Under Armour’s chief product officer talks the casualisation of sportswear and post-pandemic strategies
Being a woman in a male-led environment, while initially presenting itself as a challenge, can actually come with a plethora of opportunities, giving a perspective that can determine what is missing in the industry and what needs to change. This is something Lisa Collier, Under Armour’s chief product officer, has excelled in, as seen in the shifts already evident at the brand just two years on from her appointment – despite entering the company peak pandemic.
Collier herself has worked in the footwear, apparel and retail industry for around 37 years. “I call myself a merchant by nature, but I’m also a bit of a ‘unicorn’ because I’m equally as creative as I am operational,” she told FashionUnited. She began her career at The Limited, where she held the position of merchant buyer, which at the time involved everything from scouring trends to leading the manufacturing process. “In those days you were a jack of all trades, so I think that’s how I got my balance,” she added.
Collier then moved on to the denim space, working at Levi Strauss where she did a myriad of jobs, including leading the brand in Australia and New Zealand and setting up the development centre, which had moved from Turkey to San Francisco. She also had a hand in the sale of private equity-backed denim brand Not Your Daughter’s Jeans, where she served as CEO.
Ultimately, her experiences brought her to Under Armour in 2020, where she currently leads the sportswear giant’s product team. Speaking to FashionUnited, Collier outlines the brand’s plans for the coming year ahead, how she is driving womenswear and the importance of listening to the consumer.
What brought you to Under Armour in the end?
I’ve always had a passion for sports, but I grew up with two brothers and could never understand why I couldn’t do what they could. And now we have female referees! I go by three things in my life, which I call the ‘Three Ds’ – desire, determination, and dedication. I feel like they are the core of who I am.
I decided when I was leaving the fashion industry that I wanted to be more involved in health, fitness, sports for wellbeing. I had some early conversations with Under Armour and was really struck by the underdog mentality of the brand, and all the disruptive things it did. I was thrilled to become part of the organisation and take skills I had already developed and apply them.
You joined the company at the height of the pandemic. How have the operations changed over that period of time?
It was amazing what many apparel, footwear and fashion brands were able to do through the pandemic. We did a lot of things that nobody thought were possible when you're in the product creation space. What we’re trying to strike a balance of right now is how do we come back? There’s a great value in the power of being together as a team when you’re building and creating products for athletes and consumers.
My organisation was spread out, I have teams all over the world; in Portland, Asia, Amsterdam. But I’ve been lucky enough, as we came out of the pandemic, to say 90 percent of my organisation is here with me in Baltimore, under one roof. This is what we call our ‘Lighthouse’ [Under Armour’s manufacturing and innovation facility], where we can knit, cut and sew products. It’s been amazing to see the transformation and the value of having our team together. We are back to a three-day work week in the office.
The tools for sharing or collaborations that were used and leveraged during the pandemic are now in place, and we’re trying to understand the value of what they mean. We as a team do more in-person, but how do we work better with our regional partners in-person again? There’s still great value in using WebEx or Teams, as you don’t have to hop on a plane to have a good conversation. But there is also still value in travelling together, being in-person, having conversations that take place more organically. We are looking into how to do that more cross-functionality with our regional partners.
In terms of product, what would you say were Under Armour’s overarching goals for the year ahead?
We have a combination of things for 2023. We’ve got a lot of sustainability principles and commitments that we made after we came out with our sustainability report at the end of last year. Ultimately, we are trying to figure out how to create a circular design process. It's one of our objectives that we’re not talking about much to the consumer yet, but we do think it’s an important part of the messaging. If you look in detail at the product, you can see that we’re using more recycled polys.
In addition to that, our mission is to make athletes better, provide them with solutions they didn’t know they needed and can’t live without. One of our key launches for 2023 is the Slip Speed. It came from the observation of consumers always stepping on the back of their heel. We provide them with solutions that can actually make it a functioning shoe that they can still perform and train in. The thing we know from consumers today is versatility is key in footwear.
We also have a group of products that we refer to as ‘unstoppable’, which are really versatile bottom silhouettes that we’ve now expanded the range of to include both wovens and knits. It’s a product that is performance and style driven. One of the ever-present things that is important to us is technology. ISO Chill is a critical fabric across our performance platforms, with a cooling sensation that again provides consumers with something they didn’t know they needed.
Across our footwear, Flow Technology is something that we have and own in the industry that nobody else does. It’s a rubberless bottom, with super high performance. We launched it two and half years ago and have now expanded across our running platform. We are also launching the marathon shoe, the Flow Velocity Elite, in the next couple of weeks. Steph Curry [NBA player] experienced a quicker recovery time with it, and he doesn’t have to ice his knees and ankles anymore.
Under Armour relied heavily on collecting data and insights from customers, as well as professional athletes. How important is this for the brand’s product strategy?
It is the centre of our strategy, and is in everything we do. We are currently working on a new fibre that we are not ready to unveil but we’re very excited about. It’ll touch on performance, but also deeply on circularity and sustainability. We started testing it last year with some of our professional athletes and now we’re converting to getting it on the field of play with some of our collegiate and other professional team partners. We can then get the insights from the athlete and continue to improve before we not only roll it out across all of our athlete platforms, but also to the consumer at retail level. Those insights really do inform everything we do and everything we think about, whether its minor tweaks to the fit or how they want to use the product.
When looking at your consumers, what kind of behavioural shifts have you noticed in the sportswear market that are impacting your strategy?
In terms of macroeconomic factors, I think about what the pandemic did for us, or didn’t do for us in that space. The casualisation of the world started 25 years ago, but it started really taking hold five to 10 years ago. The pandemic just accelerated that. The consumer is looking for versatility in whatever they’re purchasing, and they’re bringing this casualisation to their wardrobe.
In some cases, when we look at 16 to 20 year olds, the consumer that we’re targeting, they’re less affected by price. Their purchasing power is through their parents. If they believe the product is going to perform, if it’s new and innovative, they’re willing to pay more. We do see pressure from private label brands in the core basics categories, with a good price point level. But what we see with the consumer is if the technology, the performance and the versatility is there, they'll pay for it. It's not just about pushing great discounting.
What kind of societal, environmental factors influence the sportswear consumer and how they make purchases?
We know that this consumer is still very conscientious of the environment, so sustainability practices are still very important. I think overarchingly, fashion and trends still inform it. We talk a lot about an athlete's culture, for example understanding the way in which an American footballer’s culture is different from a global football athlete. We really try to understand the music that’s important to them, the socio factors that are weighing in on their life, the things they love. There is a much bigger emphasis on sport culture today from things like music and high fashion.
As fashion brands enter into the sportswear space, it puts an emphasis on youth pushing themselves to show up with their own ‘fit’ or ‘drip’, to use their own terms. They want to be ‘dripped’ out when they are playing on the field, but still be supported from a performance perspective. In the other 22 hours of the day, they want to look fashionable. There's a bigger emphasis on style and the influence that trends that happen in fashion have on that aspect of their wardrobe.
Womenswear will also be a big focus for Under Armour this year. Will your own experiences in the sports and sportswear industry impact the approach to this category?
Under Armour has been trying to push to be relevant in the women’s space, and at the end of the day, it is the bigger volume opportunity. I came from Levi’s and Dockers, and sometimes when you start as a men’s brand, it’s hard to make that shift happen. That has been something of a priority for us over the last couple of years. It’s about understanding the female consumer and the nuances within their body.
Take footwear, for example. The woman’s foot is built differently from the men’s foot from an autonomy perspective. Their pressure points are also different. We are building up our footwear and, in winter 2023, we will launch a global football boot for ‘her’. It was built with her needs from a perspective of what the differences are between men and women, from a comfort level and also pressure points on the studs.
In apparel, we are continuing to understand her body, her size, her shape – those things are important. We launched Infinity Silo when I first got to the brand, where the team really deep dived into breast movement and what was important to her, making sure we had the right level of support and comfort. We are planning to reinvent that for spring 2024, because we’ve received feedback. We’re taking this and tweaking the product so that we can continue to improve it for the athlete.
Our focus is to make sure we create a line of footwear, apparel and accessories that support her performance, her uniqueness, but also that we support her being a ‘badass woman’ that wants to be feminine.
A lot of brands in this sector have been shifting towards becoming more lifestyle-focused. Is this something Under Armour has considered as well?
We are shifting our focus, and we’ve just made some adjustments to our strategy. We are still a performance-based brand. We believe performance is at the core of who we are, and supporting athletes. But athletes have a journey. They are not always on the field. So we are looking to support them on this journey. Whether that’s training, competing, recovering or just for the life they live.
We think athletes’ needs are sometimes unique in the way that most of their products are for performance, but they spend a lot of time in them. What are those attributes from a comfort, versatility and fit perspective that we need to bring into those other 18 to 22 hours a day? We need to consider the other hours of the day where style plays a bigger and important role. I think you’ll start to see that shift in us, showing our athletes in non-active moments.
What other trends do you expect to see in the near, or long-term, future of sportswear?
The blending of performance wear and sportswear are really how the consumer is showing up. If you asked the consumer to pick between sportswear versus a lifestyle product, I don’t think they distinguish. They just see a look and feel, but they know they want to show up that way. The trend is really how to do a good job of blending their needs, providing a way that allows them to have versatility and flexibility in their wardrobe. I think that trend is going to continue.
Sustainability will also continue for the consumer as well, now more than ever. It is very heightened, especially for Gen X, and I think brands really need to move and get on board with that, thinking about it in a way that continues to deliver on performance but also makes people feel good about what they are purchasing.
The digitalisation of fashion has also been increasingly prominent. Is this something you have had to consider in your operations?
Yes. A few months ago we did some work with our Curry brand where we offered non-fungible tokens (NFTs). This and the metaverse are things we are playing with and something we certainly have to think about. It is an important part in ensuring we connect with customers.
Not only NFTs, but digitising the product creation process has been important. It also allows us to potentially get to market sooner with consumers if we use 3D imaging at our sites. That is definitely a big trend that’s infused and will be informing future product creation. It is something the pandemic helped us overdrive and deliver against, not being afraid and uncomfortable with those tools.