PUSHING THE LIMITS ON ATHLETIC PRODUCT

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Wear-testing has become more democratic.
Once restricted to top athletes, wear-testing has now spread to include a vast range of participants. Nike, Adidas, RLX Polo Sport and Brooks Sports will still provide free apparel and sneakers for their sponsored athletes to test-drive, but these days, they are more interested in having everyday athletes assess products.
Their initiatives include:
A testing room at Nike’s corporate offices that will replicate rain and other harsh weather conditions.
Merchandise by Adidas and FilaGuests is provided to guests at Women’s Quest, fitness retreats held in Colorado and Vermont six times a year, in return for feedback.
Retail advisory councils set up by RLX Polo Sport and Brooks Sports so buyers may test out their activewear.
Nike feels it is putting science into what can be a haphazard process.
“Often wear-testing is an oversimplified subject even though it is very complex,” said Jamie Bainbridge, director of Nike’s Alpha apparel. “A lot of companies give a lot of product to people and say, ‘What do you think about it?’ If you talk to anyone in science, they will point out a million reasons why the test went a certain way. Wear-testing under a controlled environment is a science.”
Within the next year or two, Nike plans to build an environmental chamber that duplicates various weather conditions at its new sports research lab, which opened last month at the company’s headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Nike will use the 12,200-square-foot facility, an area twice as large as the current onsite location, for wear-testing.
Consumers’ interest in more technical fabrics calls for more extensive wear-testing and more specific feedback, Bainbridge said. Given that, companies need to know more than whether a garment is warm enough or comes in an appealing color, she said.
Nike is teaching its more knowledgeable wear-testers how to rate a garment’s breathability, moisture management and other special features. Despite having a stable of professional athletes who endorse its brand, Nike does not get its “best information” from them, since they tend “to block out extraneous information” that everyday athletes might notice, such as “noisy” fabrics, she said. The company is relying more on college students and recreational athletes for wear-testing.
For spring 2001, Nike aims to wear-test all of its performance-oriented products instead of the current 60 percent, Bainbridge said. To accomplish that, it will use more domestic contractors to develop samples. About 55 percent of Nike apparel sold in the U.S. is made overseas.
Adidas is sending its wear-testing to camp.
As part of a sponsorship deal with Women’s Quest, Adidas provides products, asks participants to keep journals to highlight recommendations and sends key executives to gather first-hand information. People, they say, tend to be more forthcoming about product right after using it for hiking, yoga or a trail run.
“It’s important to hang out with consumers in this type of environment. For one, they are honest,” said Kathy Mitchell, category manager for running for Adidas, during a camp in October in Winter Park, Colo. “Our involvement is not just asking them about the product. We ask them what brands mean to them and what inspires them to buy something.” Instead of phoning or e-mailing wear-testers, as is the case with many activewear makers, Adidas executives often pick up unsolicited feedback during actual activities such as hiking. They elaborate on topics raised earlier or talk about advertising, Mitchell said. The camps put Adidas in touch with women who might not necessarily buy the brand or be familiar with it, she added.
Colleen Cannon, a former world-class triathlete who operates Women’s Quest, and her 15-member staff, which includes several elite athletes, also test products for Adidas.
On another front, last month the Adidas design and development team compiled the results of an 18-month research project about running — its first major study of a specific sport. Designed to determine how Adidas merchandise stood up to runners’ expectations and performance needs, the $15,000 project involved 200 people, said Gretchen Garside, a researcher at the company’s human performance lab. Less than 8 percent of the participants said appearance mattered when selecting new products, she noted. They were more concerned about a garment’s fit and fabrics.
Running is a top initiative for the company, partly because 148,000 women completed marathons last year — a 55 percent increase over 1997, Mitchell said. Adidas plans to do similar research projects for other sports next year.
Fila also participates in Women’s Quest, providing 100 apparel items for each of the camps. Wear-testers complete questionnaires about their activewear preferences, said Sally Pfaeffle, business unit manager for women’s. Fila executives attend some camps to talk to consumers.
On another front, Fila still relies on a handful of female pro athletes who endorse the brand to evaluate it after practice and competition.
RLX Polo Sport, a label that has been well received at retail for its technical features, uses about 1,200 professional and amateur athletes to wear-test its product. Earlier this year, it signed a marketing partnership deal with the Aspen Ski School to outfit its 1,100 instructors.
“When we say our athletes are designers, that is an accurate statement. It takes the product to a whole different level,” said Jordan Wand, vice president of RLX Polo Sport. “An item doesn’t make it in the line unless five athletes try the product for a minimum of three weeks under varying conditions.”
Athletes are asked their impressions, even before trying on the products.
“Would you buy the item?” and “What would you be willing to pay for it?” are among the preliminary questions, Wand said.
The second phase of wear-testing involves evaluating fit, comfort level, style and special functional features, as well as waterproofness, breathability and moisture management. Athletes record the length of use and weather conditions, durability after washing and additional apparel worn. Many RLX garments are modified several times after the initial approval into the line, Wand said.
“You can test fabrics countless times in a lab and put it on fit models for hours on end. But until you get an athlete to use it, you won’t find out its features,” Wand said.
RLX recently set up a retail advisory board and will hold quarterly meetings to discuss product development. Outdoor adventure, cycling and snowboarding are a few of the subjects to be discussed. Board members will also wear-test goods. The brand is considering inviting them to resorts in Telluride, Colo., or Santa Cruz, Calif., to do just that, Wand said.
Brooks Sports, a Botthel, Wash., company that caters to runners, now meets with at least one of its five key specialty stores for wear-testing and evaluating new products on a monthly basis. Unlike many buyers at major chains, specialty store owners tend to be passionate about their particular sports and are right in tune with fashion trends, said Mick Whitaker, vice president of apparel. Those accounts have carried Brooks for at least 10 years and are considered directional, he added.
“Retailers have a vested interest in helping develop the product. They are the best source of information and they reach consumers,” Whitaker said. “Too many times, sponsored athletes have other issues to deal with, like training and race preparation.”
The company also counts on its own 70 employees for wear-testing. Seventy percent of them are recreational runners.
“We don’t focus on world-class athletes because our customer isn’t that. They have different needs,” Whitaker said. “Our customers are out for longer periods of time, and they’re running slower. They don’t relate to setting American records.”
Unlike most companies, Burton remains committed to having its sponsored athletes get “heavily” involved with the brand’s wear-testing and product development, said Olympic snowboarder Shannon Dunn, a Burton-sponsored athlete.
After wear-testing Burton’s 2001 apparel during a catalog shoot in Chile in October, Dunn and other riders returned to the company’s headquarters in Burlington, Vt., to evaluate the collection item by item. Burton identifies its rider development team in the company’s retail catalog, which includes photos of junior riders, less-established young snowboarders who also wear-test the product.
After helping with the line, Dunn said she likes to check out what stores purchase. She plans to do just that when making appearances this winter at athletic specialty stores and sporting goods stores. In October, while at Paragon Sporting Goods, a mammoth specialty store here at 867 Broadway, Dunn pointed out her favorite jacket, a hooded three-color down style from Burton.
She slept in one of those jackets while staying in an unheated room that looked like “an old army barracks” in New Zealand during a photo shoot last year.
“We were staying in Erehwon, which is ‘nowhere’ spelled backwards. So you can imagine how cold it was,” she said.
Generally, Burton prefers to have its riders wearing the apparel on mountains. After just a few runs, Dunn said she knows whether the sample will hold up in the snow.
“If something doesn’t feel good while we’re moving, it doesn’t make it,” she said.
Unlike most pro athletes, Dunn, who cofounded Prom and Tuesday, two other snowboard lines, before signing with Burton, enjoys offering her input.
“It does create more work, but it’s fun. It gives you a sense of ownership,” she said. “I take more pride in something knowing that I worked on it.”

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