Having spent eight years leading the outdoor design group at L.L.Bean and doing what she loved, Kat Schoewe never thought she’d leave. But in 2009, when the challenge came from Under Armour to “build a design team that could innovate in the outdoor space,” she tells us she “simply could not say no.” Schoewe brings fresh perspective to the sportswear juggernaut attempting to make larger inroads within the outdoors. She’s also got a keen eye on the women’s market as a true outdoorswoman.
How did you make your way into the industry and eventually to Under Armour?
I’ve always been obsessed with outerwear. Ever since I can remember I’ve had more jackets than what my closet and additional rolling racks could bear, each signifying a different end use, varied thermal properties, distinct layering options, unique design features and colors.
I grew up between Europe and New York City, and we skied every weekend we could and traveled a ton. The obsession with gear only worsened with age and led me to study design and a career in outerwear. Choice of a life partner only exacerbated the situation when I married a true gear junkie with a matching closet of packs and camping gear whose idea of fun was a weekend on the AT or a Saturday in the Gunks. My passion for the outdoors only grew as I discovered new sports like paddling and SUP, cycling and running. We moved to Maine and spent every weekend we could on the slopes, on trail or on water.
My career has paralleled my passion and has been focused on building high-performance outerwear and outdoor gear, improving athlete performance and perfecting functional design through wearer experience, at times my own, but more often that of pros and other enthusiasts.
Where Has the industry struggled to meet the demands of female customers?
Historically, our industry has struggled to adequately define and focus on the needs of women outdoors. It has underserved the female-enthusiast customer with the “shrink it and pink it approach” by stereotyping outdoor women’s needs and aesthetics as a monolithic group rather than working with young female athletes to define their needs.
Over the past few years I’ve been noticing a sea change as more female athletes are not only keeping up with the boys, but also beating them at their game. Those girls are not looking for a “me-too” product; they want gear that mirrors their level of activity and caters to their very specific needs, while not sacrificing streamlined aesthetics, fit and anatomically hybridized functionality. More brands are taking notice and catering to the female athlete with products that are built by women for women, and I’m thrilled to see that.
What do you want to see from the ingredient brands to better design and create product for women?
I’d love to see more solutions to fit problems through materials, as fit is such an integral part of a women’s garment. Lighter weight, more drape and stretch without sacrificing durability or performance. This is especially true in three-layer shells, where it’s still a choice between durability or light-weight drape. I’d love to find materials that have both, no sacrifices. With the trends of outdoor lifestyle and athleisure growing, fit, hand and drape are more important than ever and traditional outdoor shells still feel very masculine and rigid. I’d love to see more natural blends and softer hand in laminated wovens.
For most people, Under Armour conjures up the image of a bulky guy playing football. How do you carve a space for the outdoorswoman within that shadow?
It’s true. UA started by catering to the male team athlete, but as a brand today we’re so much broader than that. We are the brand for all athletes from on-field and run to studio and outdoor. It is synonymous with our brand DNA to make all athletes better — that includes anyone from a six-year-old kid on a baseball field to a NY ballerina or a girl shredding down the mountain. We are first and foremost a performance and innovation brand. We apply that grounding philosophy daily to our women’s outdoor business.
We’re fortunate to work with some amazing athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Misty Copeland to focus on their outdoor challenges by building innovative solutions specifically fitting their needs. Most importantly we are all end users of the products we build, gear testers and vocal advocates of servicing the outdoor female. Our design leadership group consists of mostly women and all of our women’s outdoor products are designed “by women, for women.”
What’s your typical game plan at Outdoor Retailer?
I always try to get into Utah a day or two early to not to miss the on-water and on-snow days. It’s a great opportunity to people-watch, connect with friends and try out gear. I try to walk the show with my team for half the day to get a sense of the big trends happening in the market and then spend the rest of the show in appointments with key mills, trim suppliers and vendor partners.