taught a little girl how to sew.