Sunday, June 16, 2024

All the cool kids are playing golf. Are you up to par?

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The golfers teeing off at Te Arai Links in the north of New Zealand are wearing smart yet non-traditional attire: some are in T-shirts, one is in a hoodie, another wears Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. Although most still adhere to the game’s established dress codes, this club hasn’t set any, in part to encourage a more relaxed and inclusive environment for the thousands of people who play on its courses each year. 

Global participation in golf is at an all-time high. The United States Golf Association measured 45 million players in 2023, up nine per cent on the previous year, while the R&A, the governing body for the rest of the world, tallied 39.6 million in its latest report. The global golf market, encompassing equipment and apparel, course costs and coaching, was valued at $88.3bn in 2023, according to Ken Research, and is expected to reach $103.8bn by 2028.

Dana Lee wears the sold-out Malbon x Curb Your Enthusiasm Pretty Good long-sleeved T-shirt and Malbon Golf Course shoe, $298 © Beau Ryan

Part of the increase is due to the influx of younger and more diverse players in a sport that has historically been the domain of the old and the affluent. And its upward trajectory has been helped by a handful of brands that have sought to change the game. 

“Our mission was to grow a different community and challenge the sport’s perception of being elitist,” says Erica Malbon, who co-founded the Los Angeles-based apparel brand Malbon Golf with her husband, Stephen, in 2017. The duo opened their first store on Fairfax Avenue, where it was positioned near streetwear and skatewear brands, and the clothes were worn by Justin Bieber and Schoolboy Q. 

Malbon Golf’s visibility has grown through collaborations with brands including Nike, New Balance, TAG Heuer and Jimmy Choo, as well as through cultural affiliations, as a capsule collection and campaign tied to the final season of Curb Your Enthusiasm that starred the owner of the show’s fictional golf club, Mr Takahashi.

Eastside Golf feather vest, $115, oversized cropped T-shirt, $75, and mini-pleat skirt, $130
Eastside Golf feather vest, $115, oversized cropped T-shirt, $75, and mini-pleat skirt, $130 © Eastside Golf
Eastside Golf quarter zip, $100
Eastside Golf quarter zip, $100 © Eastside Golf

“Golf is no longer just old white men at a country club that you’re not invited to,” says Malbon. “There’s been a movement in the industry – ‘young creative golfers’ is what they like to call them. And there are more minorities and women playing, which is great for its future.” Malbon is also in charge of increasing the brand’s dedicated women’s line, which currently makes up five per cent of the business following its relaunch last July.

“We want everybody to know that no matter what you look like or where you come from, you can show up as yourself and be accepted,” says Eastside Golf’s Olajuwon Ajanaku. He co-founded the brand in 2019 with Earl Cooper, whom he met playing in college, and now outfits amateurs and professionals and hosts community days throughout the US. “Especially among young people, we have seen a more diverse crowd take an interest,” adds Ajanaku. “We’ve been using fashion to change golf’s perception and make it cooler than it once seemed.”

Ayoub Id-Omar wears Manors Shooter Sleeves, £18, and Frontier Tech cap, £40. Adem Wahbi wears Manors Reversible Legacy vest, £120
Ayoub Id-Omar wears Manors Shooter Sleeves, £18, and Frontier Tech cap, £40. Adem Wahbi wears Manors Reversible Legacy vest, £120 © Douglas Guillot

Likewise, in the UK, British brand Manors launched in 2018 because the three founders felt disillusioned by the options for young players. “Golf was so different,” says co-founder Jojo Regan. “The major brands dominated the market share, and had very little incentive to innovate their product range. We wanted to build a range that had genuine on- and off-the-course appeal – no one wants to turn up at the pub post-round and look like they’ve just stepped off the fairway.” 

Manors insulated course gilet, £150

Manors insulated course gilet, £150

Manors Greenskeeper trousers, £130

Manors Greenskeeper trousers, £130

Eastside Golf x Jordan Retro 6 1961 shoes, $240

Eastside Golf x Jordan Retro 6 1961 shoes, $240

Clubhaus The Crew polo, ¥15,400 (about £77)

Clubhaus The Crew polo, ¥15,400 (about £77)

Manors’ bestselling products include a gilet (which “is popular for golfers who work in an office and wear it with a shirt or smart T-shirt”), the Shooter shirt, which is inspired by ’90s basketball uniforms, and the Greenskeeper trousers, which are a technical take on a carpenter style with four-way stretch fabric and moisture-wicking properties.

“Rather than golf styles becoming more fashionable, I believe that the fashion-conscious segment of the population has taken up golf, and this influence has had a positive impact on golf fashion as a whole,” says Teizo Matsumoto, who owns golf retailer Clubhaus in Japan, which first opened in 2017 in Osaka, spurred by the lack of stylish clothes available at the time. 

Louis Vuitton leather mini golf bag, £2,490
Louis Vuitton leather mini golf bag, £2,490 © Luis Perez. Art direction and styling, Tyler, The Creator

As well as its own line, Clubhaus stocks brands including Malbon, Metalwood and Eastside Golf. But Matsumoto warns the market is becoming saturated: “Existing golf brands have increased sales, and new brands have had a chance to grow. However, the market has been oversupplied as everyone has tried to get into golf apparel.”

Fashion has been quick to capitalise on the market. In April, Aimé Leon Dore, the New York brand that has usurped Supreme for hype, launched a golf collection of polos, flat caps and vests that promptly sold out. Tyler, The Creator, who has his own golf-inspired fashion line, collaborated in March with Louis Vuitton on a golf bag and headcovers, while Gucci and Prada have released golf apparel and equipment. 

Brioni silk mockneck sweater, £1,320
Brioni silk mockneck sweater, £1,320 © Brioni

Brioni, too, launched a range of technical wear and golf accessories this year. Says design director Norbert Stumpfl: “We felt that there were increasing requests from our clients for more active garments, which connected to their hobbies without sacrificing elegance and style.” Stumpfl doesn’t play golf, but notes that several people in the Italian fashion house are keen players. “I was happy to take some advice from them, to allow the garment I designed to respect the golf gesture and movement, as well as select the right typology of high-end material.”

Authenticity is still central to this movement; the brands seeing the most success are the ones that offer fashion-forward designs that are practical for the course. All, however, are helping golf shake its stuffy connotations. “Golf was once a sport that lots played, but wouldn’t choose to talk about or share with their audience,” adds Regan. “A great barometer for how the interest in golf has reached new levels is that it’s now something many people come across on a daily basis – regardless of whether they play or not.” 

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