Meet the Wizards of Women’s Gear

By Hilary Oliver, Outdoor Research.

Women are not just miniature men, and have as many different body shapes as there are women. So what’s the secret for creating the perfect piece of technical apparel for seriously outdoorsy ladies? I asked Jeannie Wall, whose decades of competitive skiing, climbing, running and riding help her concoct the pieces you love from Outdoor Research, like the avant-garde Clairvoyant Jacket. She works with the OR design team to gather feedback from envelope-pressing female athletes and helps make their apparel dreams come true. Here’s Wall’s take on why women are tough to please and the future of women’s gear.

Jeannie Wall. Photo courtesy Outdoor Research.
Jeannie Wall. Photo courtesy Outdoor Research.

Fit is the biggest challenge. “Fit is the hardest thing to get right consistently,” she says. “There are many differences in the active woman’s body type and there is no perfect fit model, so it’s impossible to fit everyone perfectly with one product. But for women’s products today, you have to get everything right for a successful product, from design, fabric and function, to color.”

But women have other unique needs, too. They might not need drastically different products from men, but details like pocket placement make the difference between something that works and something subpar. “There are different warmth needs, too,” Wall says. “Typically, women run colder than men, so more insulation in places is necessary. Our Lodestar Jacket is warmer for women than men, for example.”

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Details go a long way. “I think women are more tactile, they sense things more than men when it comes to hand feel, pocket placements, zippers, fit, etc. I usually get much more detailed and stronger feedback from women than men on garments and gloves. I think especially with smaller women, product details get noticed far more and they have a larger effect on your performance, so you need them to be spot on. That’s why fit and suppleness of fabrics and organic contoured designs are so important.”

Jeannie Wall. Photo courtesy Outdoor Research.
Jeannie Wall. Photo courtesy Outdoor Research.

The best designs come from personal experience in the field—not just data and trends. Mountain adventures require gear that stands up to brutal tests—and athletes rely on their gear for safety—but innovative gear doesn’t come from designers who are sitting at a desk all day, or sterile market statistics, Wall says. “I’ve seen studies and statistics used all too often in a way that puts us all in the same box of thinking, which breeds mundane, less creative, carbon copy products.”

First, the design team looks at how others in the industry—and other industries—are solving a problem, then they start their own research with focus groups and e-mail surveys, talking with OR athletes, key dealers and reps. Next they search out fabric options and test them. It’s a high priority for the team to get out and use their prototypes, putting them to the same tests they’ll have to stand up to at retail.

Men’s gear could take a lesson from women’s innovations soon. Wall says in the next couple years, women’s gear will be featuring softer, quieter, more breathable fabrics that might not necessarily be used in men’s products. “Developing technical products for women separate from men’s is so refreshing and results in beautiful, functional new products and fabrics,” she says. “I look forward to when men’s products pull from women’s innovations!”

Gear needs to evolve—just like the women who use it. Wall cut her teeth in endurance sports like Nordic and Randonne, winning and placing in countless races including World Cups and National Championships, and missing the Olympic Nordic team by one place in 1994. But in the past few years, she’s become enamored of climbing, and wishes she’d discovered it earlier in life. “I wish I had experienced this earlier in my thirties or even late twenties, because there are so many climbs and people and places I want to experience that I think it would have slowed me down sooner to appreciate more in life than just goals and races or trophy summits.”

Women's Cathode.
Women’s Cathode.

But all the endurance experiences of her younger years have allowed her to get where she is today, she says. And her depth of experience shows in the multi-functional products she’s helping to develop, like the Cathode Jacket, a hybrid insulated jacket that snatched Outside Magazine’s Gear of the Year Award for its ability to cross over from high-intensity activity to climbing and belaying. As female athletes evolve and progress, it takes an evolving female athlete’s perspective to make sure their gear is keeping up with them.

Check OR’s latest offerings for women here.

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