Talking with a Bike Clothing Designer – Part 2

Last week, I introduced Lauren Steinhardt, and shared her background and thoughts about designing bike clothing for women. Catch up on Talking with a Bike Clothing Designer – Part 1, if you haven’t read it yet.

This week, Lauren shares some trade secrets about the sports clothing industry, her research into what women like to wear while biking, and how the fashion industry predicts trends.

How did you end up designing bike clothing? What was your Master’s thesis research like? What prompted it?

I’m big into utilitarian design, reuse and recycling, and living lightly upon the earth. But I’m also a Libra, and I like things to look pretty (seriously, it’s bizarre how many clothing designers are Libras). I had a huge collection of pretty vintage skirts and dresses, and I started making these little bloomer/pantaloon things to wear under them for biking, that I made out of vintage or thrifted fabric. Then I started selling them at craft fairs, but I quickly found that it’s hard to grow from that size because the options for small-scale manufacturing are nonexistent in this country. (Though that’s slowly changing, and I’m very excited about that). I decided to go back to school for clothing design, and realized that instead of going to a debt-factory private college for a grossly overpriced associate’s degree, I could actually get a Master’s degree and do my own research, all without going into crazy amounts of debt.

I hear you - massive amounts of research at the end of writing my MA thesis!

I hear you – massive amounts of research at the end of writing my MA thesis, but such an amazing experience!

My Master’s thesis research was one of the most amazing experiences of my life! I did qualitative research, which means I actually sat down and interviewed people and then reviewed what they told me. I interviewed about a dozen women, who were so kind and supportive of my project. They invited me into their homes, made me tea, spent a long time discussing what they wore to bike to work and how they felt about it. In the end I felt like I really touched upon a need and a subject that doesn’t get enough attention. I also did a lot of research into the historical connection between bikes, the dress reform movement, and first-wave feminism, which is absolutely fascinating.

Amelia Bloomer, in her "Bloomer suit," one of the most well-known images of the "rational dress" movement in the mid-1850s. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Amelia Bloomer, in her “Bloomer suit,” one of the most well-known images of the “rational dress” movement in the mid-1850s. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

How many designs to fashion designers for a company like REI do per season that don’t get used? How far in advance do they design?

This can vary depending on circumstance and the way a particular company operates. Usually, we have what’s called a line plan that is created with the merchandising team, which gives the basic outline of what new styles we will be doing that season (example, three men’s tees, men’s MB shorts and jersey, etc). Sometimes with something like tees, we’ll design more than we need and sort through them to choose the best ones. Sometimes we’ll do a totally new style or range of styles, but then the budget will change and the styles will be dropped before production, or pushed back to another season. In a bigger company and especially with technical performance pieces, the development cycle can be at least a year out and sometimes as long as 18 months.

Do designers look to current shapes and colors; New York Fashion Week; etc? Check out the Pantone Color of the Year? Are they influenced by professional athletes, and what they wear?

First I’d like to say that these are great questions! I’m glad to share a little peek into how the clothing “sausage” gets made, and maybe get people thinking a little bit about the consumer decisions they make.

I mentioned earlier that many companies have a long development cycle. Because of this, most companies use style forecasting services like WGSN to predict trends in color, silhouette, and consumer interests. Really there are only a handful of these forecasting companies, so most clothing companies are relying on the same trend forecasting data, which is why there are consistent themes across various brands in a given season. In the active/outdoor/bike market we also pay attention to tech and performance trends. Trade shows like Outdoor Retailer and Interbike are a good place to get the scoop on that.

Interbike - this looks like so much fun! (Image from Interbike website)

Interbike – this looks like so much fun! (Image from Interbike website)

Another aspect that goes into design choices for performance/active/outdoor clothing is that it can be fairly expensive, and most people purchase it as a well-researched investment piece. If it’s too overtly trendy it can be a turn-off for the consumer because they want to wear it for a long time without looking dated. Thus, trends move slowly in the outdoor industry.

Most professional athletes are sponsored by major activewear brands, which can be great brand publicity. For instance, Nike outfits everyone from Tiger Woods to Serena Williams, and Burton does the US Olympic snowboarding team. These partnerships can definitely drive innovation that filters down to the consumer level.

Women’s urban bike clothing is still a fairly niche market. How have you seen it grow in the years you’ve been designing?

I thought Novara’s urban line was just delightful, and I am so happy that I got to be a part of it. I hope they keep doing it! Right now it seems that women’s urban cycling is still too small of a market for the big guys to pay attention. But in a way I think this is a blessing, because it’s keeping the door open for smaller, women-owned companies to get a toehold and become industry leaders.

Thank you again, Lauren, for your insights into the world of women’s bike clothing! This has really helped me see lines including the Novara line differently. Maybe I’ll complain less about what is being offered, knowing a bit about what goes into making each garment. And I will definitely do what I can to support smaller, women-owned companies become industry leaders!

8 thoughts on “Talking with a Bike Clothing Designer – Part 2

  1. “. If it’s too overtly trendy it can be a turn-off for the consumer because they want to wear it for a long time without looking dated. Thus, trends move slowly in the outdoor industry.”

    Very true. I have jerseys and jackets that I still wear from a decade ago. Still looks great! I would love for you to interview and ask questions on how retailers/manufacturers decide on colours… However I am not at the other extreme to wear dull brown, all grey nor all black since it drains the colour out of my skin ..and I have natural black hair.

    • It’s true, if I spend a lot of money on something, I want it to last several years. But I like my stuff to look stylish and not horribly out-of-date either; I just got rid of a lot of stuff that finally truly looked dated. And my tastes change, anyway, so I won’t like the same stuff forever. That’s what I like about fashion – there’s always something new! Blame in on my ADD. : )

      I’d love to know more about fashion forecasting – that seems like it could be a really stressful job. One poorly forecast season could really hurt a company’s sales. If I can find someone who does that, I’ll be sure to interview them!

      • I do think there is a difference between trendy and fashionable. A Chanel jacket from 40 years ago is still fashionable. Pink and purple women’s bike clothes are trendy, unfortunately they are still being made. They all seem so 80’s and cliche.

      • Lauren here – pink and purple bike clothes are a HUGE pet peeve of mine. If I dress like a normal adult the rest of the time, why do I need to wear toddler colors while biking? Disclaimer, to each her own, do your thing, YMMV, etc etc etc!

      • I totally agree about pink and purple (although I do wear both colors occasionally). It makes me worry about my 8 year old niece, and the things she’s exposed to, the marketing messages, her classmates, etc. BTW, my attempts to get her interested in biking have failed so far, but maybe when she’s older. : )

  2. Interesting. This is great getting a peek into how performance wear is made. Thank you two for doing this post! I think it’s great that companies use trend forecasting and yet, a little negative nancy for you, it seems like they ignore most of it for the same old tired pink, purple and aqua women’s clothes. The Novara dress was a step in the right direction as it was fashionable. And yet it came in black with hardly any reflective areas and the blue green, which were nice colors but a not quite fashionable print. I hope women’s bike clothes continue to improve in all ways. There are certainly cool roads into new performance fabrics and chamois.

    • I find that companies like Athleta do a pretty good job of mixing it up, colorwise. I love Athleta stuff, although they don’t really do “cycling” clothing. I just love their stuff! I sure wish that Novara dress had been a different print, but oh well. Luckily for me I’m not shy! : )

      I look forward to seeing how it changes in the next several years. We might be joking about this in 5 years or so!

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