By and  on March 3, 2011

Get me a doctor!

That’s a cry activewear brands are making as they continue to push the technology envelope with products such as carbon fiber bicycle shorts, water-resistant running jackets and light-as-air skiwear. From medical doctors to engineers, companies are hiring experts outside the industry to develop new ways to protect athletes from both the elements and the rigors of sports — all while keeping comfort in mind.

For Under Armour, that translates into Charged Cotton, which is being billed as the first true performance cotton apparel, while at Asics, it’s battery-operated jackets that light up to make the wearer visible in the dark. For TYR, a collection of carbon triathlon apparel should appeal to that sport’s tech-savvy consumers, while Reebok is pushing its upscale ZigTech apparel collection to complement its newest running shoe. And with most brands, offering UV sun protection in apparel has become almost commonplace.

“Years go, Kevin Plank [founder and chief executive officer of Under Armour Inc.] went on the road and said cotton is the enemy,” said Henry Stafford, the brand’s senior vice president of apparel. “Actually, lack of performance is the enemy.”

So Under Armour’s engineers worked with Cotton Incorporated to create Charged Cotton, which offers traditional cotton fabric attributes, like softness, but wicks away moisture and dries five times faster. “Cotton loves to absorb water,” Stafford said, “but this dries five times faster than the average cotton T-shirt. It’s actually the fastest drying shirt we have now.”

The shirts, which will be available beginning March 12 and will feature football players Tom Brady and Miles Austin and skier Lindsey Vonn in the advertising, will retail for $25.

Under Armour is also expecting growth from its Catalyst collection, which features fabrics and fibers made from recycled water bottles. “That’s a growth engine for us,” said David Ayers, director of men’s team sports and international apparel.

At Asics, the new Advanced Running Development is a big push for fall, according to Danelle Fee, apparel merchandise manager. “It’s our most technical product and offers more design details and embellishments,” she said.

Short- and long-sleeve shirts or half-zip pullovers offer ThermaCool 50+ UV protection that regulates body temperature in both the heat and the cold, Fee said, along with ventilation and reflectivity. There are also shorts, tights and a jacket, the latter of which is wind- and waterproof, with a media stow pocket and a toggle on the bottom. Another new piece is the Reflector jacket, which has a seam on the arms that either blinks or glows solid red and runs off a watch battery. And the company’s Thermopolis lifestyle collection is being expanded with a loose-fit, bootleg pant and zip jacket for fall.

TYR, which has built its business on performance garments, is also pushing a lifestyle apparel line for fall to “dress athletes when they’re not competing,” according to Jeremy Tongish, director of merchandising. Another big push for the company is its triathlon apparel. “Every fabric has a purpose,” he said, whether that’s compression, moisture management, flat-lock seams or UV sun protection. The newest addition is the Carbon Collection, which uses carbon fiber to lower body temperature, decrease oxygen needs, lower heart rate and reduce lactic acid buildup. “When you talk about the demographic of the triathlete,” Tongish said, “they have a high disposable income and they’re dedicated to their sport. Their apparel has to have technical features and perform.”

Reebok’s ZigTech line of running shoes, which feature a “noodle” bottom designed to reduce muscle fatigue, is gaining followers in the U.S. after a strong European introduction, according to Marc Leonard, head of men’s design. “And what we try to do is support the footwear story with a counterpart in apparel,” he said. The line of Ts, jackets and shorts employs Celliant fibers, which create an increase in oxygen levels by an average of 7 percent, and sport a subtle noodle design to tie back to the shoes.

And at Specialized, which concentrates on bikes and cycling, the fall range offers jerseys with UPF 50 sun protection woven in, higher collars and screen-printed tags to enhance a rider’s comfort, according to Jennifer Bateh, global marketing manager. Chamois for the company’s bike shorts and cycling bibs was created by an in-house physician to provide padding and protection where it is needed most.

The technology message was also evident at ISPO, the giant trade fair in Munich last month where textile innovation and high-tech hardware were the primary talking points.

“We are seeing huge improvements in lightweight and highly breathable down insulation,” said Mark McCarthy, senior product manager at The North Face.

U.K. outdoor specialist Berghaus pushed its new Hydrophobic Down Jacket, which product line manager Sebastien Willefert said “combines the best of both worlds. It’s as warm as a down jacket, but as waterproof as a rain jacket.”

Patagonia partnered with Gore on two different membranes for next winter. “We had developed our own membrane previously, but promoting it was tough,” said Eva-Maria Hartwich, Patagonia’s marketing manager for Germany. “Now that we have Gore on board, things should be easier as Gore is so well-known with customers.”

For fall-winter, Patagonia is launching a new line of colorful, 150-gram down insulation jackets, easily packable into attached nylon bags.

High-tech innovation is becoming more important from a consumer standpoint and shoppers are increasingly well-informed even before setting foot into a store, retailers noted.

“We’ve seen lots of customers come in, specifically looking for products with a 20,000 mm water column,” said Sabine Böse, buyer for Citabel Sports, a 43,000-square-foot sports retailer in Luxembourg, referring to a high level of waterproofing. “They now look this up on the Internet.”

For example, Peter Hahn, a European mail-order and online retailer, has an introduction page in its catalogue explaining high-tech fabrics, said Maximiliane Ways, managing director.

Fashion remained the highlight of the Bogner Fire + Ice and main collections. The Munich-based brand explored digital prints, putting photographs of denim fabric on ski pants that look convincingly like jeans but retain all the skiwear benefits.

Last year, Bogner’s revenues rose 10 percent to 151 million euros, or $200.5 million at average exchange.

“We have done a lot for the brand at POS,” said Oliver Pabst, a board member of Bogner, which is gunning for 10 percent growth in the year ahead.

“Specialty sportswear retailers still need assistance in product presentation,” said Thomas Roider, head designer of Bogner Fire + Ice. “In the past, a sportswear shop put up a sign saying size 38, with everything this size hanging there. That’s over. The celebration of sport as lifestyle is key.”

Adrian Lockstone, director of Landmark, an outdoor retailer from the U.K., said, “I’m looking for impulse buys, pieces you need, pieces you want rather than need. That’s the way to make customers part with their money.”

The concept of versatility, such as wearing active sportswear in the city, also emerged as a main trend.

“If you look around at the airport, you see businessmen in double-layered down jackets,” said Arno Pichler, ceo of the Austrian outdoor label Northland. “A few seasons ago, this was unthinkable. Everyone was wearing wool coats.”

“The outdoor in the city trend is incredibly strong,” agreed Marcel Aust, owner of the Lübeck board shop Boardrider. “So jackets need to be fit for the street, the mountains and possibly also a beach walk.”

Nike 6.0 is a prime example. Launched last year, the line represents the six action sports: surfing, snowboarding, BMX riding, motocross racing, wakeboarding and skiing. However, its new bright print jackets come with easily removable, zip-up snow skirts. “In the city, they are normal jackets,” noted Nike 6.0’s category merchandiser Malte Stern.

“The items we’re interested in need to be functional and fashionable,” said Stefan Kaelin, owner of his namesake store in Aspen, Colo., while Peter Hahn’s Ways observed that as soon as an item is versatile, consumers are prepared to spend a lot more money. The energy at ISPO suggested continued momentum for Europe’s active sportswear. According to the European Federation of Sporting Goods Retailers, or Fedas, sector retail sales in Europe increased by 3 percent last year to 38.75 billion euros, or $51.45 billion.

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