Designing Women 

Outdoor companies begin responding to female clients

It's a safe bet that whoever designed the first sternum strap on a backpack was not a woman. Any woman who has ever attempted to close a taut strap across the middle of her chest will testify that the majority of outdoor gear just doesn't take female anatomy into consideration.

Whether it's the length of a backpack that fails to accommodate women's hips, ski bindings based on how a man's knee distributes force, or clothing that simply doesn't fit, historically, outdoor companies have forgotten that women go outside, too. But that's all starting to change.

Increasingly, national and international outdoors companies are revamping their lines to include products specifically designed for women, trying to cash in on the fact that women have serious spending power.

"[They are realizing] how powerful women are financially," said Whitney Hopkins, a designer for Smart Design, a national design consultant group. She added that 80 percent of purchasing decisions are made by women. Couple that with the fact that women make up 46 percent of people involved in outdoor sports, and you've got an untapped market.

Hopkins, along with fellow designer Yvonne Lin, are the core of Fem Den, a subgroup of Smart Design dedicated to developing gear for women. Over the past few years, Fem Den has worked with major manufacturers, including Nike, to create products designed specifically for women—in both form and function.

"In our viewpoint, it's not that there should be a separate version [for women], but designs should be appropriate," Lin said.

Traditionally, nearly all outdoor gear designers have been men, which has led to the disparity between men's and women's gear. "The easiest person to design for is yourself," Lin said, adding that the average designer is a man between 20 and 50 years old and between 5-feet, 10-inches and 6-feet tall.

While there are industry guidelines determining how men's clothes should fit, no such guidelines even exist for women, Lin said.

But led by apparel companies, within the last decade outdoors companies have begun realizing that designing for women doesn't just mean making something smaller and in a pastel color—a practice commonly referred to as "shrinking and pinking."

"Up until this point, women's design has been defined by color," Hopkins said. "A lot of companies are struggling to define what women are looking for."

Women themselves are demanding a change in the status quo.

"They're expecting it," said Greg "Chopper" Randolph, PR and communications manager for Sun Valley-based Smith Optics, which has been selling outdoor-oriented sunglasses and ski accessories for 43 years.

It's something Noah Bryan, president of Boise-based Core Concepts, said he knew when he started his business with his wife, Erin, three years ago.

"Now that consumers are conditioned to expect it, it's an absolute must," Bryan said. "Women have come to expect a lot more. It's a prerequisite, not just nice to have."

Core Concepts is preparing to launch its first line of women's apparel next month and went back to basics to create a line as useful as it is attractive. Bryan started by adding women designers to the company who are responsible for the women's line.

"Everyone knows what a jacket needs to look like, but you have to understand the form and function," he said.

They started with a basic garment, then added elements from fashion, sophisticated color palettes and interesting details, trims and graphics. But what make the products stand out are the nods to women-specific issues, as witnessed by the inclusion of an opening in the back of a hoodie to allow for a ponytail to be pulled through, or the ample use of princess seams to tailor the garment to curves.

"It's so important to recognize that our goal is to make the best possible product for our customers, and if we don't recognize the difference between our male customers and our female customers, that's just silly," Bryan said.

At a recent outdoor retailers summer trade show in Salt Lake City, companies from around the world were showing off their latest and greatest. Booths were filled with high-tech fabrics and eye-catching graphics—and nearly all featured clearly feminine selections.

Fem Den was on hand, offering advice on how companies can address the needs of women. Hopkins and Lin have five guidelines when it comes to designing for women: No. 1, give her benefits, not features; No. 2, consider the whole experience; No. 3, consider her body; No. 4, consider her lifestyle; and No. 5, consider how it makes her feel.

These factors need to come into play throughout the process, from design to marketing.

"One of the biggest differences between men and women is how they shop," Hopkins said. "Men are enticed by products first, then consider the lifestyle. Women consider their family and lifestyle first."

But most importantly, women's products need to look at women's anatomy, including narrower shoulders, shorter statures and wider hips. These wider hips also change the angle of the leg into the knee, concentrating more force on the ligaments in certain motions. Because of this, Hopkins said women are much more likely than men to have ACL knee injuries. In fact, she said nine out of 10 ACL skiing injuries are in women and female athletes are 2.5 times more likely to have major knee injuries.

Women also have less blood circulation at surface skin levels, making them feel colder easier, something designers need to consider when choosing materials that are both lightweight and warm.

Among the companies that have been stepping up to the challenge is K-2. The well-known ski company has introduced several lines of skis designed for women, receiving mixed reactions.

The first time K-2 rolled out women-specific skis, they had names like "Siren," or "Temptress," and were covered in flowery designs. Even the best female skiers found themselves being dismissed offhand by their male peers as soon as they saw the floral graphics.

"It was only in the irony that it was fun, and that's not a great design strategy," Lin said. But K-2's latest round of women's skis have more sophisticated graphics and better names, making them feminine without being demeaning.

While designing for women takes extra work, Bryan has found the effort well worth the time and cost.

"[Having a women's line has] really helped us go from a business that was still fairly small to now expanding [the number of dealers] by five times in one season," he said.

For Randolph, expanding the offerings for women makes sense.

"Women are obviously a large portion of the core [group of outdoor recreationists]," he said. "The population has always been there, but it's growing."

Smith has increased offerings geared toward women for years, with an ever-increasing number of sunglasses, as well as ski gear. This season, Smith will introduce both ski helmets and goggles built off of a female head-form—a first for the company.

The new helmets include a softer liner and new fabrics while being both lighter and less bulky, without sacrificing safety or utility.

Ultimately, the success of any product will be measured in sales.

"That speaks louder than anything," Randolph said. "The vote's been cast out there. Women are a vibrant part or our community."

As the father of two girls, Randolph said he'd like to see even greater change.

"There should be some parity," he said.

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