Heroes' numbers adorn nifty dresses

Jerseys: Player jerseys are now very popular with women, and with a clothing industry that is featuring them in jersey dresses.

October 26, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Jessica Santana isn't much of a basketball fan, doesn't have a favorite team and can't name a lot of the players.

But during Michael Jordan's final home game last spring, the 22-year-old bartender was at the MCI Center in Washington wearing her own version of Jordan's No. 23 jersey - a v-neck top with the sleeves cut off and a clingy skirt that ended a couple of inches above the knee.

"I just like them for fashion," Santana said of the jersey dresses - she owns three - that she wears to nightclubs with high-heeled boots or matching sneakers.

Player jerseys, a popular slice of the $34 billion U.S. sportswear market, were once worn almost exclusively by sports-obsessed men and by youngsters emulating their favorite athletes. But women have begun making their own fashion statements in team jerseys of the professional football and basketball leagues.

The dresses first appeared in music videos, but rocketed in popularity last winter after Mariah Carey wore a long dress made of Jordan's jersey while serenading the retiring superstar during a halftime show at the National Basketball Association All-Star Game. Individual women and retailers began taking the typically oversize boxy shirts and, with the help of a good seamstress, turning them into trendy and sometimes risque, dresses, halter tops and miniskirts.

The popularity of the dress has helped catapult women to the next new marketing niche for sports companies and athletic leagues looking at ways to boost sales. A jersey dress costs anywhere from $89 to $300.

The NBA, which opens its 57th season Tuesday, launched a product line called "nba4her" earlier this year. It features jersey dresses designed by Reebok International of Canton, Mass., one of the largest athletic clothing manufacturers, and by G-3 Sports, a New York sports apparel company run by Carl Banks, a former linebacker for the New York Giants.

The league's female wear division began by selling a basic sleeveless, knee-length dress, but robust sales prompted it to expand the line for the holidays. It now includes longer dresses and retro jerseys featuring the names of retired stars. It also plans to expand to matching purses and other accessories.

"It's taken on a whole life of its own," said Gena Gatewood, an NBA spokeswoman who specializes in global merchandising.

High school girls began contacting the NBA looking for jersey dresses to wear to their proms last spring, Gatewood said, after the singer Carey was photographed in two versions of the Jordan dress: a mini of Jordan's former Chicago uniform designed by Philadelphia-based Mitchell & Ness Nostalgia Co. and a floor-length model fashioned from Jordan's Washington Wizards uniform.

The lavish NBA Store on Fifth Avenue in New York recently brought a seamstress on staff to custom make one-of-a-kind outfits for women who want more unconventional creations.

The NFL has sold a small selection of women's wear since the 1970s but in the last year ramped up its offerings to include jersey dresses, fitted T-shirts, pajamas and panties with team logos.

Reebok and G-3 also make jersey dresses for the football league, which are among the most popular items.

"This is the first year we've had a full line of women's products and it's because of the demand we saw for it," said Dan Masonson, a league spokesman in New York.

At Infinity Affordable Fashion, a clothier in Randallstown and West Baltimore, jersey dresses have provided a huge boost for sales. On display at the Randallstown store last week was a mid-thigh, one-shoulder Kobe Bryant Lakers dress, with laces up the side. An Allen Iverson jersey was transformed into a halter top with the back out.

"The jersey dress is what really put us over the top," said Jeszara Revell, part-owner of Infinity.

Total Sport in Security Square Mall in Woodlawn sold nothing but jerseys and ballcaps for men until this past summer when a flood of requests convinced it to expand to jersey dresses.

Before Carey's nationally broadcast performance, dancers wore jersey dresses in the music video for rapper Nelly's song "Air Force One." Singer Faith Evans also sported a jersey dress designed by Mitchell and Ness during an appearance on 106th and Park, the popular music video show on Black Entertainment Television.

"The visibility of entertainers is priceless, and people often emulate those they admire and are popular," said Mike May, a spokesman for Sporting Goods Manufacturer Association International in North Palm Beach, Fla.

Many women favor the dresses for fashion and often are not big sports fans. Some business people predict the jersey dress is a fad. A manager at Total Sport says he has already started to see interest wane.

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