Step aside, boys -- women stake a claim to product innovation over the last 25 years

The road traveled by woman and the companies making products for them in the last 25 years has been long and rock-strewn, including a lengthy period of downsized men's items in various shades of pink, but today the women's market is strong and many well-researched products are designed specifically to fit a woman's anatomy and engineered to deliver performance. Those early efforts and dedication help lay the foundation that today's booming sales of women's products now rests on.
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In the '70s and '80s, when Isis co-founder Poppy Gall was passionate about bike racing, she had to stitch up her own shorts, tights and jerseys because the men's and unisex garments on the market at the time simply didn't fit. Other less sewing-inclined athletic females had no choice but to invest in the ill-fitting male-shaped performance

Through the Ages 1959: Deuter introduces the first alpine mountaineering pack -- a canvas rucksack similar to a technical daypack -- in Europe designed specifically for women called the Tauern. 1977: Moving Comfort, the first maker of women's running shorts, is founded. Mid-80s: Kelty launches Kelty Woman, a line of gear for women that includes the Tioga pack which is tailored for a woman's physique with contoured shoulder straps and a shorter torso length. 1991: Small clothing maker Zanika, owned by Vicki Morgan, designs a clothing system for women that has the equivalent of a man's zipper fly strategically placed so a woman doesn't have to disrobe to urinate. 1994: Outdoor Retailer Summer Market was the site for the first meeting of the Outdoor Industry Professional Women's group, a women's networking event. Today, the group is known as the Outdoor Women's Industries Coalition (OIWC). 1995: Sierra Designs brings the first women's-specific sleeping bags to market, the Annie Oakley and the Calamity Jane. 1995: Outdoor Retailer Magazine produces a special 16-page supplement looking at the growing women's outdoor market. 1999: Carolyn Cooke and Poppy Gall start Isis, a women's-only apparel company that includes technical outerwear. 2001: Moving Comfort launches Moving Comfort Women, a line of technical athletic wear for plus-size women.  2002: OIWC honors industry veteran Kitty Bradley with its First Pioneering Woman award. The award honors women who have been leaders or mentors to other women in the industry. 2002: As part of National Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, the HERA Foundation and Black Diamond Equipment sponsor The HERA Climb for Life, a fund-raising event for research and to aid women and their families who battle the disease. 2003: Manzella conducts an extensive study on 10,000 hands that determines the best fit for women's gloves. Previously, the industry was sizing down men's gloves for their female customers. 2003: Outdoor Research phases out the Wild Roses brand name, re-branding it as Outdoor Research Women's line, but says it will retain the flower logo on all pieces. 2004: Merrell uses research from Michigan State to develop the Q-Form design which directly addresses a woman's quadriceps angle as it relates to comfort, performance and injury prevention.

pieces available. "Women would just go ahead and buy men's products because they really had no choice," noted Paige Boucher of Mountain Hardwear.

But, as women entered the outdoors in increasing numbers, changes were afoot to revolutionize the market. "About 25 years ago, we got to the point where unisex was no sex and there were a lot of complaints from women, so we worked hard to convince suppliers -- and ourselves -- that bringing women's-specific products to market was the right thing to do," said Julie Baxter, who was an REI merchandiser at the time and is currently vice president of Moving Comfort.

The road traveled in the last 25 years has been long and rock-strewn, including a lengthy period of downsized men's items in various shades of pink, but today the women's market is strong and many well-researched products are designed specifically to fit a woman's anatomy and engineered to deliver performance. Those early efforts and dedication help lay the foundation that today's booming sales of women's products now rests on.

"Overall sales volume of female-specific items moved from about $1 billion in 2005 to $1.4 billion in 2008, a growth of 41 percent," said Elisabeth Stahura of Leisure Trends, a market researching agency. "In addition, dollars grew 6 percent from 2007 to 2008, compared to 4 percent for all male and gender-neutral products."

In the beginning

Fueling this movement's inception was the hardest part. How could one turn around such a giant force? "When I landed my buying job at REI, I went to my local store to try on cargo pants because I figured that's what everybody wore on the job," said Baxter, who had worked previously in the junior fashion market. "I could hardly even get my big toe into them -- they were basically men's pants and nothing in the store would fit my curvy body. I thought, 'Oh my God, I've made the biggest mistake of my life.'"

But, it was about this time that REI started to foster the development of women's products and recruiting people from outside the industry who understood the buying of women's clothing. Camelbak CEO Sally McCoy noted that it is a misnomer to say there was absolutely no women's product available in the market. "L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer were sources, but they did not design women's products in the way we think of them now," she said. Additionally, companies such as Deuter launched women's packs as early as 1959 for the European market.

Still, the American market remained challenged. "At my very first meeting with Gregory Packs, I asked how they were addressing women's packs and they essentially insisted that packs were sold by measuring the back and that's it," said Candyce Johnson, a 22-year REI merchandising veteran. "I was told, 'You don't need women's packs; it's a marketing gimmick."

But Johnson said the following year Gregory did launch a women's-specific, the Diva, which became the No. 1 selling pack at REI. "From the ground up, it was designed for women," she said.

Beyond preconceived notions, what held the women's market back for so long? "Manufacturers were fearful," said Moving Comfort's Baxter. "If you want to make one item, you probably have to make 1,200 and there is a lot of risk involved with that."

Product development focuses on women

Apparel was one of the first areas to be developed and shaped for women. "I did a big project at REI on how to make women's apparel fit," said Baxter of her days at REI. "We also made a huge push in the footwear area."

Brands like Merrell responded with more advanced footwear designs. Working with researchers from Michigan State, Merrell developed the Q-Form design that directly addressed women's quadriceps angle as it relates to comfort, performance and injury prevention. "Until 2004, everyone was sharing the same lasts, but we started looking at doing a women's-specific version in late 2004," said Merrell's Jan Rebo.

Glove-maker Manzella also conducted extensive research on 10,000 hands to develop a superior anatomical fit for women. "Previously, most companies had been taking men's patterns and scaling them down for women," said company president Tony Manzella. "But over the last five to 10 years, more open-to-buy dollars have been appropriated toward women."

Isis put the onus on women's needs, as well. "We asked ourselves: Where does she overheat? Where does she get cold? We wanted to get inside the psyche of the person that's going to buy our products," said Isis' Poppy Gall.

Despite the growing availability of women's products, floor space was still hard to come by. "It was a huge issue," said REI's Candyce Johnson. "Most floors were about 80 percent men's and 20 percent women's plus unisex. To evolve the floor space meant you had to reduce the SKU count in men's." This was something many retailers simply did not want to do.

"We finally began separating it out on the floor and made women's its own department," said Carolyn Burnham, REI's product manager for women's and men's outerwear.

Progressive motion

As the concept of women's-specific products began to pick up speed -- and generated sales -- more companies entered the fray. Some dug deep into R&D to determine the proper design and sizing for women's anatomies, while others took things a step further by focusing on sell-through. "Sierra Designs published a book, also sponsored by Gore-Tex, in the late '90s on how to sell to women," said McCoy, who was Sierra Designs' president at the time. "It had tremendous momentum." (That book, now out of print, was written by SNEWS® merchandising editor and expert, Sharon Leicham.)

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Gert Boyle, chairwoman of Columbia Sportswear, added, "Twenty to thirty years ago, you wouldn't have found a woman in a sporting goods store selling you anything. Today, there are many."

The wave of women's products and marketing that came into play in the last several decades has spawned a wealth of well-designed clothing and gear for women, but it also delivered a dose of "women-washing" in products that were not legitimately women's, including items such as tents and medical kits.

Still, the benefits for women far outweigh the downsides of any marketing hype that exists. Many industry experts believe there is, however, room for improvement. "The reason we got into the women's fitness market was because we didn't think the products at retail were up to snuff," said Michael Grant, co-owner of Fitchix, a women's fitness gear and apparel retailer with two locations in Arizona and an online presence. "It is the largest segment in the business and yet the most ignored. We'd love to see more sales support materials, too, out there that explains why these products are a big deal."

While this market segment is still being fine-tuned, REI's Johnson said she believes it has reached a point of acceptance and normalcy. "When everything is invisible, that's when you've achieved success," she said.

There is certainly no doubt that the ladies have come a long way. "When I inherited this company, I'd get calls and people would ask for the president of the company," said Boyle. "And they'd say, 'You can't be the president, you're a woman.' And I'd say, 'You know, I noticed that when I got up this morning.' No matter what they do, we're gonna stick around."

--Erinn Morgan

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