When the first customers enter Under Armour's new Brand House in Harbor East Saturday morning, they'll have little choice but to think "Baltimore."
The shirts displayed at the front of the store promote Baltimore neighborhoods such as Fells Point and Canton and sport iconic symbols like Mr. Boh.
Banners next to the main entrance honor NFL great Ray Lewis and the Ravens. Swimmer Michael Phelps adorns the side of the building facing the water. Inside, there are vintage-style shirts with crabs and others showing the outline of a Raven image with famous city streets and places spelled within.
"We're proud of our city," said Henry Stafford, Under Armour's senior vice president for apparel, outdoor and accessories. "We're proud of being from Baltimore."
Yet the store also reflects Under Armour's global ambition, he said. Its focus on the sports apparel maker's underperforming footwear lines and the new lifestyle T-shirts reflecting Baltimore culture break from the retail tradition of selling hardest what sells best.
Though Under Armour has no specific plans to expand the concept to other cities, that is the goal, Stafford said. Brand House is designed as the ultimate experience for those loyal to the brand, he said, and will complement the retail stores that now sell Under Armour gear while offering fans a way to experience the full spectrum of the company's offerings.
Company leaders have called the store a "lab" for figuring out what consumers want, and Stafford says it makes sense to put those lessons to use in future projects.
On Friday, he showed off the 6,100-square-foot store on the ground floor of the Legg Mason building.
"We have great shoes of all kinds," he said, surrounded by footwear in dozens of shapes and hundreds of color combinations. "But people don't see them all. Here we can show more of who we are."
That, clearly, is Under Armour's goal for 2013: taking control of its own image and shaping it for buyers. No longer is it merely the masculine brand demanding that football or lacrosse players "Protect This House." Now, it cajoles athletes of all shapes, sizes and genders to proclaim, "I Will!"
And no longer is the gear built almost exclusively for sessions in the gym or on the practice field. Shirts reading "Federal Hill: Runnin' Up That Hill" or "Blue Collars, Purple Jerseys" are just as likely to be worn during downtime, Stafford said.
Under Armour is evolving, and Brand House appears to be at the heart of that change.
"They're trying to make their branding more inclusive, to try to resonate with women and around the world," said John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence. "That's where they've struggled, and that's where they see a chance for change. The new 'I Will" thing is really big for them if they want to compete with the big boys."
Horan said he does not believe the store concept will spread quickly and predicted it would not have a broad impact on how or how well Under Armour sells its products, but called the move to broaden its customer base essential.
Not that Under Armour has ignored its reputation for high-end performance gear. The Brand House staff of about 25 are mostly experts in specific sports.
"You want to run a marathon, we'll have someone here who can tell you, from firsthand knowledge, about the gear you'll need to run a marathon," Stafford said.
Brand House also will be the first place to showcase — and eventually sell — the Armour39 workout monitoring system. While Horan said industry insiders have yet to see evidence that the new product is anything more than a "heart monitor taken to a different level," Stafford remains "bullish" on its potential impact. The small computer — Under Armour officials usually call it a bug — is strapped to your chest, then delivers workout metrics to your phone or a watch.
Mark Oleson, the company's director of innovation and research, said the Armour39 sets a new standard by using a heart rate monitor and motion-sensor technology that determines what exercise the wearer is completing; the computer then adjusts its calculations before delivering results.
"There's really nothing on the market that comes close to this," said Oleson, an engineer who once helped multinational sporting goods maker Adidas introduce a computerized running shoe. "It's only recently we've had the technology and the economy of scale to create anything like this. But we've taken it further with software that adds new context for that information."
The Brand House store tries to balance the company's renewed focus on high-tech innovation with the gritty image that has for so long given it emotional weight with customers. The wall coverings in the men's fitting rooms are designed to look like the Ravens' indoor practice facility. But right outside those doors, those waiting can lounge in leather chairs outfitted with cellphone charging stations while drinking provided bottled water.
The store devotes equal space to women's gear and features touch-screen displays to explain innovative products.
Plans to build signature retail space at Under Armour's Tide Point headquarters — across the water from the Harbor East store — are on hold. Stafford said the company felt moving into Harbor East, a growing neighborhood with other high-end retailers, was an opportunity it could not pass up. And though opening the store took just a few months, future moves will be more methodical.
"It's not like we had a plan for this sort of a store a year ago," he said. "We want to see what happens when we put a stake in the ground and show all we have to offer for women or in shoes," Stafford said. "We want to see what they think of our colors — all of our colors. This is the best way for us to explain who we are."
Under Armour's store defiantly focuses on areas where the company has slipped in the past.
"That's Under Armour," Stafford said. "We're not trying to do what's expected."
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