PHILADELPHIA (AP) — To the untrained eye, it would seem that tiny Franklin & Marshall College has a disproportionate number of young alumni in Europe and Japan.
But the trendy hipsters sporting seemingly well-worn F&M gear are wearing a fashion statement, not a badge of pride. The “vintage” college apparel is actually very new and stylishly crafted in Italy by the Franklin and Marshall clothing company.
The line’s look is so popular — think Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch — that the retailer opened its fifth stand-alone store earlier this month and, this fall, will fund a scholarship at its namesake college west of Philadelphia.
“The scholarship is really big news to us,” said Barry Bosley, the college’s associate vice president for administration. “As they mature as a company, they’re doing the right thing and giving back to help support our students.”
Franklin and Marshall the company was founded by a pair of entrepreneurs in Verona in 1999, more than 200 years after Franklin & Marshall the college was founded in Lancaster by a gift from Benjamin Franklin.
Giuseppe Albarelli and Andrea Pensiero were inspired to create their high-end sportswear by an authentically old F&M sweatshirt they found at a secondhand shop in London. They began replicating and improvising on that classic collegiate look, not realizing Franklin & Marshall was an actual U.S. college. But they soon found out.
College officials say they first heard of the Italian clothes from surprised F&M students studying abroad. It was a curious phenomenon for the small, selective liberal arts school, which probably is best known in the U.S. for political science professor Terry Madonna, a high-profile national pollster.
Then in 2001, country music superstar Tim McGraw wore a Franklin and Marshall wrestling T-shirt in a publicity photo. Disc jockeys started calling the school: Is McGraw an alum? Was he on the wrestling team?
Well, no and no — McGraw was wearing one of the Italian designs. So the college sent him some “official” F&M gear and, eventually, sought negotiations with the clothiers.
The long-term licensing deal reached in 2003 gives the school a portion of all U.S. sales because it does not own the F&M copyright overseas; Bosley would not disclose the terms of the deal. The apparel was initially carried by Bloomingdale’s, but it never gained a foothold stateside and currently does not have a North American distributor, Bosley said.
Now, the retailer has stepped up to offer one F&M student a scholarship totaling 100,000 euro ($135,000), roughly covering the four-year undergraduate tuition bill.
Company spokeswoman Sara Dainese said the apparel’s popularity comes from its look and quality. The line, which includes jeans, shorts, dresses and accessories, can be found at 1,300 international boutiques and stand-alone stores in Rome, Milan, Tokyo, Paris and — as of March 19 — Osaka, Japan.
Nearly all the clothes are made in Italy, she said.
“We spend more money and give to our customers a very special product,” Dainese said. “We want to be a niche. We don’t want to be a very big, huge company. (We want to) invest in quality, research and development.”
F&M senior Anthony Brooks, who wears official college gear as a member of the basketball team, said he doesn’t mind the “other” Franklin and Marshall apparel.
“It’s still pretty nice to know that there’s a more fashionable clothing line out there with my school’s insignia on it,” said Brooks, 21, of Lake Mary, Fla.
On a recent evening at the Franklin and Marshall store in the Campo de’ Fiori neighborhood of Rome, customers included players from the AS Roma major league soccer team.
Midfielder Matteo Brighi, 29, said he likes the store “because it is sporty and young.” Teammate Marco Andreolli, 23, said that “it reminds us a bit of the American colleges, the uniforms they wear there.”
A vacationing Danish couple had no idea of the clothing’s origin, but tourist Arthur Heller, 31, from New York City, made the connection immediately.
“I saw the name and I said, ’Geez, that’s a college in Pennsylvania,”’ said Heller.
Despite the line’s failure to catch on in stores stateside, Bosley noted that U.S. online sales are picking up. The college’s main goal has always been to increase its global exposure while protecting its image, he said.
“Does it actually draw students to us? Do they come because of the clothes? That would be impossible to tell,” Bosley said. “But it does put the name out there internationally.”