With the World Cup just weeks away, we’re entering an exciting new era for women’s sport – and thanks to its new design innovations, Nike is playing a pivotal role
This March – in the middle of Women’s History Month, and just days after International Woman’s Day – Nike opened the doors of its notoriously private world headquarters in Portland, Oregon. The guestlist, aptly, was almost exclusively women; a group of journalists, athletes, designers and influencers from every corner of the world, invited to witness the brand’s dedication to eradicating gender inequality in sport. To hammer home the point, the event was held at Nike’s newly opened Serena Williams Centre: a sprawling, one-million-square-foot glass temple built as a tribute to one of the greatest woman athletes of all time. Guests also included some of the most formidable names in contemporary sport, including two-time football world champion Megan Rapinoe; Paralympian (and the fastest woman in the world) Tatyana McFadden; Basketball prodigy and new Nike design collaborator Sabrina Ionescu; and Parris Goebel, the choreographer behind Rihanna’s Superbowl performance.
Getting women to feel confident with sport and movement has always been important for Nike, obviously – even more so in the last four years, when the brand decided to double its investment into new women’s products. But 2023 feels particularly timely: the Women’s World Cup is kicking off this summer, and conversations about gender equality – and women athletes finally getting the recognition they deserve – are getting louder. Last year’s Women’s Euro Championships attracted over 365 million cumulative viewers, and that number is likely to skyrocket when the tournament goes global in July.
It makes sense, then, that one of the biggest announcements of the event last month was Nike’s 2023 Women’s National Team Kits. Unveiled to the public earlier this week, the kits may be the most innovative, thoughtfully crafted collections for professional sportswomen, and will be worn by 13 international teams this summer. “To be able to elevate our female athletes on this level, it feels like a turning point,” says Charlotte Harris, Nike‘s senior women’s designer of advanced concepts, as she shows me the kit. “Being in the UK and watching the Lionesses [win last year]… it’s very special, it feels like it’s the start of something.”
The innovation comes from years of painstakingly diligent study, working with avatars, scans, multi-dimensional design and motion capture to learn exactly how women athletes move and sweat. The resulting kit “is a brand new fit and material innovation that our athletes will be debuting on the pitch this tournament,” explains Harris. “It will be tuned specifically to the needs of our powerful female footballers, mapped to her movements pixel by pixel, stitch by stitch.” The three main focuses are mobility, breathability and sustainability. “We’ve obsessed over and crafted every single detail to focus on zero distractions, so she can perform her best,” Harris adds, running her hand over the fabric’s complex, feather-weight texture, with its almost microscopic vents. The aesthetic design, too, has had just as much effort poured into it: each represented federation contains its own unique print, to reflect the country’s culture and heritage – the England version, for example, is a distinct off-white to match the colour of Wembley’s original bricks (a nod to the stadium’s 100th anniversary, taking place this year).
But the biggest buzz – the announcement that most of the team has been excitedly talking about – is around something called the Leak Protection: Period Innovation. By now, it’s an established fact that periods are a big factor in putting young women off sports: data gathered by the Youth Sport Trust in 2021 revealed that over a third of schoolgirls avoid being active at school because of the discomfort and shame of menstruation (a number that is steadily rising). It’s a block for athletes, too. “When I was competing at the Paralympic Games, I was always worried about leaking, worrying if my tampon or pad was going to hold up,” says McFadden, who has won 17 Paralympic medals and secured 24 World Major Marathon wins. Being on the world stage, she adds, makes that pressure even higher. “My 15-year-old self would have loved to have this discussion… because menstruation wasn’t talked about. I really wish it was, because we shouldn't be embarrassed.”
To rectify this, Nike last month launched a new ultrathin, absorbent liner to help protect against period leaks – a project that has been nearly four years in the making, and is now finally available in the Nike One Short silhouette, as well as in all the Nike Pro shorts at this year’s World Cup. “We know our athletes can’t leave the football pitch for the first 45 minutes,” says Harris. From Nike’s own research, she continues, they found that “the first nine minutes” of that time are apparently spent being concerned about the potential of leaking on their period.
“We knew we needed to create a product that would keep people in sport,” adds Lisa Gibson, Nike’s senior apparel innovation project manager. “But what we are unlocking here is more than a product. Not all women menstruate, and not menstruators are women. This technology is game-changing [not just for women, but] for the trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming communities. This can really make people feel safe and secure. Fear of bleedthrough is real, and for this community can really exacerbate those feelings of gender dysphoria.” (The company’s commitment to being trans and gender non-conforming inclusive is particularly refreshing given the growing hostility to these communities in the UK and the US – a case proven earlier today, with their decision to work with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney for a sports bra partnership).
If there’s ever any doubt about the sheer amount of effort that Nike pour into this kind of innovation, a visit to the world headquarters’ LeBron James Centre will silence that. Entering the immense, 84,000-square-foot building is like tumbling through an interstellar rabbit hole of pristine, intimidatingly high-spec tech. Take a turn down one corridor, and you’ll be greeted with a row of humming environmental chambers (made to mimic everything – from an amble through the suffocatingly humid Amazon jungle, to a bracingly cold sub-zero run). Another turn, and you’re suddenly in a vast indoor stadium, filled with hundreds of motion capture cameras. It’s here that the World Cup kits and Leak Protection: Period Innovation were developed, but also – if that wasn’t enough – where the team have been working on their most technically advanced sports bra, the FlyKnit 2.0, as well as a slowly expanding range of state-of-the-art leggings (all air-soft, with varying levels of compression, in an inclusive variety of sizes and colours). There are other equally exciting launches in the pipeline, too – but for now, they’re kept strictly under wraps.
Nike – a company named after the Greek goddess of victory – has always been a pioneering supporter of women in sport. Through their partnerships, the brand has helped some of the world’s greatest women athletes reach their peak potential, while also uplifting and nurturing some of the most exciting emerging designers (Martine Rose, AMBUSH’s Yoon Ahn, and Sacai’s Chitose Abe). Their goal now is to offer the same support to women and girls everywhere, regardless of their fitness or skill level. They’ve set themselves some inspiring targets, too: including total gender pay equity, and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of global grassroots initiatives for young women. And after two days of learning about what they have in store, and the amount of effort they’re prepared to pour into it, it’s clear that this year is barely just the beginning.