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Athleta’s Joanne Steinbauer: An active mind for activewear design

Design, PeopleTara R. Hunt, Gap Inc. bloggerComment

Design is in the details. And it takes obsession with detail to breathe life into that irresistible piece of clothing. These are the people behind the scenes at Gap Inc. — the dedicated professionals who push themselves every day to create customer experiences that resonate. Get to know these heroes of their craft.


If Joanne Steinbauer can't run, as she loves to do, she volunteers at races — directing runners and cheering them on. It keeps her close to running culture and the natural high of race day.

For Joanne the clothing designer, it's also an opportunity to see ill-fitting performance wear, particularly sports bras, running straight at her.

More than simply cringe-inducing anecdotes, these moments matter to Joanne the creative, the woman who sees all patterns, designs and fits of clothing as chances to make them right. And it matters to Joanne the athlete, the woman who has completed two Ironman distance triathlons and turns over design problems in her head as she slices through a swimming pool in the wee, quiet hours of the morning.

On the clock at Athleta HQ in Petaluma, a woman with tailor's tape slung around her neck stops Joanne in the hallway. She hands over a piece of unidentifiable fabric — as it looks to the layperson — and Joanne places it around her neck and scrutinizes it in a mirror.

They're working on the design for a new jacket. As is, the collar isn't quite right now that they decided against a hood. The solution, Joanne says, is reinforcing the collar so it stands better. They accomplish this with heavier interfacing — an iron-on internal stiffener to give it more support.

Just as a gaggle of ill-fitting sports bras aren't a moment to raise eyebrows, a jacket prototype isn't just a jacket to Joanne, Athleta's Director of Design. It's a chance to turn "a jacket" into a must-have — thanks to that supported collar, the garment shields you from wind like nothing else in your wardrobe. Or maybe that sports bra Joanne has been turning over in her head for months, your favorite thanks to its unparalleled support, was what you needed to best your personal record and look great while you did so.

"When we come together as a design team, what are we solving for the customer, the athlete?" Joanne said, a hint of the U.K. in her voice still peeking through after years of living in the U.S. "What can't she find in the market, and how can we give that to her? If you don't have the right-fitting bra, it hurts. It's something we have to solve for her."

Knowing well the schedule of an athlete in training — eat, sleep and train, repeat — she couldn't wear traditional athletic wear outside of her workouts. Fast forward to the athleisure craze and the desire for broader uses of performance wear, which informs Joanne's design work as much as her individual needs. So, how do you turn activewear into a coveted piece of her lifestyle?

You listen to customer feedback. You design for versatility instead of single use. And you reconcile the two if they compete. For example, the water- and wind-resistant Drippity Jacket is one of the brand's most popular items. One customer, who loved it, wrote to Athleta and suggested it fold into its own pocket for ease of packing. After careful consideration, Joanne said it wasn't possible without compromising the material and construction that elevate the Drippity beyond a standard raincoat.

Lastly, it helps to live the life of an athlete as much as a textiles pro — like her colleague, Tracy Byrnes, and many others on Team Athleta. Joanne holds a fashion-textiles degree and spent eight years working in sweater design and knit tops in New York. She moved to the west coast for a change of pace — and her Californian husband. Four years ago, an opportunity on the Athleta design team arose, meshing her passion for sports and clothing design.

The Golden State also proved ideal setting for the sports she loved. Already an AIDS LifeCycle finisher, Joanne added running to her repertoire with the Danskin Triathlon, completed in honor of her mother, a breast-cancer survivor. An Olympic distance followed. She is a finisher of the 2005 Ironman Lake Placid, as well as one Ironman-distance triathlon in California. Together, she and her husband completed a series of half Ironmans.

Now, they take exercise in shifts, and it's turned into important quiet time for this mom of twin six-year-old girls.

"Swimming outside, when it's still dark in the morning, that's my space for thinking," Joanne says. "No interruptions. No one can talk to me. When I'm in the pool, I'll swim hard, but my mind is going, too."

She thinks about all the qualities and details of clothing that we, the customers, can simply enjoy. For example, different levels of support are required for yoga (low) vs. running (high, the hardest to achieve). Going back to the sports bra:

"As much as she wants to look feminine, you can't put a skinny strap on something and expect it to be supportive," Joanne said. "So how do you offer the femininity and support she needs? That is the problem we're solving for. And we impact her life when we solve it."

Femininity is just one aspect of staying "on trend," which is, broadly, a careful balance between staying true to the brand and giving the customer what she wants. But there are ways to accomplish this with design, Joanne says. The utilitarian influence is showing up beyond outerwear, for example. For Athleta, maybe that means taking a certain fabric and giving it more of a utilitarian flair — with pockets or a certain color or finish — is the answer.

Above all, don't just add features (pockets, zippers) for the sake of decoration, Joanne says, they have to be functional.

"It has to be easy for her to understand," Joanne said. "She won't buy it if she doesn't understand it; if it has too many bells and whistles, closures, buttons and snaps."

So is clothing design at Athleta an art or a science? Is it technical or is it instinct? Does it depend on the day?

"No," Joanne said. "It depends on the product."

With some items, the design approach is very scientific. Other ideas they know are so crazy, they just might work — but it takes a village to bring that piece of clothing to life. For example: swim tights, pitched by an Athleta designer and avid surfer. They're simply tights made of swim fabric — amphibious bottoms that perform wet or dry, with UPF for sun protection, topped with a vibrant print. But given the risk (do women really want to swim in tights?) the collection was very small.

In the end, the tights made a huge splash with customers (as it were), and stores ran out quickly.

Now, the brand offers swim tights every swim season. The lesson for Team Athleta? Don't be afraid to take a calculated risk, because it may solve a problem your customer didn't know she had. And she'll return if the clothes fit her lifestyle as well as her body.

"Women walk into the store, point to a mannequin, and say, 'I want this whole outfit,'" Joanne said. "We are constantly thinking about the whole outfit from the initial concept. It's a real testament to showing her how we can be a part of her life."