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For Ruth Blatt, there’s nothing better than having clothes that can do double duty. “I like doing yoga, training with my personal trainer and spinning,” said Ms. Blatt, a mother, doctoral candidate and fitness buff, in a recent visit to a fitness studio, Vie Fitness and Spa, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
But Ms. Blatt, 31, likes to combine those workouts with seeing her friends or working at her local coffee shop. And she doesn’t always want to change her clothes. “I don’t want to be seen wearing an old torn sweatshirt that should be out of circulation. I want to look nice.”
For Nike Inc., consumers like Ms. Blatt are at the core of a new organizational, product and marketing strategy aimed at finding ways to capture the women’s sports market after years of failures. The company has started mailing catalogs for its female apparel line, called Nikewomen, to some 600,000 residences.
On Thursday, the company will open a Nikewomen store in Westchester County, its eighth in the United States, and is planning to start four more in the United States by the middle of 2006. International stores are planned as well.
“Few people today, especially women, look at fitness and sports as this regimented portion of their life. Women see working out as melding into the rest of their lives,” she said, adding “We used to look at the gym through one lens.”
Nike had perfected that lens over the last three decades, in which sales of athletic footwear and apparel has been driven by tying sports stars to brands. But while men may want to “Be Like Mike,” women consumers say they are less drawn to sales pitches built around hero worship, despite the growth of women’s sports and expensive contracts to athletes like Mia Hamm and Serena Williams.
Nike is not alone in this venture. Adidas Salomon recently signed up the fashion designer Stella McCartney to create a line of workout wear that includes running singlets that would work as streetwear. Reebok International has signed the actress Christina Ricci to be a model for them as many companies merge sports, fashion and entertainment.
John J. Shanley, senior athletic and footwear industry analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group, which does not own Nike shares, said that smaller competitors have long outdone Nike by selling better fitting and more fashionable workout clothes to women.
“Nike has a tougher time than Reebok or Adidas because of their heritage,” he said. “The perception of most consumers and retailers is that Nike is all about performance and sports.”
But in the last five years, Nike has slowly overhauled the way it looks at the women’s market. For example, it wasn’t until 2000 that the company made women’s shoes using molds made from women’s feet. Previously, it had simply used a small man’s foot mold, which is shaped differently in the heel and the ball of the foot.
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Then it began adding more fashionable colors and designs to its apparel, tracking fashion trends to determine what colors and styles are going to be popular. A few years ago, for example, it followed the trend in hip hugging jeans by creating low rise workout pants.
“Certainly, it has to look fabulous, but it also has to have a performance capability,” said Mindy F. Grossman, vice president of global apparel, who joined the company several years ago from Polo Ralph Lauren to help overhaul the company’s clothing strategy.
The Nikewomen line also arises from the growing importance of apparel to Nike’s business.
For the fiscal year that ended May 31, 2004, sales of apparel for both men and women increased 6 percent in the United States, to $1.4 billion, while footwear sales rose only 2 percent, to $3.07 billion, according to company reports.
The introduction is enthusiastically supported by the company’s new president and chief executive, William D. Johnson. According to Ms. Grossman, Mr. Perez “certainly understands the importance of women consumers from a financial perspective.”
Nike is now stretching the traditional boundaries of what it considers sports and fitness. Earlier this year, Nike teamed up with Jamie King, a choreographer who has worked with Madonna, Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, and the gym Crunch Fitness to offer a new workout called the Rockstar.
“I was flattered that they were taking dance seriously, that they see it as just as physical and demanding as any sport,” Mr. King said. The workout features dance moves that Mr. King says you could easily take from the gym to the nightclub.
The same goes for the clothes that Nike created to go along with the workouts. There are variations of low rise workout pants that have become popular from yoga classes, but with a tie on the side that adds flair while dancing. Others include brightly colored tank tops in purple and orange that can be worn full length, to the waist, before the workout or can be turned into a halter during dance class by pulling a bottom loop around one arm.
The spring collection also included T shirts sporting the Nike swoosh outlined in Swarovski crystals but made with fibers that wick sweat away that would not be out of place at a nightclub, or at the very least in certain workplaces.
In Ann Arbor, one of Ms. Blatt’s fitness colleagues says she thinks some workout clothes are too good for the gym.
“I’d rather wear them out than for working out,” said Anne Cabot, 29. “I’m happy to sweat in a T shirt and shorts, but for being out I like the comfort of my workout clothes.”