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Panthers QB Cam Newton teams up with Belk to start clothing line

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is spending his off-season filling up men’s closets – and it’s not about football jerseys.

Newton, known for his good looks and sartorial flair, is rolling out a men’s fashion line at 133 Belk stores and belk.com.

The label, MADE Cam Newton, encompasses everything from suits and ties to T-shirts and jeans – more than 60 products. Never in Belk’s 125-year history has the Charlotte-based company partnered with a pro athlete on an entire apparel line, company executives say.

Newton, who’s appeared in GQ fashion photo shoots and was featured this month in an Esquire Magazine blog on his fashion line, acknowledges that he’s not literally sketching looks for next season. But he says he gives lots of input on things like color palettes, pattern designs and even details like choosing the right buttons or zippers.

He’s big on making sure the line has plenty of color – this spring, teal and orange are featured – and he sounds excited when he talks about aspects as small as the design of the price tags.

“You would be surprised by the things I’ve said yes and no to,” Newton told the Observer in a recent interview. “Anytime your name is on something or you are affiliated with something, you want it to come out with a bang and say, ‘This is my clothing line. This is how it looks and I feel great in it.’ ”

Newton’s partnership with Belk goes beyond the celebrity endorsement level. He’s part of a growing trend of celebrities “creating” their own products, whether perfume, clothing or home fashions, says T. Bettina Cornwell, professor of marketing at the University of Oregon.

In such partnerships, Cornwell says, the risks to both sides are real.

On Belk’s side, she says, “they probably have a release contract that can dissolve the relationship should (Newton) do something socially unacceptable,” as happened in the cases of Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong.

On Newton’s side, the relationship is perhaps less risky, although it could be a black eye for the athlete if the brand doesn’t do well.

“If the MADE brand were not a success, that’s a bit of a drag” for Newton, she says. “It would be talked about. But as long as he’s maintaining his image on the field as well as off the field, he would be OK.”

Cornwell says companies research a celebrity, and initial contracts like the one between Newton and Belk typically range from three to five years, with the option of extending the contract. In this case, the contract needs to be at least three to five years because “there are more sunk costs, and a greater commitment on the part of Belk than if they were selling fast-moving commercial goods” like energy drinks or deodorant.

At first glance, Cornwell says the partnership between Belk and Newton makes sense.

“He’s from the South and went to school in the south and Belk is a Southern company, so they have a geographic alignment. ... If it’s a genuine relationship, people believe in the authenticity.”

Fashionistas watching

While Belk is mainly a Southern brand – it spans from Florida to the South, Maryland to the North, and Texas to the West – the larger national fashion world is watching.

“He’s part of this great, continual movement worldwide of athletes embracing style – and people are watching; they’re interested,” wrote Nic Screws, senior associate market editor for Esquire in an email interview with The Observer.

Screws called Newton’s first collection “a great first effort for someone without a fashion pedigree.

“The line is pretty basic; it’s the building blocks of a man’s wardrobe. There a few trend pieces in there – like his use of color ... but I think that’s very true and current to what is happening in menswear nationally, not just regionally,” she wrote.

Belk leaders say the line is designed to be affordable. Prices range from $28 for a T-shirt to around $500 for a suit.

While the pro-athlete-fashion brand connection is nothing new – Tiger Woods’ Platinum golf wear collection and Michael Jordan’s sneaker empire have been available – the oversight that Newton has over every product that bears his name is real, both Newton and Belk leaders say.

Talks between Belk and Newton started about a year ago, said John Thomas, Belk executive vice president for private brands. “He said, ‘I want to make it cool to look good,’ ” Thomas says. “I thought, ‘I think we’ve got something here.’ ”

During the off-season, Newton, who is finishing his undergraduate degree at Auburn University, meets with Belk’s Charlotte-based design team. He sometimes comes into the company’s design studio to consult, Thomas said.

A pro – at ironing

Get to know Newton, 23, and his football-fashion fashion connection all make sense.

He was the kid who loved dressing up for church at home in Georgia. Who shined his father’s shoes every Sunday and learned to iron at an early age.

After getting in trouble in middle school, Newton recalls his mother delivering a punishment she felt would be “much better than a whooping,” Newton recalled.

“For two weeks, I had to wear church clothes to school. It was supposed to be a punishment, but I was so confident in myself that I could not go wrong with it,” Newton said. “I took time to press my shirts the night before, iron my pants and polish my shoes.”

“I thought everybody knew how to iron until I got to college and my roommate asked me to do it,” he laughed.

Ever since taking the national stage as Heisman Trophy winner, Rookie of the Year and the NFL No. 1 draft pick, Newton has been admired for his fashion off the field.

He shows up to news conferences and team events looking smartly dressed – not attention-grabbing getups, but in tailored pieces.

Last September, Newton was featured in a GQ cover story, “Newton’s Laws of Style.” For the shoot, he modeled brands ranging from Louis Vuitton to Burberry and Giorgio Armani.

In 2011, Newton was featured in the magazine wearing the season’s bold striped sweaters.

Newton says he has a long line of fashion inspirations.

But before he puts anything on, it must pass one litmus test: “As my coaches and my mom would say, ‘Would you wear that in front of your grandmother?’ She’s old-school. The shirt has to be tucked in and the pants have to be pulled up and the hair has to be cut.”

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