NEW YORK — Nike is trying to take activewear to another stratosphere for fall.
After two years of tinkering in the Nike Sports Research Lab, the company is launching "Sphere," a line of highly technical apparel made from performance-oriented fabrics and aimed at serious athletes. The rollout begins next month in select specialty stores that cater to consumers who know the benefits of top-tier fabrics and seek them out.
The name is an abbreviation for atmosphere, the gist being that the gear will protect wearers from Mother Nature no matter how grueling the workout.
The 10-piece collection is broken down into four groups:
l Sphere Cool for maximum cooling.
l Sphere Dry for moisture management and reduced clinging.
l Sphere Thermal for extra warmth.
l Sphere Pro for extra weather protection.
For the rollout, the product is offered in its running, training, tennis and ACG apparel lines, and additional merchandise will be offered next year for other activities.
Sphere stemmed from research and development for attire worn by Nike-sponsored marathoners at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. What the sneaker giant came up with was a non-woven polyester singlet designed to keep runners cool throughout their 26.2 mile treks. Instead of strictly wicking moisture away from the skin, as is typical in most performance-oriented running apparel, Sphere uses a three-dimensional fabric that keeps perspiration on the skin so that air can pass through to help evaporate it more quickly. Elite athletes were so enthusiastic about the singlet that Nike execs recognized an opportunity to create similar items for commercial purposes.
Under the guidance of Jordan Wand, global director of Nike’s advance innovation team, about 30 staffers around the world fine-tuned the Sphere concept. What they came up with was jackets, singlet, shorts, tennis skirt and shirts that retail between $40 and $110.
The use of a 225-square-foot environmental chamber — a multi-million dollar investment made nearly two years ago —was instrumental in wear-testing the products with athletes. Staffers were able to control the chamber’s temperature and humidity, all the while measuring the wearer’s skin and body temperature and sweat rate, as well as warm-up and recovery times. Treadmills and stationery bikes were placed in the chamber and athletes offered feedback as their workouts intensified, instead of after the fact, which is often the case with wear-testing.Heat lamps and electric fans were installed to simulate changing weather conditions. With the exception of top-notch research labs like those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA, environmental chambers are not widely used in the U.S.
"This is not a textile story. It’s really about apparel made of advanced materials with the proper garment architecture," Wand said. "If you don’t do it with the right fit and details, it won’t work the way it should."
Knowing Nike salespeople and retailers would need some extra know-how, Nike did some special training, developed point of purchase materials, information-packed hang tags and interior labels imprinted with Sphere to help shoppers distinguish Sphere from other Nike products. A major advertising campaign developed by Wieden & Kennedy will appear in magazines and outdoors in select cities this fall.
But Nike doesn’t see this as a one-time deal. Wand said, "We believe this is a long-term sustainable innovative platform that will be an important part of the entire Nike performance technology."
Media types will get a sneak peak at the collection tonight at a private event at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in Manhattan.
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