Sweat Equity: Petaluma’s Athleta sportswear company assures that it’s possible to look good while being good.

Jock Meets Queen

Athleta proves looking great and shredding are synonymous

By Jill Koenigsdorf

When one imagines life in the corporate world, one often thinks of the “Dilbert” cartoons: a survival-of-the-fittest world of stress, wage slaves and life-sucking cubicles overseen by sadistic, out-of-touch bosses. One rarely envisions a workplace where you are greeted at the door by several happy dogs with toys in their mouths. And while there are cubicles at Athleta, the Petaluma-based women’s athletic clothing company, most of them are festooned with memorabilia from various races and sporting events. There’s even a photo of Marilyn Monroe lifting weights.

At Athleta, most employees don’t sit on chairs in front of their computer screens; they sit on yoga balls, big, colorful rubber balls purported to do away with back pain. None of the 100 or so employees working here has the pasty pallor of those doomed to spend eight hours indoors under fluorescent lights; rather, it seems like taking phone orders for a successful clothing line is just something they do between eco-challenges and triathlons.

The picture of women in sports has changed radically over the last several decades. In my mother’s era, exercise was something a woman did so her girdle didn’t have to work so hard when she put on a cocktail dress. I have a vivid memory of my mother huffing and puffing in front of the black-and-white TV, wearing my father’s swim trunks (lots of give) and the stained gray sweatshirt she saved for her twice-weekly rendezvous with Jack La Lanne.

This was long before the words “personal trainer” or “gluts” were in any woman’s vocabulary; before businesswomen packed running shoes in their briefcases; before Billie Jean King became one of the first women athletic superstars; and even before yoga, in various increasingly sweaty incarnations, took the West by storm. Now, staying youthful and healthy are almost a religion in this country, and I find myself part of a generation that couldn’t even imagine a life without hiking, biking, swimming–physical activities that challenge me and make me feel alive. Yet the eternal question remains: What to wear?

In the mid-’90s, cyclist, surfer and entrepreneur Scott Kerslake noticed that many of the women he was training with complained that the leotards and leg warmers that Jane Fonda had ushered in just weren’t cutting it any more in the outdoor-wear department. He wanted to start a business somehow related to sports, and he suddenly saw a huge need. In 1997– voilà!–Athleta was conceived. Marketing both original goods and other company’s products, Athleta has seen its own line of clothing grow over the years to support half of the company’s sales.

Since Kerslake’s epiphany, the women’s athletic-apparel industry is expected to top $38 billion next year, with Nike and other large sporting goods companies jumping aboard with their own lines just for women. According to Athleta marketing director Tami Anderson, this is merely recognizing the obvious.

“People are finally realizing that women are athletic,” Anderson says, noting that a recent study showed that most active women today regularly take part in as many as three different sports. “It’s nice to see the industry grow. One change we have seen is that women aren’t just using these clothes for athletic pursuits, but are wearing them just to hang out in because the clothes are comfortable. We realized right off that women don’t just want sized-down men’s apparel–the clothing could also have an element of style; it could look good and be functional.”

Kerslake chose to situate his company in Petaluma during the Internet boom as a good cost-of-living draw for his employees. While many catalogue companies outsource their warehousing and calling centers, Athleta’s remain in-house, with all of the clothing made in the Bay Area.

Athleta catalogues differ from many other clothing catalogues in that the women modeling the clothes come in all shapes, sizes and age groups, looking the way real women look, with perhaps a bit more glowing vitality. These real-life models are usually shown actually performing the sport the clothing was designed for–clothing that is presumably making them more comfortable while doing it. Plus, the clothes look great. If a woman has muscles in her legs, Athleta clothes show her muscles off. No more Michelin Man puffy parkas for the cold or swim suits that are only functional when sun bathing.

Athleta classifies its clothes as being appropriate for everything from running to snowshoeing to anything in between, with the possible exception of sumo wrestling. Catalogue sales make up 60 per cent of Athleta’s output, with the other 40 percent sold online.

Women make up 90 percent of Athleta’s employees, and the products are designed and developed by women. Members of Athleta’s sales and distribution team play soccer together, many of them taking part in Colorado’s famed Women’s Quest. At the very least, all definitely share a common interest in sports, which can be very helpful to customers who can speak to women with experience “in the field.” All of Athleta’s models are athletes, and the majority of the company’s workers identify themselves as such–the head of the design team is a former pro cyclist–and many have chosen to take part of their pay in clothing.

The company reinforces five “core values” of “courageous communication, families first, pushing limits, health and fitness and giving back,” which might explain the general good vibe in the office. When Kerslake started the company, he wanted to create a place that didn’t force the worker to separate what was important to her personally from what was important to her professionally. To that end, Athleta employees annually “adopt” a resident at the Pleasant Care Convalescent Home during the holidays, singing carols, decorating a tree and bringing gifts.

While Athleta doesn’t advertise and donates generously to grass-roots events, it still managed sales topping $23.5 million in 2002. The company’s philosophy stipulates an integration of mind, body and spirit, positing that sport is really a metaphor for unlimited potential, ideals that shine through in the spirit found in its offices and in the pages of its catalogues.

Athleta is located at 1622 Corporate Circle, Petaluma. 888.322.5515.

From the December 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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