Tips for women on the trails: Introducing Helen Stuart

Trail running tips for women is a series of articles sponsored by ATRA corporate member inov-8. We will hear from other inov-8 ambassadors and team members, listen to their stories and provide tips for women on the trails in our Trail News section throughout 2017. If you have questions for a future installment in this series please email them to Peter ([email protected]). This month we spoke to the award-winning inov-8 Apparel Product & Design Manager, Helen Stuart.

Helen Stuart hails from rural Scotland where she grew up exploring and getting to grips with the country’s rugged mountain and trails. A trail runner with pedigree, she lives and breathes the sport within which she works. In this installment Helen talks with our Outreach and Partnership Specialist, Peter Maksimow, about what is involved with designing female-specific clothing and why it’s unacceptable to just make smaller sizes in pink and call them “women’s clothing.”

[Peter] You are known for designing some award-winning, lightweight, technically-minded clothing and apparel for women and men. How did you get into this field of work?

[Helen] As a kid my dreams evolved around running, sport and creating things. With ambitions of combining these, I went to Art School and studied Fashion Design. This was almost 20 years ago now and my final year collection focused on the combination of urban and sportswear. This was a relatively new concept back then – way before the athleisure (casual, comfortable clothing designed to be suitable both for exercise and everyday wear) movement of today. I called this collection TERRAIN… unbeknown to me that one day I would work for inov-8, the All Terrain running specialists. By working with a number of companies throughout my career I’ve managed to gain a broad, in-depth spectrum of apparel development, design, sourcing and production. Now I’m fortunate enough to lead all of these aspects for inov-8 in my role as Apparel Product & Design Manager. To be in this industry you need to be savvy and have a great team around you to make things happen. I consider myself very lucky to work with both a highly talented, passionate team and world class suppliers in bringing ideas to life.

APPAREL TIP: Running clothing is not just about design, it’s also about working with many different ideas to come up with the most functional apparel in terms of appearance, fit, and feel.

[Peter] In one of our previous instalments of Tips for Women on Trails, inov-8 ambassador, Nicky, mentioned you specifically and explained why having a female designer for women’s clothing is important. Nicky Spinks said: “It was fantastic to meet the woman heading up inov-8’s apparel (Helen Stuart) recently. As soon as I met her I knew why inov-8’s clothes fit so perfectly; their designer is a woman. We’ll never be the same shape as men (I hope) so it’s imperative that we have clothes that fit us. Maybe when there are more women runners than men, the men can try wearing our clothes!” Can you give us your thoughts on this?

[Helen] Fit and understanding of the human anatomy is essential to the athletic garments we design. Being a female technical outdoor apparel designer obsessed with running has its advantages. I have a natural insight and determination to drive home the importance of technical women-specific apparel in a heavily male dominated industry. Pinking and shrinking a male style to make it into a women’s garment is not a policy here at inov-8. In fact the women’s style comes to life before the men’s equivalent.

APPAREL TIP: “Pinking and Shrinking” a men’s clothing piece does not make it women-specific.

[Peter] What is the newest item specifically for women? What is your favorite piece?

[Helen] Because we work so far in advance there are some really innovative, highly-secretive developments in the pipeline. In our present line, the AT/C Windshell FZ is my absolute go-to piece of kit right now. This running jacket has a super-light, minimalistic design with zoned breathability. A lot of thought was dedicated to the finer details, making this the perfect choice for running in the high winds and spring showers we are having here right now in the Lake District near our UK office.

[Peter] What is three specific items you would change for women’s clothing as opposed to men’s clothing?

[Helen] Well, it usually starts the other way round – we design the women’s first, with the men’s equivalent following. The key difference is the women’s and men’s pieces are designed with optimal fit in mind for the respective body types – this often means the seam placements and construction are very different. Also, the women’s garments are designed to be more flattering with the use of color and pattern cutting techniques. Both are designed to perform with the runner in an unrestrictive way, with a focus on high quality and visual longevity.

[Peter] What do women look for in apparel that is different from men’s apparel?

[Helen] Women tend to be more aware of how different pieces go together to form an outfit as well as having an acute eye for detail. Quite often women look for something more individual and different. Of course this is a very generalized statement but as a women I know I shop very differently to a lot of the men I know.

[Peter] You are a fellow trail and fell racer yourself! Has your participation in off-road running given you ideas and insight about designing clothing for running?

[Helen] Sure. I’m very fortunate to be fully engaged in the end use of the products we make. I’m also constantly surrounded by like-minded running obsessives and product geeks to bounce ideas off. Our offices are in the heart of what I call a ‘Trail Runners Paradise’ (Lake District, UK). As soon as a new sample arrives (wether that be apparel or footwear) we’re instantly out testing it on the trails. We can get all seasons in one day here providing a perfect testing arena.

[Peter] We have heard that designer fashion dictates what colors and items are going to be popular the next season. Do you feel the running-specialty market is driven by what women say they want or by the designers creating the items and colors first?

[Helen] We work closely with world class athletes and end users to determine needs or problems that could improve running efficiency or running experience. We’re more driven by performance, function and form and product longevity than fast fashion here.

APPAREL TIP: Performance clothing is going to perform, not just look good.

[Peter] Tell us your top 3 pieces you would recommend.

[Helen] A base, mid and outer layer where each can be added or subtracted depending on the conditions of use. The AT/C Base SSZ base layer for moisture management and anti smell to reduce washing requirements – all inov-8 technical base layers have Polygene (a permanent anti door treatment) applied. The AT/C Merino LSZ mid layer for warmth – complete with hood and built-in mitts, this is very versatile. The AT/C Stormshell for durable, lightweight and packable protection against the wind, rain or snow – this is a perfect piece of kit for both training and racing.

[Peter] Where do you see the apparel market heading in the future?

[Helen] Sustainability. Ways in which processes and technologies can reduce the environmental impact of apparel.

Helen is responsible for designing and creating products that have captured multiple coveted awards from ISPO, such as the for the RACE ULTRA SHELL. Learn more about it in the video below:  Learn more about it in the video below:

Looking for more “tips for women” articles? Check out our interviews with Jasmin Paris and Nicky Spinks