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How Shared Values Forged an Olympic Partnership at Athleta

Athleta and US Olympian Allyson Felix’s partnership is rooted in shared internal values that reflects the brand’s commitment to forwarding female empowerment.
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SAN FRANCISCO, United States — Operating within the parameters of five core business values that range from sustainability commitments to supporting the notion of the strength of the female collective, Athleta — a certified B Corporation — considers the impact of its commercial decisions and operations on all stakeholders in its business, employees, suppliers, consumers and the planet as a whole.

These operational values have formed the basis for its recent partnership with US Olympian Allyson Felix — the company’s first sponsored athlete and the most decorated athlete, of any gender, in World Athletics Championship history.

The first capsule collection was designed and produced in partnership with Felix as a physical manifestation of Athleta’s Power of She movement — a campaign that encourages women and girls to empower one another across age groups and interests. It marks a new focus on a holistic partnership, supporting Felix as a mother, athlete and activist, among others.

Now, BoF sits down with Casey Schumacher and Alexandra Gardner, two senior designers that worked on the partnership with Felix, to hear about how Athleta’s values engendered the collaboration, the culture of the business that supported its execution and why they believe partnerships with purpose matter.

Casey Schumacher, Senior Director of Design at Athleta | Source: Courtesy

Casey Schumacher, Senior Director of Design at Athleta — joined in June 2018

We are human-centred in our design principles. As a creative team, we're creating for our customer with nuance and respect.

How are Athleta’s core values relevant to the partnership with Allyson Felix?

The partnership came about as concern over female athletes getting the maternity leave, resources and support that they need and deserve. At Athleta, our goal is to inspire a community of active, healthy and confident women and girls, and it spoke to Allyson’s goal of partnering with a brand that looks to empower women and girls through sport at every life stage— something that she has done both in house within our brands and also externally.

She is able to bring her core values and voice them on our platform. Allyson now joins us for virtual offsites where she speaks internally to 300+ employees on everything from inspiration to navigating Covid and managing motherhood at home. She has also spoken on our digital (EM)Power Hour episodes on making herself visible, on racial injustice and on being a Black mother.

How does this project reflect the experience of working at Athleta?

I’ve spent most of my career at other large performance retail brands including Adidas and Lululemon and I joined the Athleta because of the community offered in and outside the walls, but also for real purpose. The goals around empowerment of women and girls, sustainability, inclusivity and equality are manifested through product design. Our leaders look to the design team to propose new design approaches and innovations, which reassures us that we have an impact and that we can indeed create change.

When you feel that way, as a Creative, it's empowering — it makes you think that anything is possible, but it also takes a lot of work. We can't stop for a second because we know we have so much to do. Bringing on a voice of change like Allyson's just further supports and drives the mission. It's really a collaborative place to be as a creative and athlete in this industry.

How was Allyson involved in the design process?

Getting close to an athlete is an important part of the process in order to find design solutions. We began by asking Allyson to bring in her favourite running gear, but she wasn’t necessarily attached to anything. So, I took her shopping. We flew to New York and I styled her, with a view to organically understanding her fashion preferences — everything from colour to materials and graphics. Then, being able to actually watch her on the track was also a huge influence on the design process.

Allyson has always been super forthcoming with feedback or ideas and very much in the moment with us, from shopping to ideating.

What was your role in the design process?

I would return from our shopping trips with a heap of styling photos, art inspiration, material samples and a sense of the colour palette. I then packaged a creative brief for the team, inclusive of trims and labeling ideas. We worked with our Merchandising partners to land the assortment, and Alex, our senior designer, put pencil to paper with designing the collection, carrying through the creative vision.

As Allyson’s lead design partner, I work closely with Alex, our Tech Design and Production Teams to ensure her bespoke pieces are ready for race day. We do nuanced fittings for her so that she has the right length and room for her bib placement and logos. Alex and I make sure that all of the details are constantly in motion.”

How did you collaborate with other teams?

Once the design process is in motion, we begin briefing the cross-functional teams. We'll connect with marketing, with our art team for graphics. We really start to cast the net — it takes a village to make this happen.

Athleta is not a small brand, but we're small enough that we can be in a lot of conversations at once, Everyone — design, colour, print and graphics, merchandising, fit, R&D and marketing ­— all have a weekly meeting just to talk about Allyson and her collection.

How significant is the concept of women designing for women at Athleta?

It’s incredibly important, and links to the fact that Athleta cares about women in all stages of their lives. Lack of support within sponsorship is something Allyson has been so vocal about in the past and is something very real. As women designing for women, we bring shared identity, experience and understanding to the design process.

Simultaneously, our mission is centred around healthy, happy women and girls but our work is digging into that full spectrum of identities and experiences under the umbrella of woman/she beyond the simple binary Western definition. We are human-centred in our design principles. As a creative team, we're creating for our customer — women or other, with nuance and respect.

Alexandra Gardner, Senior Designer at Athleta | Source: Courtesy

Alexandra Gardner, Senior Designer at Athleta — joined in August 2019

Within the industry, there's so much opportunity to invent and evolve. It feels good to be within a brand that allows us to experiment.

How are Athleta’s core values represented in the recent partnership with Allyson Felix?

Athleta has a brand mission to empower and unite women, shared values with Allyson, making it feel like a really comfortable, natural pairing. One of the common values is around confidence, and the understanding that confidence is such a big contributor to success in sport and in life. We look to empower woman as a part of our brand; all of our customers, all of the employees, all of our store staff and our colleagues abroad.

We’re trying to instil that confidence in women. We want to create clothing that does exactly that. For me personally, I wanted the pieces to feel strong yet feminine, things that are often separated and deemed exclusive of each other.

How was Allyson involved in the design process?

Making sure that ever tiny detail was captured definitely required heightened levels of communication. Allyson had a really strong sense from the beginning of what she needed and loved, both from an aesthetic point of view and also a functional standpoint. While she was involved in curating styles, she was also invested in the small details, including personalised trims and branding elements. Making sure the colour palette would flatter all skin tones was also a very important element for Allyson.

What was your role in helping develop the Allyson Felix + Athleta collection?

As a senior designer for the collection, I worked with Allyson and the teams to conceptualise the products aesthetically. This included sketching the styles, adding colour, refining small details — all those elements that make the pieces feel special. It was a privilege to work with Allyson and all our teams to make the products as perfect as possible — it’s complex to bring a collection like this to life.

Cross-collaboration is absolutely vital. The day-to-day workings of this project really demonstrated that. It took every individual's expertise to make sure that everything happened on time and was executed to the best possible level. Every team member went beyond their remit, from additional check-ins to additional fit rounds and extra samples that could be set to Allyson to try on. We worked hard to facilitate all of that feedback and all of the learnings we could gather from her. It was a real cross-functional effort from our teams locally and our teams abroad.

How significant is the concept of women designing for women at Athleta?

Athleta is such a female-powered brand – more so than any other brand I've worked for. It's inspiring to be surrounded by so many talented women, and women that have each other's best interests at heart. I really feel as though Athleta speaks to that and gives us the opportunity to focus on problems that really affect our consumers. We work to keep them inspired, confident and comfortable — something that is not always permitted in this field. We're always testing product ourselves and encouraged to be very vocal about what works and what doesn't.

How does this project reflect the experience of working at Athleta?

We really wanted the collaboration to be available for everybody —full of pieces that are going to inspire our customers. It’s about styles that are comfortable and functional, but also beautiful and well-fitted to the female body, no matter your shape, size or level of fitness.

These are values and messages that we really stand for as a brand —that idea of bringing both femininity and strength to apparel comes from a really authentic place. Within the industry as a whole, there's so much space and opportunity to continue to invent and evolve. It feels really good to just be within a brand that allows us to push and experiment.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Athleta as part of a BoF Careers partnership.

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