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How Nike is making it easier to run on a cold winter night

Nike's holiday collection features colored reflective properties for the first time.Nike's holiday collection features colored reflective properties for the first time.
Nike's holiday collection features colored reflective properties for the first time.Courtesy of Nike

Hal is the ideal Nike employee: strong and silent.

That’s how Barry Spiering, director of applied apparel research at Nike’s Sport Research Lab, describes his colleague. For the record, “Hal” is a tech-savvy mannequin that Nike (NKE) uses to test products. Lately, Hal has been busy assessing how well apparel can keep an athlete warm and how well it allows sweat to evaporate.

Nike uses Hal, as well as elite athletes like New York Giants football player Victor Cruz, to figure out how its clothes can best perform. Another key tool is environmental chambers, which are rooms with treadmills where Nike can control temperature, humidity, wind speed, and heat.

Nike then takes its gear outside for a test run. For the cold-weather gear on sale this year, its research team went out for runs in Norway, Poland, and Denmark to get a good sense of how the apparel should be conceptualized for a variety of cold-weather environments.

The company is hoping its arsenal of tools can give it the edge it needs to stand out in a crowded athletic field that has established competitors like Adidas and fast-growing rivals like Under Armour (UA).

Spiering says his team’s hard work has resulted in product developments consumers are seeing in stores this fall. They include AeroReact, yarn that is engineered to adapt to changes in a runner’s temperature, and Therma-Sphere Max, raised-node technology that traps warm air close to the body in the same way a wetsuit holds water.

Seeing the light

When Nike set out to design its latest winter line, it found inspiration in the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights.

The natural light display was a key inspirational element behind Nike’s holiday collection, which features colored reflective properties for the first time. Traditionally, the reflective gear Nike sold was only a silvery white. This year, purple, blue, and orange appear in its reflective apparel and shoes, matching the color palate of Nike’s broader collection.

“As a runner, you want to make sure you get the attention of the driver,” says Luke Hammer, Nike’s senior designer for running apparel. “We hear more and more, ‘I want to get out there and run, but feel safe.”

A tech-savvy mannequin named “Hal” is used by Nike to test products.Courtesy of Nike
Courtesy of Nike


Hammer points to the increasing interest by Nike’s runners to use the gear at night. Reflective properties are especially critical in the winter months, when daylight is in short supply.

Nike has been in the business of making gear with reflective features since at least the early 1980s. The idea is to incorporate small glass beads that can reflect light into the clothes. Nike also aspires to ensure those beads are durable for machine washing but also aren’t too stiff to hinder performance. The reflective elements are purposely added to key joints—ankles, knees, and wrists.

“It needs to be in places where the eye thinks ‘That’s a human’ and not a sign or another animal,” says Hammer.

The athleisure movement

Nike asserts its gear is rooted in performance. “Everything has a function,” promises Taryn Thogerson, product line manager for Nike Training. Each fabric choice, zipper, or hoodie is meant to help an athlete perform better, she says, while color and print selections are used to match fashion trends.

But there is no denying that Nike is also capitalizing on the “athleisure” movement—a consumer trend to increasingly wear athletic gear not just for exercise, but also while headed to the grocery store, brunch, errands, or just about anywhere.

“Yes, they make technical product for an athlete, to make an athlete better,” says Christopher Svezia, an analyst for Susquehanna Financial Group. “But the big driver to their business is really to make product for the average consumer whether they are an athlete or not.”

Still, it should be noted that Nike has also built the third-largest design patent portfolio in the U.S. over the past 25 years.

“We’re constantly being pushed or inspired by the athlete to create something new, something new and better,” Nike president and CEO Mark Parker said during an investor presentation earlier this month in Beaverton, Ore. It was there that Nike vowed to hit $50 billion in annual revenue by fiscal 2020. The company sees the running category—where its reflective technology is a key innovation component—becoming a $7.5 billion business by 2020.