As the performance sports apparel craze rolls ahead and competitive brands in the category vie for competitive position while swaying between function and fashion, emerging apparel brand Skins makes no bones about its identity.
"We're offering a performance-enhancing product," asserts Patricia Babka, the brand's U.S. general manager. "We even have a difficult time being considered an apparel company. We really like to view our product as equipment for your body, that's helping it train harder and recover faster. In the athletic world, that's everything."
The 12-year-old company offers tight, compression garments that are scientifically engineered to enhance athletic performance through increased blood flow and oxygenation.
Skins' stated niche mission is supported by strategic relationships throughout the sports landscape, with an impressive legion of professional athletes, teams and sports leagues that endorse the product. The body-hugging smart fabrics were first developed in Sydney by Australian physiologist Brad Duffy and his wife, a chiropractor, who drew from their medical expertise in Skins' creation.
Through the years, Skins has successfully secured a foothold in its native land down under with strategic relationships with dozens of teams, leagues and athletes in sports popular there such as rugby, basketball, cricket and soccer using the product (numerous affiliations are listed extensively on the company's web site).
But recently, the technical wear has also attained impressive demand in the United States and elsewhere. Skins, which has offices in Boulder, CO, recently entered into supplier agreements with USA Cycling and USA Triathalon, with arrangements to outfit those teams, including the squads that competed in the recent Olympics. (Babka says that consumers who are active in those two sports have particularly shown appreciation for the apparel due to its physiological benefits.)
According to Babka, the company has established a following of "a vast collection" of elite athletes from the four major U.S. sports leagues - National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League - who have sought out and purchased Skins products for informal personal usage and training purposes (although those athletes are bound by exclusive licensing arrangements with Reebok and others to don other apparel brands during games and other situations).
"We feel lucky U.S. athletes have embraced us." Babka comments. "They're excited to be benefitting from Skins. They understand that we're a brand that works."
Gradient compression enhances body performance
In supporting its claims, the company has invested heavily in research and development and has conducted an exorbitant amount of testing, which it publicizes.
Skins cites published papers and reports that suggest that its wearers benefit athletically in several aspects including from improved endurance (15 percent), increased strength and power (10 percent), reductions in post-exercise muscle soreness and accelerated removal of lactic acid to reduce fatigue. The firm, noting that improved oxygenation leads to faster recovery, says wearing its product can dramatically accelerate muscle repair, a process that can last for days after a workout.
The foundational technology attributed to Skins' performance benefits is engineered gradient compression, advanced by physiologists for contributing to improved circulation and muscle support. (Skins has trademarked the term "BioAcceleration Technology" to allude to those built-in advantages with its apparel that are attributed to gradient compression.)
"Basically the premise is that you offer the highest degrees of compression on the parts of your body that are the furthest away from your heart," Babka explains, "in order to specifically filter blood flow back to your core organs. Think about us enhancing what your body does naturally to achieve all the benefits of increased circulation ...what that's going to do is provide you higher levels of oxygen in your blood, and with those higher levels you're going to feel greater strength and greater endurance."
Babka says the flagship tights offered in the Skins collection offer more compression around the calf area and less around the knee and then even less in the thigh region progressing toward the heart.
"That's what's meant by graduated or gradiant compression with the idea that we're forcing the blood back into the core," she elaborates.
While Skins' strategy aims to distinguish itself in the sports apparel marketplace through gradient compression, the technology has long been utilized with anti-embollism stockings - support hosiery for bed-bound patients that prevents blood from pooling in the veins of the leg to avert blood clots from forming there.
Construction of Skins' body-molding garments - which the company offers in 13 different sizes based on body mass index (BMI) to ensure the desired tight fit - is composed of 76 percent nylon and 24 percent spandex; it also incorporates Meryl microfiber to aid in moisture management.
"It is our proprietary blend and we're heavily protected in the secrets of how we achieve that gradient compression," Babka says, noting that the company has several patents and patent-pendings secured around the world.
Skins does publicly tout its use of warped knitting over circular knit technology which it says satisfies its high standards for gradient compression. "That's a highly engineered knit that allows us to control not only the level of stretch but the amount of recovery in several different directions," Babka says. "It's also a really big aid in [moving away] moisture. You have more fiber or yarn pieces creating more suface against your skin on the inside of the fabric to create that natural wicking effect."
Getting the message out
Babka says the concept of Skins was hatched on ski slopes as its founding husband and wife team and other medical professionals they vacationed with grappled with ways to recover more quickly from aches and pains during their first days tackling the mountain.
"As things advanced they truly did an excellent job spending a lot of money on independent scientific testing to prove the product worked," says Babka. "What they weren't as successful at was selling." Additionally, she adds, the compression garments were first considered alternatively for medical applications.
With a shift to athletic apparel, and new owners and management focused on marketing, Babka says the company turned the corner. CEO Jaimie Fuller bought an equity share in Skins in 2002 and assumed full ownership from the founders in 2006. According to the company, the business has grown to 50 times what it was in 2003.
Babka, who joined Skins in January 2007 after 20 years of sales and marketing experience with companies in the outdoor industry including Columbia Sportswear, The North Face and Pearl Izumi, says: "We're new, so we're relying on the specialty retailers to do what they do best.
"They do a great job educating consumers, which is what we need at the moment, and we're confident those consumers will start to understand and appreciate what gradient compression can do for them."
At the moment, Skins has a footprint at 800 specialty retailers in Australia, and Babka reports that the company has set appointments with hundreds of buyers at recent specialty shows in the United States, including Outdoor Retail Summer Market in Salt Lake City and Interbike in Las Vegas.
She characterizes her company as offering the "next best thing to come along" in the competitive sports apparel market place.
"UnderArmour and Nike have paved the way for us," she says. "They've trained the consumer that you need to wear something technical that is tight-fitting and wicks away the moisture. We feel we're now taking that concept to another level."
Michael D. Cole is associate editor of Apparel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
fabric at a glance
Year founded: 1996
Foundational technology: engineered gradient compression
Properties offered: enhanced muscle oxygenation, moisture management, thermal regulation, antimicrobial, 50+ UPV protection
Construction: 76 percent nylon and 24 percent spandex, utilizing warp knitting
Sourcing footprint: Production facility in Guatemala for U.S. and European demands
Retail Channel: Primarily specialty retail
Price points: $119 for tights, the company's flagship product
Product line: Includes long and half compression tights, short-sleeve, long-sleeve and sleeveless compression shirts