On the outskirts of Kitchener, Ont., down the road from a sausage factory and a cold-storage facility, the rebirth of a men’s-wear icon is under way. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Kitchener’s Barbarian Sports Wear made a name for itself as one of the world’s foremost makers of high-quality rugby gear. After a brush with receivership and change of ownership in 2013, it’s now capitalizing on that heritage and its status as one of the last places in the world where traditional rugby jerseys are still made. To the delight of owner Steve Wagner, his staff of 75 and fans of authentic sports wear around the globe, business is booming again. “Right now we have more orders than we can get out the door,” says Wagner, adding, with a mix of puzzlement and pride, “We actually sell a fair bit in Japan.”
While Barbarian still does brisk business making game-day gear for collegiate teams, the majority of its customers will never set foot on a rugby pitch. Instead, thanks to the enthusiastic endorsement of fashion brands and retailers – including several in Japan – the rugby shirt is having a new moment in men’s wear.
This spring, Noah, a street-meets-prep brand with outposts in New York, Tokyo, London and Los Angeles, tapped Barbarian to produce a rugby shirt and shorts in a cheerful all-over floral print. New York-based streetwear brand Aimé Leon Dore, meanwhile, put in an order for a run of logo-heavy rugbys featuring vertical stripes in red, pink, ecru and blue. They’re by no means the only brands offering their take on the collegiate trend. Spring-summer collections from Reigning Champ, J.W. Anderson, ASOS and Thom Browne are also getting in on the scrum.
The story of the rugby shirt is much like that of so many other men’s-wear favourites that have made their way from the worlds of work wear, sports wear or the military to become a designer muse. The sport of rugby originated in England in the mid-1800s and the rugby shirt came into being not long afterward to meet the needs of its players. Made out of heavyweight cotton, with ribbed cuffs, a stiff white collar and rubber buttons, the long-sleeved rugby shirt was designed to withstand the rigours of a notoriously rough-and-tumble game.
Unlike the polo shirt and the rowing blazer, which made the jump fairly naturally to business-casual wear, the rugby shirt translated better to pop culture than polite society. “With their loud stripes and the untucked way they are worn, a little baggy, rugby shirts were reappropriated as a sort of uniform for iconoclastic, ironic creatives like Mick Jagger and David Hockney,” says Jack Carlson, the founder and designer of Rowing Blazers, a New York-based fashion label specializing in classic sportswear, including a wide selection of rugbys. “There’s an aspirational but also tongue-in-cheek flavour to the rugby shirt.”
In the 1970s, outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard bought a rugby shirt in Scotland and found it to be the ideal garment for rock climbing. When he began importing them from England and New Zealand to sell under his fledgling Patagonia label, it became the brand’s first major hit. The rugby shirt’s rise continued through the 1980s and 90s thanks to brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, who helped to establish it as a prep staple on par with penny loafers, embroidered chinos and varsity jackets. “White collar details, bolder colours and stripes are all quintessential components of a classic New England look,” says Todd Parker, merchant manager of mens’ sportswear for L.L.Bean, which has done a brisk business in rugby shirts for more than 30 years. “The rugby fires on all those cylinders.”
The rugby shirt’s continued success is in part thanks to these preppy roots, but it has proven a much more versatile and less culturally loaded garment than some other country-club favourites. Thanks to endorsements from musicians-turned style icons such as Kanye West, André (3000) Benjamin and Tyler the Creator, the rugby has recently been adopted by a new generation of fashionable men and is well on its way to earning its place alongside bomber jackets and dad sneakers in the world of streetwear.
There is something inevitable about the rugby shirt’s longevity, an unintended consequence of its roots in the cold, rainy muck of English boarding-school playing fields. “We hear a lot of people saying, ‘I remember my old Barbarian rugby shirt. I still have it in my closet,’” says Steve Wagner, who still treasures the Barbarian jerseys he wore as captain of Carleton University’s rugby team. For these loyalists he offers an informal repair service replacing worn-out cuffs and stained collars on decades-old shirts for customers who can’t bear to part with them. Rakish stripes aside, the secret to the rugby shirt’s longevity might be as simple as the fact that it refuses to die.