The past two decades have seen the women’s cycle clothing sector progress significantly in terms of product. Duncan Moore investigates how things changed and the commitment retailers need to take to cover the market…
When I began to research this feature, the same phrase kept coming up time and again whenever I spoke to women in the cycle trade. “When I started cycling, women’s kit, in general, was heavily influenced by a male perspective of what women like; ‘shrink it and pink it’ used to be a reality for most of us,” is how Maria Olsson, Design Manager for Rapha, sums up what the state of the women’s cycle clothing market used to be just a few years ago. It was that sort of experience that led Deborah Burton to become a pioneer for female-specific clothing when she established the online brand Minx-Girl at the turn of the century.
Speaking about the difficulty of getting decent women’s shorts and jerseys before she began Minx-Girl, Burton explains: “I travelled a lot with my job and bought most of my cycling kit in the USA where there was more choice. Not just more choice but actual female-specific clothing. In the UK at that time (the late-‘90s) female-specific shorts (if you could find any) were cheap, shiny and the most unflattering garments anyone bothered to invest money in stitching together.” It wasn’t just the lack of quality that was a stumbling block for women trying to buy kit in the average bike shop. “Women who might have found something they wanted to try on found bike shops without changing rooms, or the changing room was the loo (nice),” notes Burton.
It was those sort of experiences that led Burton to start Minx-Girl, which operated from 2002 until 2016 and changed the market place for women’s kit in the UK. Minx-Girl introduced women’s specific kit from the likes of Pearl Izumi, Sugoi and Gore to a mainstream audience. Burton also brought new brands to the UK, brands that had new ideas and designs. One was Harlot Wear, launched in the US by Jennifer Steketee who couldn’t find what she wanted to wear on a bike so started making it herself. “That ‘it’ was relaxed fit three-quarter cycling bottoms which seemed to flatter everyone. Minx sold 100 pairs right out of the gate,” explains Burton. That move to more relaxed and very definite designed by-women-for-women kit not only created sales in the UK, it also inspired other women in the sport to get involved.
In 2012, Hannah Myers created Flare Clothing, a brand dedicated to offering women riders something more relaxed, avoiding tight Lycra and yet remaining feminine. Myers is no longer involved with the business, having sold it on at the end of 2018, but Flare is set to return with a new women’s clothing range under the guidance of John Brame and his partner Marsha who had previously been manufacturing Flare’s ‘custom kit’ in their UK factory and who took on the Flare brand after Myers sold it.
“Since the purchase of the brand in December 2019, we have assembled a team of women with huge amounts of experience in fashion, sports, retail, design and more,” explains Brame. “With this team, we are sure to address the specific variances as to what a woman looks for in her sports gear: function, fashion, fit and fun. It is very important to us that women are at the core of the design and development of all the products that we create.
“The Flare brand under Hannah’s ownership had a very distinct look and feel in its vibrant colours and patterns. Today, we look to maintain the strong design signature while incorporating current fashion trends and colours into what we feel is current and relevant to women. We have been busy working on a brand refresh for this summer, a new range of garments and what we know will honour Hannah’s original women’s only brand vision.”
Fortunately for women riders and, indeed, retailers who want to cater to them, Flare is not the only manufacturer set to bring new ideas and designs to market this year. “I can see a lot of change in the market even over the past four years, more brands coming into the market, more female cyclists in all aspects of the sport, and I think women are demanding space and being more vocal about their need for change here,” says Rapha’s Olsson. “I believe we do lead the way here as far as taking women’s kit seriously, which I believe has led to an improvement globally across the board. More brands are designing for women now, gaining insights from women who ride and I see this as a very positive change.
“More competition means that we have to keep pushing for excellence to stay relevant, and this is exciting for us, it will bring more opportunities to prove that we are the best at what we do. “Being a female cyclist working on women’s kit makes a world of difference I think, and there are definitely some differences in men’s and women’s needs and priorities when it comes to kit,” Olsson adds. “Over the last three years we have been developing a chamois concept – launching this spring – specifically designed, developed and tested to improve the riding experience for women, I think this alone shows the commitment Rapha has to women’s cycling.”
But how are retailers to make the most of these new ranges and innovations in women’s cycling kit? Burton offers the following advice: “Have a point of view. You cannot be all things to all people even though the market is bigger now than when Minx started, there is still the same problem of fragmentation that makes it hard for you to provide the right mix across every sector the market – unless you want to bankrupt yourself with a high stock that barely turns. Minx worked because it had a very clearly identifiable product mix.
“Your skill as a buyer is to do the hard work and negotiate all the kit out there so you can serve up to your customers the right mix for them. Consider looking to Europe and the US for independents in order to directly import an exclusive brand. It means getting to grips with customs clearance and duty rates but it can give you an edge. “If you’re in the clothing business, be properly in the clothing business. I’ll assume you’re going to give it decent floor space, forward hang where possible and merchandise in groups – not just by brand but across brands. If your interest extends to merely ticking the boxes on the product mix the rep is giving you, don’t even bother,” concludes Burton.
Olsson suggests that shops should have, “knowledgeable and approachable female staff in the stores”. She goes on to explain: “Many women who want to get into cycling might not feel super confident in their knowledge, and more often prefer to talk to a woman, especially about chamois or bras. “Secondly, showcase the women’s range, make it easily accessible and visually exciting. Again, a lot of women already feel self-conscious walking into a heavily male-dominated retail environment like a bike shop, and you want to make it easy for them to find what they need or browse for inspiration. Women are extremely aware consumers and you will definitely increase your chance of them returning if they feel excited about the range. And finally, actually ask women what they want, get to know your customer and do not simply assume you know. You’ll never be able to please everyone but you will go a long way just through engaging people and inviting them to influence their market,” concludes Olsson.
With female-specific clothing, if you want successful sales, as with all specialist products in the cycle industry, you have to fully commit for it to make a substantial difference to the store’s bottom line. Simply having a small selection of women’s shorts and jerseys tucked away in the corner of the store isn’t going to equate to sales. The range needs to be front and centre and you need sales staff that not only know the product but understand the customers’ needs.