Nike is out to make the 2020s the decade of women’s sport, led by superstars Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Billie Eilish and Megan Thee Stallion, as well as everyday athletes alike.
“There are all-time highs in viewership of the WNBA, a crazy number of fans in Europe are watching women’s football…there is so much energy in the space,” said Whitney Malkiel, vice president and general manager of Nike Global Women’s, during an interview with WWD about the brand’s 50th anniversary.
Nike is the biggest women’s footwear and apparel company in the world, growing the business in fiscal-year 2021 by 20 percent to $8.5 billion.
More than just a sponsor of athletes, Nike believes that “if you have a body, go enjoy fitness and movement,” the executive said of the pivot to more inclusiveness in ability and body type, which has led to more innovation in style and comfort, sizing and life-stage performance wear, pushes into the maternity and modesty markets and more.
While Nike has taken hits, including a class-action suit alleging gender discrimination in the company, Malkiel, an 18-year veteran of the athleticwear behemoth, feels it is on the right track when it comes to supporting women.
“There is consistency across the organization that they see women, women’s sports and apparel as massive growth opportunities for the company,” she said. “It’s not inconsistent to what we may have said three to five years ago. What’s different now…is our commitment from the investment side. We’re backed by the biggest investment we’ve ever made in women’s, we’re seeing that in research, design and sports marketing.”
Organizational changes have allowed creativity to flow. “Unlike in the past, the women’s organization now can work over the entire business; we don’t have categories any more, we’re able to look at the entire portfolio and make decisions,” she said of how the business has changed from being siloed into individual sports divisions.
“What we’re seeing sell well is in the comfort and versatility zone,” she said. “Our lifestyle apparel business is doing really well, our classics footwear business, the Blazer, Dunk and Air Force One, and now it’s about how we dimension-alize all those franchises.” (In other words, build on them.)
To better serve women, the brand is in the midst of what it calls a “fit revolution.” “We’ve spent so much money studying body shapes, doing 70,000 body scans,” she said. “We’re looking at the relationship between shape and size; where to put reinforcement and trim on 1X to 4XL.” Response has been tremendous, she added, mentioning a customer email she’d received from a woman saying she finally felt confident enough in her workout gear to go back to the gym.
Two key product focal points have been bras and leggings, namely simplifying their classifications to create three new family franchises: the Indy, Swoosh and Alate.
“It’s moving toward three silhouettes that capture her personality, and regardless of what your cup size is you can be in that style,” she explained, sharing how the same strategy is being used in leggings to move from sport-specific to the sensation specific labels Zenvy, Go and Universa.
“Historically we’d only lead with activity, so here’s your running tight, here’s your yoga tight. Now it’s how do you want to feel from the tight, do you want it soft or secure,” Malkiel said of the insight that came from listening to female athletes.
On the footwear side, running shoes continue to do well. A top performer at retail has been the Pegasus sneaker, so the women’s team has been working on building out the offerings in that style, offering it as a trail running shoe, winterizing it with Gore-Tex, and creating a version using sustainable materials. “She sees it, gets it and loves it, so maybe we create multiple uses for it, and we provide her different reasons to buy it. That’s working well with Peg and we’ll apply that concept to other franchises,” she explained.
Nike continues to innovate in the footwear space as well. The Nike Spark shoe was sparked by insight into how much women walk in a day and how fatigued their feet get. “It’s a beautiful shoe, but at the same time it has a performance platform in it that returns energy to you so your feet don’t get as fatigued. So it’s a really interesting meshing of lifestyle and performance,” said Malkiel of the design, which promises a pain-free, 12-hours-on-her-feet day.
In the fashion arena, expanding the Jordan franchise to women, with Jumpman logo bras, shell pants and extended sizing in sneakers, has also been a score for the brand. Fiscal-year 2021 was the biggest year in history for the Jordan Brand, with triple-digit growth in women’s. “We believe there’s a massive opportunity there…they’re having women’s designers creating some of their hottest launches,” she said. “That was a strategic decision by Jordan that will continue to be in our playbook.”
Nike sees massive potential in sneaker culture for women, expanding on limited editions it’s launched with Sacai, Comme des Garçons and many more. “We do well but there is so much more the team is thinking about in how we unlock and make it really relevant for her.”
That could mean moving beyond the Nike Sneakers app, she said. “I think that’s the OG sneakerhead…what we see is a new opportunity to speak to a new set when it comes to sneaker culture. We’re working on trying to evolve that app so it feels better for women. And whether it’s the app or some other experience in the future, the team is still debating that.
“We have to own our own destiny when it comes to the marketplace, that’s why the push in Nike Direct is important for the business, and that’s where our brick-and-mortar and Nike Live stores become important. But it’s also how does she want to move through the world from nike.com to brick-and-mortar, we’re trying to get that journey, including our investment in digital and data and knowing her better than ever,” she said, noting that digital sales represented one-third of the women’s business in the last quarter. “It’s how do we serve her better in services, products, experiences, bra fittings, you name it, that’s what we’re trying to create so we can get in her path at the right time.”
Brick-and-mortar is a key to the brand’s premium apparel strategy and Nike women-only stores are not out of the question.
“Anything is in play; we have a healthy format now in Nike Live, which is 50-50 [men’s to women’s product], and we’re driving great revenue out of those. But I would love to push the team to think through other ideas. We have incredible product and we want to make sure she knows where to find it and experience it.”
Work-from-home sweats are not over, at least not for Nike. “Women are still loving the idea of comfort and versatility. What we’re seeing them do is start to mix it up with something more tailored and structured as they head back into the world and back to work. We’re excited to play into that as we move forward.”
The Nike-Sacai collaboration featured a skirt and more structured clothing, perhaps à la Gucci x Adidas, is a possibility.
“That’s where we experiment, is with our collaborations,” she said, hinting more names will be coming this year. “And someone like Billie Eilish can look at it in a different way, not only through a women’s lens, but a gender-fluid lens…”
Whether it’s pop star or athlete collaborators, not just winning but being real and relatable is guiding Nike’s storytelling.
“Naomi [Osaka] talking about mental health is an example..she’s talking about her journey to greatness versus her moment of greatness, and she’s talking about what it takes to get there, which makes it hugely relatable to women,” said Malkiel. “As athletes do that more and more, women’s sport becomes even more relevant.…Our job at Nike is if we tell those stories, it helps to change sport for the better, it makes it more inclusive, pulls in new fans, and drives new thinking.”
Increasingly, brands — Nike included — have been pushed into the public discourse on political and social equity issues, and Malkiel does see gender equity as a value going forward.
“We’re the largest sports brand for women in the world so we have a role to play,” she said. “Gender equity is a big issue and there are a lot of moving pieces and it’s systemic. Where I’m focusing our team is where we can make the most impact. That’s going to be around barriers to sport and access to participation. We have a role to play because we are in 12 cities, we have incredible community programs we invest in, and that’s part of our job to create that platform where girls can go and enjoy sport.”
Nike has invested in improving quality coaching for teens, as an example, which has impacted 300,000 girls.
“Having been an athlete myself, playing ice hockey in college, and being early on that, it is considerably better today,” she said. “But there is still more to do.…We wake up every day thinking, how do we provide access to sport for girls because we think there is a lifelong journey she’s on where she benefits. It’s fun to come in and work with the team on that every day.”
And have a killer collection of sneakers?
“Yes,” she laughed. “There’s also that.”