Expert Talk: Sportswear Design

Designer & consultant for functional sportswear for over 30 years: Irmgard Beck is a real expert when it comes to functional and trendy sportswear. We talked to her about all aspects of design, her career and how the job as a designer constantly changes along with social trends and needs. (Pic: Alex Kaiser)

How did sportswear evolve over the course of your career?

When I first started out as a sportswear designer – after having studied fashion design in Vienna in the 80ies – everything was clearly divided. Every sport was on its own, whether it was skiing, road racing or climbing. There was also a clear division between everyday life, sport and recreation.

People started only slowly to develop a more multi-use approach by neglecting these strict concepts. The idea was to use one item of garment for different sports, for example for skiing as well as for mountain biking. That’s how base layers were created. Everything was designed along the principle “form follows function” in the beginning. Only later in the process colours and other design elements were added. Nowadays we are at the point, where recreation, sports and everyday life are starting to mix, which means wearing a sports jacket in the city is perfectly fine. Which is great! If you shop wisely, you can wear your sports clothes in many different ways.

Can you share any examples from your work portfolio?

I’ve always had an eye on the development of sports. For example, I helped to develop the first sportswear brand especially for mountain bikers. It was called Riff Raff and started out in Austria, in a city called Himberg near Vienna. The design of the apparel is closely linked to the new developments of the bikes. For instance, when trends as “Cross-country” and “Enduro” came up, we had to think about a new way of clothing. The result were multiple layers instead of just one thick jacket. It’s important to keep up with all the developments in a proactive way, that’s why I usually try every new trend in sports myself.

Another project was Martini Sportswear, an Austrian company near Salzburg. I especially designed a ski-tour range for women. For this line I was able to choose softer and lighter material as for normal skiing, which was a great experience. Moreover, I learned that you could create outstanding products, with having only limited resources garments and colours on hand. This was the time when “women” as a target group started to boom. A trend that is still very relevant today.

Designer Irmy Beck

How important is colour when it comes to design?

When I started out in the 80ies everything was very colourful. Real sportswear was always designed with an aspect of competition in mind. Nowadays colour is linked to the intensity of your activity as well as to emotions. Depending on whether you are a very active sportsperson, riding downhill in the mountains, or a more relaxed person looking for easy movement in an urban environment, you will most likely choose different colours.

Colour can also be a safety aspect or has an effect on your autonomic nervous system. A bright red jacket has a different impact on your emotions than for example a black one. The urban environment calls for a less colourful, more lifestyle-oriented palette like an olive or oxblood. A more sportive palette would be a deep red, a bright yellow, pink or blue – a nod to Scandinavian colour schemes.

I’ve worked for more ten years for Intersport International, where the regional aspect was also an important factor for your colour choice. Scandinavia for example tends to be more progressive when choosing colours and also unisex garments are very common; Italy has a more feminine approach, whereas Paris is more lifestyle-oriented. Plus, as mentioned already, when I started designing there was no such thing as “female sportswear”. Back then, women had to wear men’s shirts. Consequently, the first step towards a more feminine collection was to design shirts in pink and turquoise – what a stereotype!

Back then, women had to wear men’s shirts. Consequently, the first step towards a more feminine collection was to design shirts in pink and turquoise – what a stereotype!

In terms of colour, one of my biggest projects was to develop a colour concept and help to develop the design language for Vaude, which included all their products – apparel as well as hardware. In case you wonder what “hardware” means in this context – it’s for example, bikes, ski and ski sticks. All of these pieces call for an industry design or product-design savvy person.

Today companies are developing their own colour scheme and design language, because their products should be recognizable even without branding. Therefore, colours, cut and materials play an important role.

… and what role do materials play exactly?

This is probably the area where the most changes took place. All thanks to the innovations in production and technical development. We are now able to produce new fabrics – for example, it’s possible to combine synthetic fibre with linen. There is also a shift towards more sustainable materials like wool in both design worlds, for work and sports. The result is that you can now wear a shirt during the day and then go running with the same shirt in the evening. A really helpful development, especially for business trips, where you can save up on luggage. This enormous trend is called “athleisure”. It’s still in development and has a lot of space for innovation. That is why most of the fashion brands have started to invest in more basic and sports lines in the last few years. A trend which all the real sports brands missed.

Are there any other trends we should watch out for?

  • Active all day: which is linked to the whole health and fitness, balance and wellness development. This overlaps to more areas, for example architecture. You can especially see it in the way restaurants or concept stores are designed and what kind of food they serve.
  • Ageless Athletes: I started mountain biking 30 years ago. To speak the truth, I don’t really fit in the current market situation anymore. But at the age of 50 or even older you can still be very active, an aspect the industry luckily has recognized.
  • Empowerment: This is strongly linked to our social environment. It’s about getting strong in a physical way, especially for women. It’s about daring more and working towards personal achievements, no matter how big or small they are. You don’t have to be an athlete, it’s not about best times anymore, the idea is to go out and play and have fun together, in contrast to working in front of the computer all day.

All in all, we have a more relaxed attitude towards sports these days. Plus the community-aspect is getting increasingly important. That is why all sorts of clubs are very popular at the moment. There’s definitely a new lifestyle present. For example, I’m member of a cycle club, where drinking coffee together beforehand is as important as the ride itself. The interaction with your community and the fun element is at the heart of this new active movement. To experience things together is key, to embark on a new adventure with real people, not just sharing pictures on social media afterwards. Industry-wise this means it’s not only mass production anymore, there is room for more diversity and even niche products.

What about production?

I love working and designing for smaller family-based brands as I have the feeling they deal with their developments more carefully. You definitely have a big responsibility working with producers and factories all over the world, as there are good and bad ones. Luckily, there is a shift to produce more in Europe again. You can still find small, specialised companies for example in Croatia or Italy. When I started out, a lot of the garments I used to work with were produced in Vorarlberg, the west of Austria. So it is good to have a broad network and to keep in contact with all companies.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I get inspired by architecture and art. I love going to exhibitions and attend fairs for garments or especially sportswear, such as “Ispo Munich”, on a regular basis. For inspiration in terms of colour I am constantly looking beyond fashion design, towards other design categories as well. Plus I’m also subscribed to trend-forecasting platforms.

What will be the challenges for a designer in the future?

For a job in sportswear-design you will need to know a lot about graphic design and product design. Being firm only in fashion design doesn’t do the trick anymore. If you plan bags or gloves for example, this could easily go in the direction of product design, so moving out of your comfort zone might be the answer.

Moreover, you need to be able to envision not only the products, but also to keep the brand values in mind for a more wholesome approach. This is now more important than ever. It’s not only about the colours or selling prices any more; the customer identifies with brands and has a whole range to choose from nowadays. Thus, the marketing and the product design department need to be perfectly linked in order for the brand to appear honest and reliable.

Design is never a quick process. I tend to work with companies for 6-7 years to make sure that not only my design is good, but that the company can work with it too. I like to be with the team in-house and help to guide them. You simply can’t design a collection on your own. It’s also important to have a good mix in terms of age, so having young and more seasoned designers working together is always refreshing.

The most important thing is to try the products and wear them yourself. Especially if you use a new material for the first time or develop a new shape, there is possibly room for improvement. As you usually design two years in advance, you also need to learn to work with intuition. Also incorporating feedback from your colleagues and your costumers is very important. That’s the only way to make good products.


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