In the fashion-forward city of New York, Champion’s Filipino designer Donny Barrios-Mason has made a name for himself. This is his story.
American sportswear brand Champion recently opened its flagship in the Philippines during the pandemic. And just when you thought it would be a big risk to open a store during a time like this, the brand opened new branches at Mega Fashion Hall in SM Megamall, Powerplant in Rockwell, Shangrila Plaza, High Street in BGC, and at many of Anthem Group Philippines’ stores.
In recent years, the iconic brand has found a resurgence in interest in the Millennials and Gen Z market. And as Filipinos are always up-to-date in street style, it wasn’t long before our stars and influencers sported activewear, hoodies, tees, sports bras, and accessories from the apparel. Since we all live in loungewear now—in our sweats mostly, demand for the brand has never been higher.
A Beloved Heritage Brand
Champion was actually founded over a hundred years ago in 1919. It was then acquired by Sara Lee Corporation, a subsidiary of Hanesbrands. And soon, it became one of America’s most beloved heritage brands.
But did you know that a Filipino is behind the design team of Champion? His name is Donny Barrios-Mason, my best friend since 5th grade. On my last trip to New York, he took me to the flagship store of Champion, U.S.A. in Soho and I was shocked to see how many people still supported the brand. It was pretty wild!
“Champion is that rare mix of American heritage and street credibility,” Donny explains. “It’s one of the few brands I know that can encompass age, gender, and personal style. One can wear a Champion sweatshirt with a beaded Prada skirt or with a pair of shorts and tsinelas. Filipinos have always had global points of view in terms of style and product consumption. [And] Champion, with its fairly friendly price points and time-tested quality, totally fits the bill.”
A Champion in the Fashion Industry
The road to Champion’s design was a pretty long one. And all throughout, Donny collected years of experience in the fashion industry. “I work as an Artistic Director in Brand Concept. We navigate through what is up and coming and relevant in art, music, pop, and especially street culture. We [then] translate this to design language for the global teams to draw from,” says Donny.
Donny looks back succinctly on his career history. “In a nutshell, this year is my 20th [year of] working in fashion here in the US. I’ve done everything—from merchandising to design, from JCrew to Marc Jacobs. And of course, [I founded] my own label, which was truly a dream manifested.”
“I was working as a freelance Creative Director and Champion came as a random opportunity. Coincidentally, I previously found myself constantly for something that was more abstract than the actual design and production of garments. I also wanted to learn from working for a bigger entity [as Champion is actually owned by Hanes].”
A Passion Project-turned Business
Long before arriving at Champion and New York, Donny launched and established his own retail line. This was back when he was still living in Los Angeles. The brand Crispin & Basilio—lovingly named after the sons of Sisa in the novel “Noli Me Tángere” by Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal—was an ode to his motherland.
“C&B really was supposed to be this small project in between jobs,” he explains. “I had just quit a stressful design position and wanted to utilize my time and the network of sample and production houses [that] I was able to build relationships with. Remember this was [in] 2005, so very much before the fast-fashion boom [like Zara, for example].”
“The market for an advanced contemporary concept was just beginning and I felt that this was a good space to learn from,” he continues. “Next thing you know, Intermix and Neiman Marcus were putting in their 5 figure orders—which was totally mind-blowing, as I essentially started as a one-man operation. In a matter of a year, I had built a team and an infrastructure to deliver 5 collections a year.”
Donny confesses to me the overwhelming pressure it was to keep churning clothes every season. “We [eventually] expanded to having 60 global accounts. [Because of that, I] partnered with a reputable manufacturer, whom I eventually sold the company to. This gave me the opportunity to consider my other creative interests and to take a step back and re-energize.”
Of Learnings and Experiences in New York
His experience with Crispin & Basilio led him to many learnings he carries with him today. “There is a multitude of life lessons you can get from this. I would say that one [lesson] that stands out [for me] is to take risks, especially when you are young. You have the rest of your life to be cautious.”
Eventually, Donny went to fashion school and made his way to New York—the center of the fashion universe. Armed with all that he learned, this Filipino designer soon found his place in New York—particularly in the fast-moving world of fashion.
Donny shares with me the two most important things he learned in school. “Technique and the ability to decipher quality material and work. Decisiveness—it means nothing unless it’s on time. I would say NYC is still the heart of the fashion business. It may be debatable as to which city is most creative, but the energy and talent is undeniable.”
Fashion-forward Amid the Pandemic
Just as fast as fashion is, it also came to a screeching halt during the pandemic. Thus, Donny, together with his design team worked harder than ever. The goal, after all, was to make the brand even more essential and relevant to the times.
“Sustainability was already an important directive and a personal agenda on my part even prior to the pandemic,” Donny explains. “Fortunately, sweatshirts and sweatpants are the uniforms of lounging. But it goes further than that. This time has become a reminder of how fragile things can be and what we should truly protect the most.”
When asked about where Champion is in the drive to sustainability, he’s actually the first person to answer me in complete honesty about the industry’s future. “I constantly work with an innovation team that does research and development of everything from process to materials. Sustainability is always part of all conversations and strides are definitely being taken.”
“Will fashion ever be 100% sustainable? No. But our practices as both professionals and consumers can help get as close as possible.”
Fashion from a Different Perspective
Overall, Donny’s 20-year experience as a Filipino designer in the U.S. and his learnings from a global heritage clothing brand during the most difficult time (in the recent years of fashion) made him look at his craft differently.
“I realized [that] I operate a little differently from what the industry may ‘require’ [from] its creative population,” he shares. “I’ve always felt more at home working with the sewers in the studios than going to events and parties. I was uncomfortable with self-promotion, which was an obstacle. Needless to say, I am still learning.”
I think this is what remains Filipino about Donny. He’s more into the “making”—the labor behind the brand, rather than its glory. And when I look at the brand, as someone who grew up with him as children of the 90s, I can definitely see Donny in the details of Champion’s clothes.
And that makes me incredibly proud—not just because he’s my best friend, but also because he’s a bona fide Filipino.
Sage Words of Advice
“My style is off-kilter casual. I’m always experimenting with materials and silhouettes but within the confines of simplicity and comfort. Right now I’m defo having a 90s vibe, lol!”
“Speaking of the decade, you know we are total kids of the 90s. So philosophically speaking, the roots would be Margiela’s subversiveness, Helmut Lang’s modernity, and Gaultier’s sense of humor,” he explains. “Throwing in the casual ease of Esprit and Benetton, of course.”
And yes, I will never forget our casual days in school—where we would be the very few sporting Esprit and Benetton. Even back then, we loved casual.
For this new generation of young designers, Donny has this piece of advice to give. “I would say capitalize on aesthetics and materials that are geographically and culturally unique, but elevated and executed in a universal language. We are in an era where there is more perceived value to what is not mass marketed and produced.”
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why Donny Barrios-Mason is a Filipino champion at Champion.
Vin Servillon: First Filipino Artist Commissioned To Paint Iconic Store Windows In New York
Sonny Calvento’s “Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss” is the First Filipino Short Film to be in Sundance
Owning Your Identity And Standing In Your Power—Meet Keekai