Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — An increasing number of elite athletes seem to be spending almost as much time designing the clothes they wear as performing in them.
Competing in a market that traditionally builds brands — not high-profile designers — activewear makers like Prince, Helly Hansen and Reebok are trying to personalize their images by having the athletes they sponsor help out with design. From choosing fabrics to sketching items, the athletes are taking a hands-on approach to product development instead of merely assessing new products.
Take Olympic snowboarder Shannon Dunn, who designed Burton’s new “Feel Good” snowboards and is now working on designs for the brand’s first streetwear collection, or tennis star Venus Williams, who talks about design in Reebok’s current radio campaign. Or Olympic figure skater Tara Lipinski, who chose the lilac color and tinted rhinestone butterfly motifs for her new signature skating dress for Capezio.
These women represent a new breed of athlete, someone who wants to win, look good and help build business. They know a canned photo of them smiling is not enough to sell T-shirts to media-savvy teenagers. The athletes, after all, are themselves part of the very audience activewear makers want to reach.
“Having athletes help with design gives brands more credibility, and it shows they’re not just using their athletes’ photos and signatures. It goes beyond name association; it’s their expertise as well,” said Liz Livingstone, head designer for Capezio.
Known for competing in fashion-forward looks such as the gold racerback tank dress she wore at this year’s French Open, Anna Kournikova, an Adidas-sponsored athlete, is “definitely more interested in the design process” than she has been in the past, said Simon Cartwright, international product manager for tennis at Adidas. It is no longer difficult to get her to schedule time for Adidas designers. She’s now calling them, because “she wants to have more of a say in what she’s wearing,” he said.
Adidas executives met with Kournikova Wednesday, and will meet again today and Friday to film her reaction to the firm’s new Olympic technology products, which will be launched at retail in 2001. Clips will be used for a video that will highlight her involvement in design at Adidas and will be sent to the media prior to next year’s Grand Slam tennis events.
“The most important thing is an athlete’s ability. But we live in such a multimedia age where everything is visual and the average attention span is about 30 seconds, you have to have an image to go along with that ability. It’s a necessary part of the industry,” said Nate Brown, tennis product line manager for Adidas. “They’re using athletics as a launching board to market themselves and their names.”
This fall, Adidas designers will meet with Martina Hingis, who signed an endorsement deal with the company last month for the first time. Like Kournikova, she is expected to be more interested in fashion than was Steffi Graf, another Adidas-sponsored athlete who favored more traditional looks.
Even Michael Jordan is taking a closer look at the women’s activewear business. He is considering launching women’s activewear through his label at Nike next year instead of in 2001, a Nike spokesman said.
More hands-on than most athlete-designers, Jordan critiques a full range of products with his name on them, selects colors and fabrics, discusses fashion in general with Nike designers and hosts fashion shows for his brand. At Jordan’s request, designers for his brand have been flown to Chicago to check out his newest car and his closet for inspiration.
Prince and Killer Loop, two divisions of the Benetton SportSystem, are also relying more than ever on athletes for product development.
Jana Novotna, who sponsors Prince, branched out from tenniswear to help the brand develop its first line of fitness wear. The fitness collection will be unveiled for spring in specialty stores.
Novotna said she told Prince designers what was “good, bad and what needed improvement.” She also emphasized the importance of designing for real people.
“If I have to spend four hours practicing in the heat, I want to make sure the clothes absorb sweat, look nice and feel comfortable,” Novotna said.
The 100 aggressive in-line skaters who helped design Killer Loop’s first athletic-inspired activewear will be on hand for the launch party that will be held offsite during this weekend’s Action Sports Retailer trade show in San Diego. Aimed at consumers between the ages of 14 and 28, the Killer Loop collection features bikinis, skirts, sandals, windbreakers and other beach-inspired items. Aggressive in-line skating, which involves riding on railings, jumping stairs and other stunts, is popular in many beach communities.
“We wanted to use aggressive skaters instead of athletes because this is a different breed of product. It’s more about a lifestyle,” said Dennis Shafer, president and chief executive officer of Benetton SportSystem USA.
Dunn, who has endorsed Burton for the past five years, said she has “definitely become more involved” with design and is sketching designs for Burton’s women’s streetwear.
“Working with Burton is really cool because there’s no limit to how much you can do,” she said. “As more time goes by, I have more knowledge about things. Burton has more women’s products now, so there’s more to be involved in.”
While competing in Europe, Japan or the U.S., Dunn routinely buys “cool” items with unusual features or fabrics to show Burton designers. Prior to signing on with Burton, she and her friend and fellow snowboarder Tina Basich launched two other women’s snowboarding apparel lines, Prom and Tuesday.
Dunn, who said she speaks to or e-mails Burton executives every other day, is pleased that the company encourages athletes to speak up about design, marketing and industry trends.
“There are always a lot of disagreements with snowboarders and people in the company, which is really good. Things don’t get stagnant,” she said. “Riders will put their foot down if something is not right about the product or marketing and we’ll go back to the drawing [board]. We really push to make it real. We all have a lot of pride in Burton, and we feel personally involved with the company.”
During Burton’s first women’s-only snowboarding tour, which gets under way next month, Dunn will talk about her design inspiration with consumers in 12 cities. She’ll also be doing that this fall at appearances at Gart Sports in Denver and Salt Lake City, two cities popular with snowboarders.
Capezio’s skating dress for Lipinski has a certificate with the Olympic gold medal winner’s autograph and photograph. To build brand awareness, Capezio is offering only 150 units of the item, which retails for $300, this fall. Lipinski selected the design from 12 that were presented to her, and she also chose the double-strap-camisole silhouette, Livingstone said.
“Tara’s an Olympic medalist. But there’s value in that beyond what she has accomplished as a skater. Her [design] knowledge is steep,” she said. “Skaters have always been very resourceful about what they wear. We can glean some knowledge about how some of her other dresses were made and what materials were used to try to perfect what we’re doing. It helps us make more of a custom-made dress.”
During the ongoing “Skate With the Stars” 10-city tour, which runs through next month, Lipinski has been sharing her design insight with young skaters. Capezio will introduce another signature dress for Lipinski next year.
Unlike this year’s print ad campaign for Capezio, which includes several models in addition to Lipinski, next year’s campaign will focus solely on the figure skater, Livingstone said.
Another Olympic figure skater, Kristi Yamaguchi, routinely offers fashion tips to Celanese executives, a company spokeswoman said. Last year Yamaguchi arranged to have some of the pro skaters on the “Stars on Ice” tour perform in acetate-blend outfits, the spokeswoman said.
Venus Williams helped Reebok designers develop seven outfits for this month’s tennis U.S. Open — one for each round. Williams plans to take her first fashion design course this fall and aims to work in design professionally, Hayes said.
Williams talks about design in Reebok radio commercials airing in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut during the Open.
“It’s great for us that Venus is so involved. It makes our marketing efforts that much easier. She feels very comfortable wearing the product and she played a part in creating it,” Hayes said. “It’s a two-way street. It’s important for an athlete to care about the growth and success of the company.”
Williams’s younger sister, Serena, who has an endorsement deal with Puma, is also interested in design. She’s helped Puma designers update their tenniswear with snugger silhouettes and more color. She recently said she is interested in bridal design.
As the sponsor of Young America, the New York Yacht Club’s bid for next year’s America’s Cup in New Zealand, Helly Hansen used the crew for feedback for its first full collection of Young America unisex sailing apparel. The team will compete in items from the 35-piece line that will be unveiled at retail in January.
Lightweight breathable fabrics, fleece-lined pockets, jackets with high necklines, reinforced elbows and backsides are among the features that crew members suggested, said Sarah MacKay, marketing director for sea gear at Helly Hansen.
Images of the crew practicing in the Young America collection are imprinted on the collection’s hangtags. Helly Hansen is donating 6.5 percent of the line’s sales to support Young America.
The company has given Young America merchandise to the crew for them to pass on to top-tier contributors. That will also give the crew another opportunity to talk about the product’s design.
Nike set up its first athlete advisory council — 20 athletes from various sports — to help with product development of Inner Actives, performance-oriented innerwear that bowed at retail this summer. The feedback was “so valuable” that the company plans to organize other advisory councils for other categories, said Carey Portzline, senior apparel designer.
“They cared a lot about it because it was something they were dissatisfied with,” she said. “As one athlete said, ‘This was a piece of equipment for them.”‘
In general, the Nike-sponsored U.S. women’s soccer team readily offers product feedback about product, said Julia Meschter, senior product designer. They’re more approachable and critical about products than some of the male athletes who sponsor Nike, she added.
Nike has told retailers about athletes’ involvement in product development, but the company does not plan to publicize it to consumers.
“Seeing players competing in the product is enough. Promoting it is almost a little cheesy,” Meschter said