Nike recently introduced a sweating robot and a breast-tissue robot into its design process in a bid to further improve its women's sportswear offering, particularly within the realm of sports bras. For women with larger chests (plus size or otherwise), finding the right sports bra can be close to an Olympic sport and thankfully, it's an issue that the sportswear brand is not taking lightly.
One of the women behind Nike's dedication to addressing this issue is Tania Flynn, the VP of Women's Apparel Product Design. "Everybody has a different relationship to how they want to feel in their bras and in their sports bras," she tells Hypebae. As the brand celebrates its Future 50 For Her campaign, we caught up with Flynn to find out more about the innovative bra-bot and everything that Nike is doing to further women's sportswear design.
Continue scrolling to read the full interview.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started working with Nike?
I've been at Nike for 17 and a half years. I started right out of design school and I worked mostly in apparel design and across men's, kids, women's and basketball. I've worked on Olympic products, I've worked on Brand Jordan so I have a really vast wealth of experience across all of Nike's design pipelines.
How would you say the design of the sports bra has changed since you first started?
I was in kids-wear for five years before I joined the women's team and as a member of the kids' team, I was really thinking about how to serve girls and thinking about their first bra experiences. When I was young, it was the training bra that you went to the department store to get. Really thinking about the sports bras being her first bra and asking what's that experience and how do we serve a girl into womanhood thinking about that transition? I think that today we have a lot more choices and options for women in terms of their support level and style choices. We've also studied more women than ever before. We've stood up and invested so much in our innovation and research labs for women and we've been able to study women better and we've been able to learn how to innovate for them better. That really drove the design and materiality and the engineering of our sports bras so that they're better than ever before.
In terms of how the design process works, what can you tell us?
There are a few things that happen simultaneously. We have our Next team, which is our innovation space, as well as our research labs. They're working ten-plus years out and they're always looking for better ways to build bras, better materials, better sweat-wicking, more comfort and more durability. We have an insights team and we're always working with consumers and athletes to understand how to improve the products. That's one piece that's always ongoing. If I think about a typical design season, it starts with a brief from our product teams and we focus on whether or not we're going to renew a certain franchise for the season, whether from the market or consumer insights. We need to introduce a new design, a scrappier design, a higher coverage design, for example. The design teams are briefed and then they spend quite a bit of time incubating their ideas. They look at trends not only in the intimates area but also in how women are using their products.
If you look at the sports bras today, in some ways it's like a T-shirt, there are a lot of women who like wearing them as a top. [For us] thinking about what the end use is is important, what collection will sit in, etc. Depending on the materiality, the process looks a little bit different, but the team designs some options of styles. We go through an editing process, we make prototypes, we put them on models, we send them out for wear testing, we make adjustments and we do that a few times until we get it just right.
That sounds like an intensive process. How does Nike ensure that it caters to diverse body types during that process?
We have a lot of amazing data and a lot of amazing fit data, which is why we are always evolving how we look at our sizing. We have scans from tens and thousands of bodies globally and we're able to determine how we need to size the product to serve the broadest range of the population. That takes into account from our petite to our plus-size consumer, whether it's petite in height to tall, and then all the shapes that come along with that. It's not just about "if you weigh this much and you're this tall, you get this size," you need to really think about the shape. We really take a lot of time and effort in crafting and engineering those patterns to allow for the shaping.
Nike recently launched the boob sweat robot, which is incredible. Tell us a bit about how it works and how that idea came about.
What is amazing is there's the bra-bot and then there's Hayley, the sweating robot. The bra-bot allows our research lab team to have a consistent measure of success each and every time. If you think about it, no two breasts are the same, not even on one individual. Thinking about it from a science-based approach, it gives you the same constant every time so you can really test incremental adjustments and what kind of improvements those make. The bra-bot has tissue, it feels like a real body and it has breast tissue that moves so you can have that robot moving all the time and [you can] see how the breast tissue would move in a way that you can't replicate the same time and time again with a human person.
Was there anything that really surprised you during that process? Is there something about the way that the tissue moves during sport that people might not be aware of?
I think the thing that was most surprising is that everybody has a different relationship with how they want to feel in their bras and in their sports bras. I'm larger-busted and I prefer to be completely locked down when I'm running or doing anything like that. I need to feel that support so if it were up to me, everyone would be locked down, but that's not how everyone wants to feel, so it's very personal. This is why we have three distinctive franchises that are available in low, medium and high support so that they can choose. They're not relegated to thinking "I need high support and I only get this bra that covers me up to here," they can get the strappy, sexy one, they can get the minimal one. The ability for consumers to personalize or customize the look they want with the support level they need is really what's the game-changer for us.
Outside of sports bras, what other elements of women's apparel is Nike working on to improve and how is that being done?
We spend a lot of time talking with athletes and influencers. We're constantly looking at and analyzing how to make the experience better for women and how to make the product better. One of the most interesting things that I learned recently was after speaking to Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is our modest athlete. She's a U.S. Olympic fencer and we were just having a conversation with her, talking about how she lives in Los Angeles and it's warm when she's working out indoors. She's training and she needs longer lengths and more coverage and just the ability to have a more breathable product or a warm-weather product.
It dawned on me that usually when we do this warmer weather product, we have breathable meshes and open holes. We put innovation in the garment on the back of the material so it spans from the body and it doesn't stick to you. We do all of these amazing things that we have at our disposal, but they're usually in a short sleeve silhouette or a racer back or crop top and it's so simple to rethink. We can apply those innovative material solutions to a long sleeve, with more coverage in the back and provide that experience for a modest athlete. It's just something so simple that just I never thought of before and so I think talking with our athletes, talking with our consumers, we're always learning how to be able to serve more women.
It's such a small detail to one person, but to somebody else, it's the difference between wearing the clothes or not wearing the clothes and buying into the brand at all, right?
Exactly. There are so many women who dress modestly, whether it's for religious reasons or just personal reasons, who prefer to be more covered up in a lot of segments of the world. So for serving them, that was a great insight. We know that we're serving thousands of women out there who also have the same plight.
What would you say that the future looks like in terms of women's sporting apparel?
It's great to talk about all of the things that we're doing to move women forward in sport and power, inviting more women into sports. We know we've done our job if more women are comfortable and join us in sport. We know all the benefits from that. The other thing is, I think we know we've moved the needle if it's not news to talk about sports bras and women in sport. Hopefully, the future is a more equitable one in terms of the investments made in women's sports across the board.
The other thing I think is interesting is that we're thinking about this idea of "if you have a body you're an athlete," that's what we say at Nike. There's been this perception of what an athlete looks like and what an athlete's experience is [and we're] broadening the definition of that and inviting more women into the sport. That can look like walking, it can look like wellness or yoga. It's not just about the marathon runner or someone that's going for gold. I think making it a more inclusive space is also really important and just inspiring women to kind of get out there and be the best version of themselves. I know that sometimes it may seem silly that it starts with a piece of apparel, but if you have a great sports bra, you feel confident to get out there and that you're taken care of. Then also to find those garments that make you feel amazing when you put them on, I know it's inspiring for me and I believe it's inspiring for all women.