As we approach the Super Bowl, the world of “upcycling” also takes the stage. Upcycling refers to the process where garments or other materials are reused and transformed into a new or unique item.
This season, celebrities Taylor Swift, Simone Biles, and others have worn unique designs based on NFL jerseys and related team-branded gear. These upcycled garments were created by Kristin Juszczyk, the wife of San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juzczyk and an up-and-coming designer in her own right. Juszcyk identified a market need – team-identifiable garments that are more stylish to wear to games than the traditional jersey. It’s no secret that fans are faced with a limited apparel offering from the NFL – often ill-fitting jerseys, sweatshirts, and shirts. Juszczyk’s creations are more flattering to the fan, transforming jerseys into vests, jackets, pants, and other fashion-forward designs like the designs shown here. In this way, fans can support their favorite players and look stylish while doing so. Throughout the season, Juszczyk created NFL upcycled garments, often for friends and family members of other NFL players.
The issue with upcycling is that it is nearly always done without the consent of the owner (or exclusive licensee) of the relevant trademarks. This was the case with the Juszczyk items. This is a potential problem, because such unauthorized trademark use can lead to customer confusion over the source of the goods, particularly where upcyclers “level-up” a shoe or a jacket and reinsert the logo from the original item as part of the process – thus creating a new, sometimes high-quality product bearing an identifiable brand. Upcyclers may also expose themselves to claims of trademark dilution or even counterfeiting, and damages in such cases can be substantial.
This issue of confusion played out in front of a national audience last month. During a freezing playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium, Taylor Swift and Brittney Mahomes wore Kansas City Chiefs jersey puffer jackets designed by Juszcyzk. During the broadcast, NBC announcers speculated that Swift commissioned the custom jacket from Nike. Currently, the NFL and Nike have a partnership where Nike provides all teams with uniforms bearing the Nike brand for games. Swift’s puffer jacket (as with all things Taylor Swift) received national attention on social media and news outlets. Kyle Juszczyk was quick to correct this confusion concerning Nike on social media during the game. Kristin Juszcyzk also took to social media to say that she was not currently selling her designs because she lacked a license.
This past week, Juszczyk received a license from the NFL for the use of team and league logos in her designs, thus side stepping the issue for now. We are not aware of the terms of the license. While that’s all well and good for a high-profile upcycler like Juszczyk with high-profile leverage, it’s important to note that this is not the typical outcome in situations where upcycling crosses into trademark infringement. However, brand owners might look at this situation and consider to what extent less “traditional” licensing arrangements like this – involving upcycling and bespoke garments – might strengthen brands and protect against customer confusion while leveraging the creativity of these upcyclers.
For instance, the NFL (and the other sports leagues) could use these content creators to reach larger and more diverse audiences instead of accepting the limited offerings of the handful of sneaker and apparel companies that leagues currently license. After Taylor Swift wore Juszczyk’s design, the number of Juszczyk’s Instagram followers increased significantly. An Instagram reel showing the evolution of these puffers has over 35 million plays and over 15,000 comments. The NFL even commented on the reel writing “killed it.” The attention and interest in Juszczyk’s designs emphasizes content creators’ power to enhance the NFL brand. Other brand owners should take note.