Words by Ian Stonebrook
Felipe Lopez on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Troy Aikman at the Super Bowl. The Big Nasty in the Big Dance.
From Jamaica, Queens to the Georgia Dome, it all happened in 1994 and it all happened in Apex.
Founded in 1989, the sports apparel manufacturer quickly made waves in the worlds of college basketball and pro football as one of the most worn apparel companies in the country.
Similar to Starter, yet louder and sharper, Apex’s aggressive ability to leverage licensing made them a fixture of mail order merch catalogs in the 1990s. As fan gear exploded, Apex understood the team logo was more important to the masses then than that of their own, eventually upping the ante on all that expression through unruly uniforms decorated in decade defining design.
In the early ‘90s, Apex achieved their North Star in sportswear by baring their branding on the iconic double-star jerseys of the Dallas Cowboys. Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman all wore the Texas sized style on Sundays, giving Apex ultimate exposure when it came to TV time.
At that same time, Apex ascended in college basketball by bringing in a slew of schools from all over the country. Big East ball clubs such as Villanova and St Johns allowed Apex to outfit their programs, with Big Ten talent like Wisconsin and Minnesota also accepting the Apex offer. Arkansas famously excelled in Apex when contending for championships while programs like NC State and Kentucky rebranded their then controversial clubs in uniforms from the brand.
Each school sponsored by Apex had a look all their own. Villanova ventured into a diagonal design with copper and burgundy infused accents unlike anything they’d worn before. St. John’s wore the city skyline on their shorts and Kentucky came out with a striped style that would’ve been at home at the World Cup or in Above the Rim.
Not only did all those schools give Apex a platform to show out in various power conferences, the sponsorships coincided with top talent attending those various programs. Michael Finley found himself in Apex at Wisconsin while Corliss Williamson wore it at Arkansas. Homegrown star Felipe Lopez gave Apex clout in Queens just as Kerry Kittles added flash in Philly. Top that off with Tony Delk doing work with the Wildcats and you not only had loud Apex jerseys appearing on top schools, they were appearing on top stars.
These same stars would see their jerseys sold at stores both on campus and through catalogs. Apex eventually extended their reach all over the NCAA, NFL and NHL, selling team-tied sportswear that was just as nuanced in ‘90s flavor as their trademark uniforms. From stadium jackets with Shaqnosis striping to sideline polos that appeared to be made more for Busta Rhymes than Barry Switzer, Apex combined the toughness of Reebok and silos of Starter for a new take on licensed gear.
From the outside looking in, the apex of Apex was 1994.
By year’s end, Apex was reporting revenues of roughly $100 million. It all started with a bang in January when the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVIII in Apex uniforms, followed by Apex outfitted Arkansas cutting down the nets in March. When the college basketball preseason polls came out that fall, both Arkansas and Kentucky clinched spots in the top five, while sponsored schools such as Villanova and Wisconsin were considered contenders. From Emmit Smith jerseys to Wildcats shorts, Apex appeared under Christmast trees that December in households all across the country.
Naturally, the companies that long ran sportswear took notice and interest. With rumors circulating that top dog Nike was interested in acquiring Apex, a heritage predecessor soon broke the bank. In May of 1995, Converse purchased Apex One Inc. for $51 million. Meant to make the legacy brand more competitive with the newer Nike and relevant Reebok, Apex allowed Converse cache in the apparel game.
The plan was set: Converse and Apex were to team together to totally take over college basketball. The acquisition opened the door for an integrated head-to-toe apparel program with Arkansas and Kentucky, allowing the brand that once ran college hoops to now compete with Nike’s new deals at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan. Everything appeared rosy as Rick Pitino’s Untouchable Wildcat roster couldn’t have been better models for the Converse x Apex era set to start in the fall of 1995.
However, everything behind the scenes was truly thorny.
Despite doing $100 million in revenue in 1994, Apex was in trouble. Poor delivery records put a stink on their name, causing them to lose major retail accounts despite being tied to major teams. On top of that, the start of 1994 saw Nike threatening Apex with a $1 millon lawsuit suggesting false advertising seen on Jim Kelly’s spatted yet Apex stickered Nike cleats. Apex was nearly bankrupt and could not secure enough orders to render a profit, explaining why a brand that did $100 million in 1994 sold for half of that in 1995.
In the early 1990s, Converse wasn’t exactly killing it either. Their basketball brand was sinking as marquee endorser Magic Johnson publicly expressed his displeasure with their direction while consumers complained about leaking REACT Juice in their new-age sneakers. Converse had already been in bankruptcy court in 1991, with some insiders considering the Apex acquisition just another bad and overly aggressive business move.
They were right.
On August 10, 1995, just months after the college basketball season ended and weeks before it returned, Converse announced the closing of Apex One. The timing couldn’t have been worse for all involved. Just when it felt like fan gear was at the peak of its powers and Kentucky was better than ever, the apparel disruptor was declared extinct.
Later in the spring of 1996 when Pitino’s Wildcats cut down the nets, they had Converse logos on their feet and on their uniforms. The sharp lines on their previous pairs of shorts were replaced with a washed denim aesthetic
In the end, it cost Converse $41 million though Converse later won $25.6 million in a settlement from Apex due to misrepresentation. With the 1996 Kentucky team putting nine players into the NBA, one has to wonder how much money could’ve been made on Apex apparel or Converse sneaker deals had both brands played it right.
In the years to follow the fall of Apex, the top teams took their talents elsewhere, often dramatically changing their jersey designs and cashing in on the big budgets of sneaker brands. Villanova ventured to Nike, St Johns joined Jordan, Wisconsin went with adidas. Even in the immediate aftermath, Champion and Starter soon sold Kentucky kits and St Johns jerseys with the same iconic fonts featured, only bearing different branding.
Many moons later in 2003, the big business of sportswear would become full circle as Nike bought Converse. The Chevron logo would mostly disappear from college hoops - save a Dwyane Wade deal done with Marqutte for a matter of years - while Apex One would only live as an influence to extract ‘90s nostalgia from.
Today, Apex exists through the pages of Poshmark, on eBay search results and in the hearts of hardwood historians. Their decidedly ‘90s designs mark a moment that’s lasted longer than their short run, revered by bold uniforms that reinvented classic programs and brought attention to ones usually overlooked. As top tier sportswear companies today struggle to connect culture to uniforms and add cool cache to fan gear, it was Apex who unapologetically added emotion to both categories in a fashion that still stands as a triumphant time capsule.