Designing running kit 'women-first'

Kirsty Reade spoke to Helen Stuart at Inov-8, who takes an innovative approach to styling activity gear

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Innovation in the world of trail running kit moves quickly. You’ve barely learned the acronyms from one season’s new products before new ones come around. To try to get a handle on what’s coming in 2019, I went to meet a specialist designer of female running clothing. Helen Stuart has designed running apparel at Inov-8 for six years and has a different approach to many designers. I was interested to find out more about how Helen decides on which new products to design and – more importantly – how she goes about it. 

Designing for women
There’s a phrase in the world of marketing to women: ‘shrink it and pink it’. This refers to taking a men’s item and making it smaller and pinker to appeal to women. This is the exact opposite to how Helen designs – she starts with the women’s design, then adapts it for men. 

There are many reasons for this, but first and foremost it’s because it’s more challenging to design for women’s bodies. Issues such as where to put pockets and how seams should sit are different for men and women. A chest pocket on a men’s garment could be incredibly annoying for women, just as a diagonal seam designed to articulate a waist might be too restrictive for a man. For instance, a jacket might have straight seams on the men’s version and diagonal seams on the women’s, to ensure the best fit for each. 

On items like shorts, Helen faces challenges such as how to design a flat waistband, which is flattering for women while also allowing a bum bag to sit on it comfortably. Women also need different pocket placement on shorts, generally high up to prevent bounce; plus the ability to move unrestricted while staying covered up in the all-important areas. Once Helen has ticked off all of these needs, she’ll move on to the challenges for the men’s shorts, such as designing an integrated inner which is supportive. Then she'll adapt the design. 

Tested by the best
Once a design is created, a key part of the development process is athletes putting the clothing through its paces. Inov-8 has athletes of all levels and sizes who test the samples, then feed back and give ideas for new products. It’s a highly interactive process. 

Sizing is based on industry-standard mannequins developed by taking the measurements of thousands of men and women, then coming up with standard sizing. From this Inov-8 creates a size curve, which has a formula for all the available sizes. Then if the athletes who test them think that a sleeve is too short, or a waist too big, the sizes are tweaked before production. 

Function and performance are always priority number one, followed by ‘making it look good’. Forecasting trends in terms of colour and style is a highly-skilled art, necessitating the use of professional trend predictors, trade shows, research with suppliers, retailers and consumers, and looking back to what’s historically sold well or badly.  

Futuristic technology
Inov-8 also has a very special secret weapon in the world of innovation, in the form of DISC (the Descente Innovation Studio Complex) in Osaka, Japan. Think of Q’s lab in the James Bond movies, but for running clothing. Within this state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly building lies all manner of resources to test the performance and functionality of kit in all types of conditions. 

Want to know how a jacket performs in the rain? Try the artificial rain chamber. Need to find out how those shorts perform? Go to the gym and collect data from the motion analysis. Wondering how breathable that base layer is? Put it on a sweating mannequin. Other innovations at DISC include a running track that snakes through the building.

What’s next?
What new ideas has Inov-8 been incubating that are set to hatch in 2019? The obvious answer is graphene. Inov-8 launched its G-Series shoes in 2018, which incorporate graphene into the sole, and they’ve proved a big hit with runners wanting a longer-lasting shoe. The key properties of graphene – toughness, durability, lightness – make it a no-brainer to incorporate into other running kit. Inov-8 wouldn’t tell me exactly what they’re developing, but did admit graphene has ‘limitless potential’.

Inov-8’s new products for autumn and winter include some great innovations. Sustainability and the environment are increasingly important when designing new apparel, using the same fabric across men’s and women’s styles to ensure there’s less waste of materials. It also chooses manufacturers carefully, looking for production methods that recycle water and limit waste. Base layers often use recycled polyester, with a Polygiene odour-control treatment that allows you to wear it several times without washing it, which extends its life. 

So when you buy that new kit for 2019, spare a thought for all the work that’s gone into it. From Helen’s initial idea, to the input of the sweating mannequins, all the way through to the team of testers.