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Editor's pick product technology

Ralph Lauren introduces heat-conducting smart jacket for USA Olympics team

Ralph Lauren has launched a smart jacket that will allow the USA Olympics team to keep warm at this year’s Winter games, taking place in PyeongChang, South Korea.

As part of the team’s official uniform, which the brand has been designing for six years, a parka and a bomber jacket each use heat-conducting ink that generates warmth similar to an electric blanket.

“We’re looking back and celebrating what’s iconic and symbolic of America, and merging that with where we’re headed,” says David Lauren, the brand’s chief innovation officer. The uniform, which includes classics of American fashion such as jeans and thick suede gloves, nod to different American frontiers, he adds. “The frontiers of the 1800s and 1900s, and then the frontier of today, which is technology.”

Lauren explains that the design’s top priority was to allow for flexibility: while temperatures in South Korea can reach below zero in the winter, athletes needed to feel equally comfortable wearing the jacket while waiting at the backstage area ahead of the Opening Ceremony. After investigating suitable fabrics, the brand landed on technology.

 

Ralph Lauren's Heated Parka, tech-enabled textiles
Ralph Lauren’s Heated Parka

The garment’s heat is achieved through a special type of carbon and silver ink bonded to the jacket lining, which in keeping with the brand’s roots, were sewn in the shape of an American flag.

The ink connects to a battery pack sewn into the garment, which when fully charged can heat the jacket for up to 11 hours. Athletes can then adjust the temperature up or down via an app.

To develop the jacket, the RL innovation team worked with several US-based  partners such as engineers at Delaware-based tech giant DuPont, who had previously developed heated garments which were deemed to heavy for everyday wear. The brand also worked with Butler Technologies, a high-tech precision screen-printer based in Pittsburgh; apparel manufacturer 99Degrees, who helped bond the heater to the jacket’s lining; Key Tech, a high-tech design firm that helped design the battery packs with user experience in mind; and Principled Design, who designed the connectors that attach the battery pack to the heater in a streamlined way.

A sketch of Ralph Lauren's Olympics opening ceremony outfit connected tech, textiles
A sketch of Ralph Lauren’s Olympics opening ceremony outfit

Lauren explains that the jacket is an experiment towards launching a consumer-facing connected product this year: “Our hope is that we’ll learn enough that we’ll be able to go into production with a different, limited edition jacket for this fall.”

For years, the brand has been experimenting with technology and how it can improve performance when embedded in textiles. In 2015, it launched the PoloTech smart shirt, which captures biometric information and transmits it to an accompanying app, while for the 2016 Summer Olympics, it created a blazer with electroluminescent panels for torch-bearer Michael Phelps.

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Editor's pick product technology

Nike unveils raft of innovations including adaptive lacing and new personalisation app

Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit
Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit

Nike was in an innovative frame of mind yesterday as it unveiled a raft of tech-based sports shoes that it said represented “new breakthroughs in performance… the all-access pass to your potential”.

I must admit, I wish the announcements these companies make would be less hyperbole-laden. I always go into default sceptic mode when I hear those regular press release words like “groundbreaking,” “pioneering” and not forgetting the favourite “revolutionary”.

But to be fair to Nike, when you strip back the superlatives, you do get some real steps forward (pun intended).

Nike’s new adaptive lacing
Nike’s new adaptive lacing

The innovation came through in launches such as its “adaptive lacing” platform, as well as a “pioneering” football technology that separates mud from cleats and “transformations” in the Nike Air and Nike Flyknit lines.

Nike CEO Mark Parker also unveiled the new Nike+ app that connects athletes with the brand’s products and services “in a simple, seamless way”. The company says it delivers a personal store and on-demand coaching through a personal feed that recommends products tailored to the user, coaching for all levels that adapts to each person’s performance and schedule, and a fair bit more.

Continuing with the superlatives, here’s more of what Parker said: “Today… represents a fundamental shift in how we serve the athlete. We’ve entered a new era of personalised performance. Athletes want more than a dashboard and data – they want a more personal relationship, one that gives them real solutions and total access to the best product and services.”

Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit
Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit

What this all boils down to is innovation in materials, fastenings and soles as well as all the extra services that the app will bring. This is some of what’s coming:

  • Nike HyperAdapt 1.0: Ushering in this new era of personalised performance, it’s the first-ever step in the concept of “adaptive lacing”. That means self-tying to you and I. It delivers a precise fit that can be adjusted to the changing needs of the game so your heel will hit a sensor and the system will automatically tighten, although the wearer can also adjust the lacing via special buttons. Shoes using this tech will be exclusively available to purchase through the new Nike+ app, which means you won’t be able to buy them unless you sign up to Nike+.
  • Air VaporMax Flyknit: Since the advent of the Air platform 40 years ago, designers required foam and rubber to separate the Air and the foot for support and traction purposes. But not amy more as the firm’s research has allowed “these barriers [to] be removed to create maximum feel and efficiency for runners”. Nike said this development “reimagines how footwear is made and offers athletes the purest cushioning ever created”. The Air VaporMax features Nike’s most advanced Air bag unit to date. It debuts not only more extreme, targeted Air placement but also more Air than before. Discarding the traditional foam midsole, sheds weight and bulk in exchange for better flexibility, without compromising structure. Weight and waste are reduced, and placing the upper directly on the Nike VaporMax Air unit ramps up response, the company says.
  • Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit spike: This gets even more specific, introducing a knit pattern that provides mid-foot support adapted to the centrifugal force of the track. Plus, the innate construction of Flyknit eliminates the weight associated with traditional cut-and-sew uppers.
  • Anti-Clog Traction: No, it’s not a declaration of war on Crocs or traditional dutch footwear! It’s clog as in clogging, and helps prevent mud from sticking to the bottom of football boots (cleats) with a new adaptive polymer to help players avoid the slips and excess weight that can be a monumental pain.
  • Flyknit: I have to admit, the Flyknit platform was something of a game-changer and it’s now available in all sports for all athletes in all conditions, a major leap forward for a technology that four years ago launched solely for marathoners. The combinations of yarns and digital knitting techniques that make up Flyknit now offer athletes stronger and more weatherproof options.

This post first appeared on Trendwalk.net, a style-meets-business blog by journalist, trends specialist and business analyst, Sandra Halliday

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business e-commerce technology

Under Armour’s power performance: Athleisure & connected fitness

underarmour1

How important is ‘athleisure’ as a trend that’s impacting sales figures for sportswear companies? Well, sports brands never really own up to that. But the sales growth some of the big names are seeing suggests that it’s a real sales driver. Just look at Under Armour’s latest results.

The company released its Q4 figures this week, turning in an eye-popping 31% revenue rise to $1.17bn. Wow. You don’t get that from just selling to committed sports and fitness fanatics.

Under Armour is one of those companies that has really been benefitting from the athleisure trend and while yesterday’s upbeat news wasn’t all about sportswear as a lifestyle choice (rather than a sports one), the lifestyle factor obviously did loom large. Interestingly, lifestyle is giving a major boost to sports clothing sales. Where once upon a time all the sexy news was about footwear, now apparel is enjoying its time in the spotlight.

Apparel sales for Under Armour rose a massive 22.2% and at $864.8m in the three months to December 31 they obviously make up the biggest chunk of the firm’s revenue, driven by demand for training, running, golf and basketball duds. Obviously, you don’t see 20%-plus growth in each quarter for 25 consecutive quarters by just supplying clothes for active sports. That means a lot of people bought those training, running, golf and basketball pieces for working in, for relaxing, posing and partying in… as well as for getting fit.

womenshoe_UA

Footwear had a good quarter too though, with sales almost doubling to $166.9m as new running shoes and the signature Stephen Curry basketball line proved hugely popular. Again, you only have to look around any group of friends at work or off-duty to see how even the most high-performance shoes have transitioned from the track and court to the bar and office.

And accessories sales soared as well, rising 23% to $97.1m, driven primarily by new bags. Meanwhile online sales grew 25% in Q4 and now make up 36% of total Under Armour revenue, and international net revenues rose 70% (or 85% currency-neutral) to make up 12% of the total. That all helped net profit to rise 20.4% to $105.6m, or 48 cents per share.

Any negatives?

Can this impressive performance continue? Well, the firm expects revenue growth of 25% this year so, yes. That prediction obviously countered any worries investors may have had that the athleisure trend fuelling such explosive growth might end any time soon.

Some analysts and investors were concerned about reports that Under Armour is losing womenswear market share – a particularly disconcerting thought given that women are helping to drive the athleisure trend. The Wall Street Journal quoted data from SportScanInfo saying the company saw a 7.7% drop in womenswear sales in December (compared to a 6.6% rise for Nike). But Under Armour has countered this saying the data captured only represents 40% of its business (it doesn’t include wholesale or online sales, for instance).

Yet there are still some downsides in Under Armour’s performance. The company’s margin slipped in Q4 as it boosted inventory levels to ensure it could meet demand and keep shelves stocked. The negative aspect of this high inventory level is unsold product that ends up being marked down.

underarmour2

And lower margins make analysts nervous, especially when they’re already worried that a fashion trend (athleisure) fuelling massive sales growth could flip suddenly and become yesterday’s fashion news.

But is athleisure really a fashion trend any more or has it evolved into a true lifestyle phenomenon that’s a reflection of society’s increasing move away from formal clothing? I’m inclined to think the latter. In many ways it’s the logical conclusion of a trend that started over 50 years ago and I don’t think it’s going to go away, even when the fashion pendulum swings in another direction.

Future focus

So, assuming that athleisure is here to stay and that the firm’s power growth can continue (for a while at least), what will Under Armour be offering this year to make it happen?

CEO Kevin Plank said the firm will deliver new iterations of signature product across premium price points and distribution throughout this year. It’s doubling its “elevated running” offerings priced above $100 including the launch of its first smart shoe, SpeedForm Gemini 2 RE, and SpeedForm Slingshot, made with a 3D knitting process.

In apparel, it will debut two new HeatGear apparel cooling technologies, Microthread and CoolSwitch, while also launching a proprietary ColdGear insulation story called Reactor.

OK, a lot of people are going to buy into that sport-focused tech for nothing more vigorous than the walk to the bus stop. But the company is also going to offer plenty for the true fitness-focused community, not only with clothes and shoes, but via major developments in Connected Fitness.

Earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show, it unveiled the new UA Record, the digital dashboard app for health & fitness, and a suite of new products led by Under Armour HealthBox, which it described as “the world’s first complete Connected Fitness system.”

And while all that can help consumers monitor their fitness, importantly, it can help Under Armour monitor its consumers too! That’s not as creepy as it sounds; the company isn’t watching us. But CEO Kevin Plank did say it could achieve a “more complete picture of [its] consumer”. He added: “We are establishing our data-driven math house that will provide us with real-time information to make better decisions and build even better products. More importantly, it will provide deeper insights, recommendations, and personalised content.”

So there you have it – something for everyone no matter how fitness-focused you are. As for me, I think I’ll stick to the hoodie and leggings for lounging around and watching TV…

This post first appeared on Trendwalk.net, a style-meets-business blog by journalist, trends specialist and business analyst, Sandra Halliday