Wardrobe Wednesday – Rsport
Interview with Founder of Rsport, CJ Riggins
Rsport is the premier brand for Athena active apparel and lifestyle product. We believe that all women are strong athletes and deserve products that focus on performance, craftsmanship and style, that fit and flatter the female form.
What inspired you to create your line? Tell me about how you got started.
As a runner and triathlete, I noticed at race events that there was a clear human size when brands no longer offered a product for athletes. This athlete was still showing up to races (talk about persistence!) but had nothing that fit her well. I could only imagine how it hindered her performance. I thought this was insane and even talked to these athletes at events to understand their frustrations, solutions, and desires. Even crazier, I worked in the outdoor apparel industry and had always felt I was helping people enjoy their active endeavors by working with innovative, creative teams to make a great product for athletes to do just that. But in reality, I wasn’t. We were missing a consumer. If I was in the medical profession, I’d be failing my Hippocratic oath. First, do no harm. We needed to be inclusive and create a place and product where everyone could participate and was accepted. Concurrently, I was working on my Master’s degree at Colorado State University and was an adjunct professor there in Design and Merchandising where I was able to study this exact conundrum.
How have your designs evolved over the years?
If the question reference is to Rsport, then the answer is they haven’t since we are a new brand that launched in 2017. However, after our year-long global wear test for our launch, we did make modifications based on athlete responses. That’s the spirit of the brand, to listen to the voices that haven’t been heard. As the logo implies with it’s reference to the pilcrow (the paragraph symbol), it’s “The Start of a New Conversation”. If the reference is to my lifetime of design experience, then the answer is yes. I’m no longer designing for self-fulfillment, but to answer a design need/challenge. In this case, it happens to be for an Athena Athlete. She hasn’t had many listening to her.
Why do you think it’s so important to cater your line to the plus size woman?
Actually, it’s not about catering to a plus size woman, it’s about servicing a consumer that hasn’t been serviced well. We also know she is the greatest population of women in the U.S (size 16/18 is our U.S. National Average based on CDC data) so what better way to help solve lots of peoples challenges instead of only a few. In reality, we cater to the Athena Athlete, not just the plus size woman. It just so happens we capture the entire plus size market in our efforts. “Athena” happens to be the racing category in USAT (United States of America Triathlon) for a 165lb or greater female. We actually run our sizing from a size L which equates to a 10/12 up to a 6x which is a 34/36. The reason its so important to build for her is most corporate R&D to date has been done on tiny, elite athletes and they have very different needs from an Athena athlete. We chafe and sweat differently and have more skin on skin contact during activities. Though I’m happy to see some of the larger brands that have held out for so long in bringing plus size categories to athletes now adding lines, I do hope it’s not just a “me too” version of something from their straight size (2-12) line. Though we Athena’s may love some of the stylings, we are also realists and know that strappy tanks with a tiny shelf bra won’t hold our girls in place for 26.2 miles. That’s precisely why we’re not venturing below a size 10 because we want to make sure we continually keep our focus on our Athena athlete and her needs. Who wants to be the “Jack of all trades and master of nothing”. Not the slogan we’re after.
Where do you get the inspiration for your designs? Tell me a bit about your creative process.
She is the inspiration. What we assume we know of the Athena Athlete, is not reality, but yet we keep hearing these untruths regurgitated time and again: “She doesn’t exercise”, “She doesn’t want to be seen” “She prefers all black”, “She hates pattern and anything loud”. I could go on. To uncover the true loves of this dynamic, vocal, powerful, feisty population of women is what drives me and inspires our design and fit aesthetic.
When we create our design briefs we start with the “expectation” of our consumers for the product. There are a few things to consider in our size range and this is not an exhaustive list. We know from studies, this woman is more likely to flux in her sizing than her standard (modeling terminology) size (2-12) counterpart. As such, we focus on creating “multisport” product. We want the product to deliver more bang for her investment buck. She is trusting us with her athletic goals and achievements, and we don’t take that lightly. We don’t want to add weight to the consumer, so we’re very conscious of the weight of the fabrics and construction. We look to use 100% permanent technology at all times and that’s not always easy in a surfactant finish world where most finishes wash off or become less effective with washing. Every product has stretch, hands down, and there are product details that show we thought about the needs and challenges this athlete sometimes has. When you try our product, the discovery of these elements becomes the lightbulb moment. To see Athena’s faces when they understand why we designed it the way we did is worth every moment of the design, test and build phase that we undertake.
What are your core values when designing your products and why?
As long as I can remember the majority of the apparel industry has focused on building for a narrow portion of the population as an exclusionary tactic. And it’s worked. They’ve excluded. However, the reality is that design in any form, be it architecture or apparel or otherwise, is intended to solve a challenge and serve a function. Our core value is to serve a population that has a need, do it well and craft with a focus on the quality of construction. My mother and aunt continually showed me the difference between fine quality apparel and poorly made apparel. Once you’ve experienced quality, there is no turning back.
What distinguishes you from other designers and brands?
The attention to the quality and function is what sets us apart. Rsport is not fast fashion, we believe like a finely made car or watch in the crafting of the details that make a product special. We are not in competition for the race to the bottom, nor do we design with an inordinate amount of seaming for an aesthetic that only creates chafing issues. We invest in the opulent fabrics that feel incredible and function without question. While focusing on the purpose of the product and the person who uses it, we craft with quality textiles, technology, and sewing. Our consumer is savvy and knows what quality looks and feels like and appreciates our attention to that even if they’ve never stepped foot in a mill or sewn a product themselves. Also, we strongly believe “all boats rise with the tide”. There is room in the plus size market for so much more. I’d like to believe we can work differently than apparel businesses to date. If I don’t have the product you need, we’ll direct you to brands we think to do it well. The idea is to help the consumer first and foremost. If we do that and do it well, our industry will be a force.
Not everyone can be successful in the designer world let alone the plus sized. What would you contribute to your success?
Years of working with and learning from some incredibly talented mentors, colleagues, and professors. Hands down, they are my best asset and I’m privileged every day to know and interact with them still.
What are some of the challenges that you experienced as being a plus sized fashion designer?
RTW (Ready to Wear) apparel for the straight size (2-12) female is readily available for comparison and use in honing in best fit and grading for any new brand, but for plus, the arena is less congested. So, venturing up to a 6x, we were eager to find multiple wear-testers in each size to really sharpen our fit and grades. We’ve had some wonderful wear testers and customers help to share their own measurements and wear test feedback to help us be as precise as possible. Also, ironically, being doubted. An investor at a pitch event we did a few years ago said after hearing our pitch, “They (plus size women) don’t exercise, they want to wear all black and be in the back of the room if they do” as if we were completely wrong about a world of women (and I do mean “world”) and my masters research was meaningless since he had his finger on the pulse….of nothing. It’s amazing what we tell ourselves and then believe outright. We have to tell our stories loudly and proudly and change the specter of understanding.
Tell me about your own personal journey to loving your curves?
Like others, I’ve ridden a roller coaster of highs and lows since a young age of being judged and compared by and to family, employers and myself. Ultimately, I won’t change the naysayer, nor do I have to. What a waste of my energy. I do, however, strongly believe in the power of study and time. Each of us is different and always will be. Our bodies perform and react to what we do differently than someone else. So, you are your own best researcher and advocate for yourself and time allows you to test any number of theories and practices (and there are plenty out there). We are afforded the ability to find what works and live it if we so choose. I’m perfectly content with who I am and know my intellect and my skills are no less or greater than another based on my physical size.
Do you have any suggestions for curvy women on how to dress their body and feel confident?
My suggestions are in line with what and how we build and differentiate ourselves from others brands. If you look and feel strong, you are. In my opinion, that’s 9/10 of everyone’s challenge. Find products that are built for you whether for athletic endeavors, business or pleasure, and play and build on them. I very much align with the idea of crafting our wardrobes from a few strong pieces and adding in statement items. Additionally, since it has been more challenging for years for Athena size women to find apparel, find your jean, white and black tee, sweater or button down and a blazer or moto/military jacket. All classic pieces that can then be dressed up or down in the most simplistic of ways. These never go out of style and are fantastic investment pieces (so go for quality…they will last).
Tell us a little bit about your early days and starting your own business – what types of challenges did you face and tell us a little bit about how you overcame them.
I started by freelancing to feed the coffers of the business. It worked except I was getting so much freelance work it started to impede my ability to focus time on Rsport. So, I found trusted colleagues to take over my outside freelance projects and stepped into focusing on Rsport full time. It was the right decision and I don’t regret it for a minute. I’m also incredibly thankful for all of those freelance roles that came, oddly, at about the same time. They made me realize it was time to take the leap of faith in my own business.
What tips do you have for other women who may be interested in designing and starting their own business or women entrepreneurs in general?
I find it a bit of an oxymoron that those of us who have been in the apparel industry for life are usually more hesitant to launch into our own business than those who have no experience. Which is better? To be blissfully ignorant of the actual scale and mass of the undertaking, or to know it all and still venture forward? This is not exclusive to apparel. However, regardless of your entrepreneurial focus, my suggestion is to find mentors in your industry of choice. Ask them to review business plans, discuss strategies and share their experiences with you. For me, these relationships have been invaluable. Then, find team members who are as entrepreneurial as you are and trust your instincts, always.
What kind of feedback have you received from your customers in terms of clothing style, fit and quality?
We’ve been blessed with lots of love and appreciation from the market. I never tire of receiving messages or notes from customers who share that we have a customer for life based on how we’ve treated or supported them. I believe it’s a “field of dreams“ mentality. If you build it (and you build it right), they will come. We are beyond blessed at our customer base and by extension, the friends and colleagues they have shared our brand with. Our goal is to continue earning that trust and love and continually listen to them about their wants and needs. What better way to build for a group of deserving women.
Is there a particular designer or era that has inspired you?
I’m a big fan and proponent of Eileen Fischer, specifically with how she started her business and why. She saw an unmet need, comfortable, but fashionable knitwear for office and lifestyle. Also, she built her business with a very small investment (her own, like us) and grew her niche from there. She also has really given back to other women entrepreneurs and her own employees which we believe has to be in every worthwhile company’s DNA. How are we working to build a better future if not by allowing others to stand on our shoulders to continue with new and innovative projects? We’ve been lucky to have earned a grant from the MBO of Colorado and the World Trade Center and hope to receive Eileen’s award next year when we can qualify for her grant.
What are your future plans for Rsport are there areas you’d like to expand?
Time will tell along with our consumer where we go. Until then, we’re focused on fantastic females who deserve apparel that enhances their experience whatever their endeavors!