“When I came out of college, women had black, white, gray, navy blue, light blue,” said Lisa Leslie, who was referring to women’s limited options in the sportswear category. “And I was like, ‘Y’all don’t have nothing in pink?’”
A lot has changed since Leslie joined the Nike roster and became a leading player on the newly formed WNBA in 1996. Nike has always worked with women athletes—Olympic gold medalist Mary Decker became its first sponsored athlete in 1978, and in 1979 Nike signed Joan Benoit Sameulson to its athlete roster—but the company is doubling down on its investment in women with a more 360-degree approach, which it outlined at its Future 50 for Her event that took place last week in Los Angeles.
Professional women athletes remain important for Nike. The company announced earlier this year that it would invest in the WNBA, and its recently signed its first high school athletes, soccer players and sisters Alyssa and Gisele Thompson. The Thompson sisters along with Chloe Kim, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Brandi Chastain, Leslie, Benoit, and Tunde Oyeneyin, who hosted the night, all attended a dinner, which took place at Nike’s Los Angeles headquarters.
But Nike is also trying to meet every woman wherever she is in her journey—“If you have a body, you’re an athlete,” a quote from Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman came up frequently throughout the event. Nike’s partnered with choreographers like Parris Goebel, musicians like Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Eilish, and Rosalía, and Nike yoga trainer Rebeckah Price, who led a meditation on Tuesday morning at Nike’s Blue Ribbon Sports Community Center, the company’s first retail location in Santa Monica, California. And it’s making sure this diversity trickles down to its product.
“Some women want a little jiggle with their leggings,” said Tania Flynn, VP of Women’s Apparel Product Design at Nike. “I learned from Megan that when she’s on stage, she wants to feel like she can move in her leggings.” Flynn was speaking on a panel that detailed how Nike is devoting science and research to understanding the woman’s body, which translates to a more expansive sports bra and leggings offering.
And while leggings have become a staple in many women’s everyday routine, Nike is also interested in catering to women on the lifestyle and fashion front. It showcased its collection with French brand Jacquemus, which utilizes innovative, lightweight fabrics constructed in fashion-forward silhouettes, along with its upcoming launches with Yoon of Ambush, and Martine Rose.
And Nike is supporting women on a retail level. Beth Birkett, who co-owns Union and runs Bephies Beauty Supply, spoke on a panel dedicated to female retail owners that included Sally Aguirre of Sally’s Shoes, Abby Albino of Makeway, Jennifer Ford of Premium Goods, and Julie Hogg of Wish Atlanta.
Union has had a longstanding relationship with Nike, but Birkett is starting to work with the team via her brand, Bephies Beauty Supply, which she launched during the pandemic in 2020.
“I had always wanted to start something. Being a part of Union for as long I have, I always felt like there should be a strong, female perspective. But I just had so much going on that I was never actually able to actually do it,” said Birkett. “But the pandemic gave us time so I started the brand as a diverse marketplace and had my partnership with Jordan. And I just really hope to inspire women, especially Black and brown women to get in the creative world and start creating, whether it’s shoes or clothes. Women help move the culture forward.”
Birkett revealed that the Union x Nike Cortez sneaker was inspired by Ethiopian hats that Gibbs liked, and the weaving is integrated into the sneaker, which will come in four different colorways and be released this year.
“It’s a much different take on a Cortez. And it’s a silhouette that’s very important to the Latinx community and the Black community. So it was really different to run with the Ethiopian reference,” said Birkett.
Birkett also added that she has a collaboration with Jordan Brand releasing under Bephies Beauty Supply. It will be a Jordan 7 that will feature the Bephies Beauty Supply logo and the collection will include apparel as well.
“I’m just now saying this, but I don’t really think of [the challenges I’ve faced as a woman of color] to be challenges anymore,” said Birkett when Karie Conner, VP/GM, of Nike’s North America Kids’ Business, asked about the obstacles she’s faced in the industry. “All the things I’ve experienced working in this industry and trying to be seen, I think they’ve all become my superpowers that have made me who I am. I mean, you have to work harder and it’s definitely not easy. And then you also have to speak up. And so I learned all these things about myself, and just not being afraid. You’re going to have bullies and boys who are like, ‘Why are you in this?’ But you just have to learn how to fight for yourself and prove them wrong.”