DESIGNERS TOLD: VARY THE VISION
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Sometimes it takes an outsider to set the record straight.
Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker, did just that at the 48th annual International Design Conference in Aspen, Colo., this month. His remarks, according to many of those who were there, stood out among the words of 34 speakers at this year’s event, entitled “Sports Design: It’s Not About Sports — It’s About Design.”
According to Gladwell, who leaned heavily on respiratory ailments as a metaphor, for a design to reach “epidemic” proportions, it must be “contagious” and “sticky.”
“They [activewear makers] get set in their ways about who their market is. They’re seeing a market as opposed to creating a market,” Gladwell said in a telephone interview after the conference. “It’s time someone takes the responsibility of trying to design things that are less about athletics.”
That means creating design trends that are quickly adopted by general consumers, as in “contagious.” But shoppers don’t want looks that are quickly tossed aside, so manufacturers should also aim for “sticky,” flu-like systems that will give their products longevity.
Hinda Miller, who co-created the first sports bra 21 years ago by sewing together two athletic supporters, agreed.
“Sometimes we get such tunnel vision when we’re designing. We need to stop and step out to see how these products fit into the big picture,” she said, after returning from the conference. “Most most women want items they can wear for a variety of occasions — including nonathletic ones.”
Designing high-tech products for slender, 25-year-olds is more glamorous and fun than, say, coming up with a basic bicycle that senior citizens can ride around town, Gladwell said.
“[Activewear makers must] create contagious products that allow people to integrate exercise into every day as seamlessly as possible,” said Gladwell, who is writing “The Tipping Point,” a book about social epidemics that change people’s behavior. He cited the personal stereo and the Jogbra as two products that helped lure many people into regular exercise programs.
Activewear designers are always ready to jump on new fabrics, production techniques and fitness activities to improve their products, said Paola Antonelli, associate curator of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art here, who was also at Aspen.
Advancements in product development should be offered simultaneously for men and women as they are at Sport Obermeyer, said Klaus Obermeyer, founder and president of the skiwear company. This is not usually the way things are done among activewear companies, which often offer men the new stuff first, and if it works, the women come next.
Obermeyer is generally credited with designing the first ski jacket. When Aspen first opened ski runs in the late Forties, skiers would wear long winter coats on what was then the world’s longest single-passenger chairlift — a 15-minute trip that took skiers halfway up Aspen Mountain. Skiers would then duck into a shed with a wood-burning stove to warm up, send their coats down the mountain in the chairlifts and ski back to the base unencumbered by coats.
To deal with the cold on his way down the mountain, Obermeyer “butchered” a down duvet he had bought in Bavaria and created a jacket that made him look like the Michelin Man.
“Whoever works on this stuff should be very active in sports. That way they can offer a first-hand account of what’s desirable,” Obermeyer said. “They come up with good ideas because of their love of the sport — not to make money. Making money has to be secondary.”
Sport Obermeyer’s female employee base of 66 percent has helped the company build its women’s business to nearly half of its $39 million volume.
Miller, who now works as a consultant, stressed the importance of dealing with consumers directly.
“It’s obvious to start with the question, ‘What do women need?’ But you need to go to consumers — and I don’t mean through consumer research — ask them what they want, and provide them with it,” Miller said.
No design decisions can be made without first listening to consumers, releasing preconceived notions, and addressing their needs — not with your ideas, said Joanne Sessler, designer of The North Face’s Tekware.
“Everyone seems to agree we’re beyond the point where people want anything cute,” she said. “In the world of sports design, form follows function. There definitely needs to be a need first.”
To determine the needs of adventurous women, The North Face relies on a pool of well-known athletes seasoned in such sports as snowboarding, extreme skiing and mountain climbing.
But Sessler recognized how that might alienate potential customers.
“We make such extreme products,” she said. “To some people, that’s intimidating.”
The North Face continues to educate consumers about the benefits of its products. Women are very brand loyal to a company that seems to understand what they need in a product, Sessler said.
Dorothy Twining Globus, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a co-chair of the Aspen conference, said, “More people are looking to technical sports clothing for everyday wear.”
Given that, activewear makers and athletic footwear makers need to offer more products that are designed specifically for women. If not, they stand to turn over some of their business to Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and other designers, Globus said.
Some designers are updating marketing with images of skysurfing, bungee jumping, kayaking and other sports, said men’s wear designer Alexander Julian, another attendee.
A discussion with the “punk-ass kids,” a group of young adults advancing adventure sports through their participation and promotion of the sports was “one of the hits of the conference,” he said. “They represent the adrenaline generation. As one person put it, ‘These days kids can’t drink, smoke or have sex, so they like to do things like jump off a cliff on skis.’
“The whole thing about this generation is it has got to be real — nothing hyped,” Julian said. “They want real danger, real gigs and real fun.”
To maximize its presence in adventurous outdoor sports such as trail running, mountain biking, rock climbing, snowboarding and back country skiing, Patagonia uses a growing number of its female “ambassadors” who test apparel, file reports about the products and offer recommendations, said Eric Rice, designer of clothing for alpine sports for Patagonia. High-tech apparel is mandatory for that kind of work.
“We select them carefully and we value their opinion. If I come up with something I think is the greatest idea in the world, I still rely on their input,” Rice said. “I’m not a climber or an outdoor athlete and I certainly can’t wear-test women’s products. If they say it stinks, we start over.”
On another front, Rice said, “One thing at the conference that surprised me, intrigued me and disturbed me was that the environment never really came up. As a designer at Patagonia, that’s the first thing that comes up. We always take into consideration what type of environmental impact and sustainability, if any, will these materials and processes have?”