I’m not sure when I knew it, but somehow it was like a tickle in the back of my throat that wouldn't go away. The question was “What would I do about it”?
I truly believed someone would rise up and make a change. I believed my colleagues and industry professionals were smart, industrious and entrepreneurial. What I was seeing, reading and researching was publicly available information. So I had every expectation that one of them would launch a segment of an existing brand, or a new brand to serve what I saw was missing. Thing is…they didn’t.
The “it” I’m referring to was the lack of apparel, let alone true performance, athletic apparel options for the average American woman whom we know today is a 16/18. So, to be clear I mean Plus Size, Athena and Curvy Athletes.
I knew since I was 12 that I would spend my career in the world of apparel. In my teens and twenties, I was a watcher, listener and then doer. I watched and listened to presidents, executives, bosses and team members effuse their version of “brand” to me over the years. I started with Abercrombie & Fitch with Michael Jeffries who clearly had a vision of who he did and did not want wearing his brand, much less working for it. There was even a “Look Book” which stated for all employees the right and wrong employees to seek out for employment. How we should dress (3 layers, never just 2 and always a strap belt) and the groups, schools or clubs our most desired candidates belonged to. As wrong as many of their practices were, it was the most calculated and controlled “brand” I’d ever seen up close. At the heart of it, they believed only the cool kids and smaller kids should be wearing their clothes. That had me on the cusp since I wore a 12/14 and that’s where their size range stopped.
I asked a technical designer at A&F, “Why, if we know the national average is a 12/14 (in the 90’s), do we still buy to a peak size that is a 6/8”? He answered, “Because that’s the way they want it”. That nebulous “they” always reminded me of the wizard behind the curtain in Oz. Or the Movie, Mean Girls, but on steroids? Why would you deliberately exclude a population that needs, yes “needs” clothing?
Flash forward to my 30's. I remember clearly, seven days after I started at Pearl Izumi in 2007, they dropped their “Loose Fit” and only ran “Fitted” and “Semi-Fitted”. Living as close as we were to the “Boulder Bubble” in Colorado with the world of athletic elite I shouldn’t have been surprised. I mean when someone here asks “What do you do” the expected answer isn’t your career, but your athletic endeavors and pursuits.
Years later, when I noted that cyclists tended to wear our shorts, but not jerseys It led to the management discussion that our jerseys were too “V” shaped even in our semi-fitted form to fit the average weekend warrior athlete. So I persisted, "Wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to build for them too since they’re shopping Pearl already?". But the answer was telling, not shocking, but telling. They aren’t our customer. Ugh…gut punch…feel it?
Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, made a now famous statement on the morning news circuit a few years back when he stated “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” (cue descending whistle, facepalm emoji and ever being called to be spokesman for another consumer centric business…at least not right away). In shock and awe, the interviewer handed it back to the news desk to close and I remember clearly one of the female news reporters said (and I paraphrase) ‘That’s just wrong. Every brand should make for every size’.
I knew immediately I didn’t agree with her. Chip’s statement along with the other brands I mention here show a choice that each company made. They all believe or believed what was the best trajectory for their companies. After time and thought, I don’t fault any of these companies for their stance. They’ve spent countless years and hours focused on a clearly identified demographic and to switch that midstream or add midstream is difficult. (cue Nike’s first plus size ad that showed a slew of straight sized models with one plus model included in a strappy tank…if you know anything about Athena’s, it’s that those little straps aren’t performing any feats of hercules to hold those girls in place during any kind of activity except possibly meditation). And for many consumers, the idea of some brands entering the Plus Size market now after so many years of not serving her, is seen as disingenuous.
What each of these experiences (and trust me, there are more) led me to realize was that no one was coming in to serve her with TRUE performance apparel. Stretchy short-lived leggings that look cool. Sure. But not apparel truly intended to be built with quality and attention to the functioning details needed for the Athena, Plus Size or Curvy Athlete and her sports endeavors. We have needs that are different from our straight sized counterparts and having developed fabrics, trims, patterns and products, I had finally realized what that tickle was and how to address it.
9/18/18 - CJ Riggins