Earls Collection founder Lewi Brown in his Sydney studio. Photography: Alex Walker

RECENTLY, LEWI BROWN had a conversation with a customer he’s been thinking about ever since. “A guy came into our pop-up shop, and he picked up this new crochet shirt we have – it’s kind of cropped – and he said, ‘A year ago, there’s no way I would’ve worn this, no way in hell’,” smiles the founder of Australian menswear brand Earls Collection. “And then he said, ‘But you guys have given me the confidence to wear stuff like this’. It was so cool. Genuinely.”

That customer bought the crochet shirt. He has, Brown later discovered, been shopping with the brand since its launch in 2018, when the only product Earls Collection sold was colourful basketball shorts. Like a number of Earls’ early fans, this customer’s style has evolved alongside the brand’s aesthetic. As Brown introduces colourful knits, embroidered cardigans and loose-fitting pants to his collections, the guys who shop from him feel free to try something new. For Brown, who had a 10-year NRL career, this is particularly satisfying.

“I used to cop it all the time from the footy boys,” he says of his more fashion-forward fits at the time. “But I want to show people it’s okay to wear something a bit different.”

Brown began working on Earls Collection days after he announced his retirement from professional sport. The 2018 announcement came as a surprise to fans who’d followed his 198-game NRL career from the New Zealand Warriors to the Penrith Panthers to the Manly Sea Eagles. But for Brown, who also played 15 Tests for New Zealand between 2010-16 in addition to representing the New Zealand Māori, stepping back from the sport felt necessary. He had recently lost his father to suicide; at the funeral, he discovered his grandfather and great-grandfather had met the same fate. One thing he shared with all three of them was the nickname Earl.

“A doctor told me it [suicidal depression] was genetic,” he says. “It changed the way I looked at everything. I was about to sign a three-year contract to play in the south of France, but knew I wasn’t going to be able to go away and put this on the back burner. I wanted to start working through it then and there.”

A pair of Earls Collection cult basketball shorts. Photography: courtesy of Earls Collection
A model in Earls Collection. Photography: courtesy of Earls Collection

Still, he was acutely aware of the often thorny transition to life after football. “So many guys struggle with it, because you don’t feel like you have a purpose. You think you’re put on this planet to be an athlete. You put sports on a pedestal.” Brown worked as a commentator and panellist for New Zealand’s Sky Sport after retiring, but he knew that going down the typical media route wasn’t going to fulfil him the way that playing did. Fashion was something he’d always been interested in – he would shop online at Heron Preston and wear the most out-there sneakers from Off-White – hence the pushback from his more conservative teammates.

“I’ve always felt like I’ve been a bit creative, but before I started Earls, I didn’t know how to channel that creativity. And I guess when I look back at it now, it was in the way I dressed.” He looked to NBA and NFL players for style inspiration. As soon as he got off the field, he’d change out of his skin-tight kit and into a pair of long, baggy basketball shorts – the very style that would kickstart Earls Collection.

“A lot of people who didn’t know me thought I was crazy in terms of, ‘You don’t know anything about clothing’,” recalls Brown, who is sipping on a green smoothie across the road from his Bondi pop-up. “But those people only knew me for 80 minutes on the field each week. They didn’t know Lewi outside of those 80 minutes.” His inner circle wasn’t quite so surprised. “My close friends and family were like, ‘Yeah, we could picture this happening’.”

Made in bright colours with ‘EARLS’ printed across the front, the basketball shorts were an overnight success. They sold out every time Brown put a new drop online, becoming such a phenomenon that other stores began ripping them off. “We had to send Alibaba a cease and desist,” laughs Brown. But soon, he became restless with the copy-paste nature of a single product. Having educated himself on supply chains and manufacturing processes, he gradually built his collections out to include hoodies, knits, T-shirts and sweats.

“I always wanted it to feel sports- inspired,” he explains. “I have such a variety of favourite brands, and if you looked at them all together, you’d be like, What?’ But if you put them all in a blender, you’d get Earls.” His intarsia knits – the ones with ‘EARLS’ printed across the chest in bright colours – became a hit with the brand’s following, which was growing bigger by the day. But certain gatekeepers weren’t so receptive. “There was a retailer that I really love. I’ve shopped from them for a long time. I remember I went in there and I was like, ‘Hey, I started my own brand’. And the guy said, ‘Ah, yeah, it’ll just be another footy brand’.” He pauses as he recalls the interaction. “People just don’t want you to exit your lane.”

Lewi Brown in his Sydney studio wearing pieces from Earls’ Year 5 Drop 2 Collection. Photography: Alex Walker
Photography: Alex Walker

Earls Collection has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Looking at its collections, you can tell Brown’s team of two isn’t designing pieces they think guys might like; rather, they seem intuitively to understand what guys want to wear and how they want to wear it. Brown’s former life as a rugby league player, meanwhile, seems to be having the opposite effect to what that retailer predicted: people interested in sport (almost every Australian male) feel like they can connect with him; he’s not some designer in an ivory tower but a former athlete who enjoys dressing well. The proof is in the pudding: while most Australian menswear brands have to look abroad for customers, Earls Collection’s biggest markets are Australia and New Zealand, followed by the US, England and Japan.

Recently, other brands that play in the menswear space have cottoned onto what Brown is doing. Earls Collection has collaborated with the watch brand G-Shock and the hat brand New Era, but its most high- profile collaboration dropped this year. The Earls x ASICS GT-2160 sneaker pretty much broke the internet when it landed; the first drop sold out within five minutes, and Brown is still getting messages about where to cop the shoes. Brown beams when he talks about it, but he’s most proud of the meaning behind the shoe, which is called ‘Ngāwari’, Māori for ‘treading softly’. Green accents are reflective of the traditional pounamu stone, while the brown represents his surname and the wood carvings associated with a traditional gathering known as a marae. But the connections go even deeper: Brown’s late grandfather, who, growing up, was also his father figure, wore ASICS his whole life. “Yeah. It was a real full-circle moment.”

FULL-CIRCLE MOMENTS seem to follow Brown. By the time this story is published, he will have been announced as the creative director of the New Zealand Warriors, the NRL team he played for the longest. His appointment is part of a trend in international sport, where teams and leagues are tapping cool young designers to revamp their jerseys and branding. Ronnie Fieg of iconic New York store Kith became the first creative director of the New York Knicks in 2022, while in 2023, Major League Soccer tapped Guillermo Andrade of LA streetwear brand 424 to be its creative advisor. While Aussie sport is slower to embrace the trend, with his finger firmly on the pulse of sport and fashion, Brown is set to become a trailblazer.

“It’s cool, because I played [84] games there [at the Warriors], and I’ll be designing all their travel stuff,” he says. “When I was there, I felt like playing sport was my way of giving back to the community. And then, when opportunities like this come across my desk, I realise I can really reference my roots, and give back to the culture.”

Before we finish chatting, I ask Brown to describe the Earls Collection customer. Normally, when I ask this kind of question, designers respond by describing their target market’s sense of style – what music they’re into and the kind of places they hang out. But Brown identifies his customer’s character. “They are a good person, someone who’s loyal and works hard. They’re willing to take a risk and believe in themselves.” Brown may be the designer of Earls Collection, but in this way, you could say he’s the customer, too.

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