When I first entered triathlon four years ago, I couldn’t find a single race outfit I liked. Though I scoured the Internet for kit that wasn’t solid black and gave me the dreaded sausage-leg effect, it wasn’t until I began working on Triathlon Magazine Canada’s online ‘Fashion Files’ column that I found the stylish yet functional gear I was looking for.
While I’ve found my preferred racing kit in Zoot’s summer 2016 collection, I still think women’s triathlon fashion has a long way to go. Upon speaking with other female triathletes, I’ve found that many feel the same way. There’s no shortage of swim, bike and run products geared towards helping us go faster and further, but it’s tough to find the gear we want to do it in.
When Rose Serpico and her business partner Richelle Love opened their triathlon store, Tri-it Multisport, over 10 years ago, there was one market they struggled to cater to.
“It was so hard to find good women’s triathlon kits to sell,” Serpico says. “I’m a triathlete myself so I knew firsthand how poor the selection was out there. I couldn’t find something I really loved for myself, let alone all our customers.”
It’s only been in the last few years that triathlon brands have really started to understand the women’s market and begun to create products that not only work well for female triathletes, but look good, too. Initially brands would simply offer men’s kits in smaller sizes for women, neglecting to adapt features like the chamois, length and colours to female preferences. These early attempts seemed to miss the point. You could find pieces that either had the technology or the style that women wanted, but not both. Things have come a long way since then.
“Multiple brands now offer women’s tri suits and women’s wetsuits,” says Serpico. “At the store, we can fit any female triathlete in something they’ll be happy with. However, I still think there’s a long way to go.”
With rising numbers of women participating in triathlon each year, there’s only room for improvement when it comes to gear options for female triathletes. How are brands responding to the need and where can we hope to see that improvement?
One size does not fit all
Serpico says 75 per cent of her clientele at Tri-it Multisport are amateur female triathletes who range in age, height and body shape. She’s found that the standard small, medium and large sizing scheme doesn’t work for everyone, and is happy to see brands coming out with new options.
“Lots of brands have started offering a variety of lengths in tri shorts, but we need to see that for tri tops as well. Lots of women don’t feel comfortable in standard sizes because they fall too short on the torso and expose the stomach.
“Most of the women participating in triathlon at large are doing it to enhance their lifestyle. They want clothes that are comfortable and flattering,” she adds.
Pro triathlete and coach Angela Naeth agrees. “When brands started making tri kits for women, they were making stuff for female pros who mostly all had the same body type – small [with] no body-fat,” she says. “That’s a very small percentage of the women who participate in the sport. It’s nice to see companies beginning to use different body types as templates for their kits, but they need to consider it in all aspects. We need to see not only more sizes, but styles that suit different body types.”
As a Pearl Izumi-sponsored athlete, Naeth works directly with the brand to create gear she’ll race in and that will also be available for sale. This year she started racing in a new style of sleeved tri-suit that she says is flattering for all body types across the chest and looks sleeker and classier than many options out there.
“I’ve gotten lots of great feedback on this new style,” she says. “Women love that it’s different from the usual sleeveless top.”
Naeth thinks brands will be able to make products that appeal to more women if they work closer with the athletes themselves.
“It’s not enough to just work with the pros,” she explains. “To tune into the needs of the masses, they need to get feedback from the masses. I’d love to see more companies have different age-groupers come in and give their input, try stuff on and see what works for them. That, and working more closely with female designers who are triathletes themselves.”
For women, by women
Jessica Jay is a 31-year-old triathlete living in Vancouver. She’s very involved in the triathlon scene, not only competing several times a year, but also several times a year, but also running a popular triathlon-themed Instagram account under the handle “@tri.lady” and serving as an ambassador for multiple triathlon brands.
One such brand is Betty Designs. Created by triathlete and graphic designer Kristin Mayer, it was one of the first brands dedicated to creating fashion-forward and functional triathlon gear for women.
“Betty Designs is a women-specific company that sells online, so women can’t easily try on products before purchasing,” Jay says. “They have a large ambassador program to get feedback from a diverse group of women testing out their kits.”
Jay thinks ambassador programs are the key to understanding what women are looking for in their gear.
“I have lots of women reach out and ask me about a product when they see me wearing it, or share their own feedback if they buy Betty Designs gear. I can share that with the company and it goes directly into designs for new stuff,” she says.
Companies like Betty Designs have become popular over the past few years. They combine fashion, fit and performance in a way that hasn’t been done before in women’s triathlon gear. Jay thinks boutique brands of this sort are helping to fill a void in the market and set a new standard for other brands.
“In the past we’ve seen a lot of the same styles being reused over and over again. Betty Designs, Wattie Ink… they offer unique styles and cater to particular types of athletes. They give women a chance to express themselves as athlete,” she says.
Jay believes brands like these do well because when athletes find products they like, they’ll stick with them throughout their triathlon careers.
Serpico agrees that Kristin Mayer was onto something when she created Betty Designs.
“The market is lacking gear that appeals to a variety of tastes. When I found [Betty Designs] I knew it would sell because it’s different,” she says. “The women’s triathlon market needs more pioneers like Kristin Mayer.”
It’s all in the details
While fit and esthetics are evolving to suit women’s tastes, so are the details that separate a good kit from a great one.
“The key to a good pair of tri shorts is the chamois,” says Naeth. “It has to be adapted to the woman’s body. I’ve tried many different ones and find that they’re usually too narrow and don’t fit the body right.”
Jay agrees the chamois is one of the most important considerations in buying a pair of shorts.
“Companies seem to have nailed the male chamois, but it’s an entirely different case for ladies. It’s tough to find a good chamois that doesn’t cause chafing because so many of them just aren’t adapted to women’s needs.”
Other important details lie in the waistband and leg band. Women tend to dislike the standard waistband used in many men’s shorts and favour the new style of roll-down bands that complement the female physique.
Serpico says new technology like Garneau’s laser-finished leg band hems not only offer performance benefits, but help women’s styles look flattering on all shapes and sizes. Brands are finally getting rid of the hem that makes legs look like sausages and are opting for a sleeker band that flatters all shapes and sizes.
More than just a race kit
It’s exciting to see the market expand to offer female triathletes more options that work for different race lengths, allow for personal style expression and cater to specific needs. But introducing new colours, patterns and styles may do more than just support athletes already in the sport.
“I think this is a great way to get more women excited about triathlon,” says Jay. “It’s an expensive sport. You have to invest a lot of money, so why not use something fun like gear as a way to pull ladies in. It’s fun to pick out something you’re going to like wearing when you’re training and racing. As triathletes, we’re so lucky to do what we do. It’s about having a balanced and healthy lifestyle and having fun. Our gear should reflect that.”
These days, when Serpico has a female client walk into her store, she feels confident she can find her some gear that she’ll love.
Hopefully we see this trend continue as brands start to offer more and more gear that helps