Women's gear, up first
Finally, gearmakers are getting that not all female athletes are a size 6—and they’re designing performance apparel to reflect that
Meredith Botnick fell in love with triathlon in 2005. She registered for races and trained, but she consistently came up against one big roadblock: finding gear that fit her taller frame. Fast-forward 13 years and as she stares down her first Ironman, she will happily tell you clothing is no longer an issue.
Botnick, a 36-year-old Denver-based engineer, is among the female endurance athletes who are embracing the brands that embrace them, women with a nontraditional body types. “When I first started training and racing, I had to buy men’s clothing,” she says. “I’m tall and have broad shoulders, and women’s clothing left me with shirts that rode up and pants that fell down.”
Today Botnick is an advocate for extended sizing in endurance gear and serves as a brand ambassador for RSport, which designs endurance clothing for the Athena athlete, defined as any female weighing more than 165 pounds. According to Michele Orr, general merchandising manager at REI, that’s an increasingly large piece of the market. “Today in America, more than 60 percent of women are a size 16 or larger,” she says. “This is a real opportunity for brands to grow.”
Perhaps the best news is that the progress in athletic clothing doesn’t stop with the size number; it includes color, variety, and thoughtful design as well. Today, more than ever, Athena athletes are finding attractive, appealing gear that makes them feel good when they head out the door. For its part, REI is carrying more labels with extended sizing than ever before, all part of its Force of Nature campaign, which is designed to make the outdoors more inclusive of age, race, size, and gender expression. Endurance athletes can now find running and cycling gear with far greater sizing options—and wider footwear to match. “This is about serving an underserved customer,” says Orr.
REI now sells running gear in its own brand up to size XXXL and carries Nike’s broad range of sizes as well. For cyclists and triathletes, REI partners with Terry Cycling and Shebeest, both of which offer extensive sizing options. REI intends to grow its brand’s cycling sizes soon too.
The Running Skirts brand of athletic apparel has been around for 13 years and in that time has extended not only its product line but its sizing as well. “We noticed that we were selling out in our larger sizes, and today they probably equate to 50 percent of sales,” says Cindy Linch, one half of the twin-sister team that created the brand. “We understand that women of all sizes appreciate having a variety of colors, patterns, styles, and prints.”
The company also understands the psychology of sizing, and it has an unconventional system. “Rather than using traditional sizing, we use hip and waist measurements that coincide with a [new and unique] zero-to-six size range,” explains Linch. The brand advertises that its products “hug all the right curves and gracefully cover the others.”
Oiselle is another running brand that has begun to add more measurements. Founder Sally Bergesen admits she’s learned a few lessons along the way with regard to sizing. “When we began, we focused on the community we knew well, which was the traditional athlete,” she says. “Then we realized that if you stand on the sidelines of any marathon, you’re going to see a wide range of sizes and shapes.”
Taking those lessons to heart, Oiselle researched how to extend its size range. “We want all women to feel welcome to the party,” Bergesen says.
Meanwhile, extending sizing is not as straightforward as most would assume. “It goes beyond simply adding more fabric,” Bergesen explains. “That’s a common mistake that brands make as they grow their sizing.”
Instead, after a size 12, clothing needs design changes as well. C.J. Riggins, who created RSport, explains that there are “exponential ways” that women’s bodies change as they get larger. Still, she says, designers must answer the call. “We can’t tell women to ‘get out and do it’ if we aren’t providing them with apparel that fits,” she says. “Companies are starting to listen and design accordingly.”
For Botnick, that means clothing that not only fits but gives her style choices as well. “For years, all I had to choose from was black and pink,” she says. “Now I wear a brand that pays attention to colors, patterns, and all the little details that matter.”