Bringing Inclusivity to Sports Apparel: An Interview with Alumna Sarah Klecker

A side profile of a wheelchair racing athlete

Sarah Klecker (BS ’17, Apparel Design) is putting her design degree to work creating functional apparel for athletes of all kinds. In her recent profile for Runner’s World magazine, she explains that being raised by two world-class runners fueled both her athletic and academic pursuits.

Klecker, who recently graduated with her master’s in sports product design from the University of Oregon, is working to bring her passions together. In the interview below, she discusses her graduate work with the wheelchair racing community, her journey to this point, and how personal experiences can help inform the design process.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in apparel design?

Both my parents were world-class distance runners. My mom was on the 1992 Olympic team and my dad set and held the American record for the 50-mile ultramarathon. Because of this, sports and athletics were a big part of my life as I grew up. When it came time for me to decide what to pursue in college, I found myself torn between exercise science and design since I knew that I wanted to work with athletes in some respect. Choosing design, more specifically apparel design, seemed like a good way to combine my passions for art, science, and athletics. A common misconception is that apparel design is solely based on aesthetics and creating ‘cool-looking clothing’, but in actuality, it’s about having empathy for the wearer of the clothing and creating solutions for them.

Tell us a bit about your master’s project. 

Deciding what to do for my master’s thesis was really difficult. I ended up writing a whole paper that I scrapped on more forward-thinking, theoretical issues the sports apparel world might someday face. But, it felt like I was making up problems rather than addressing issues that already exist.

I pivoted my topic to focus on designing apparel for the wheelchair racing community. The wheelchair community is part of the larger running and racing community, but they don’t get the same consideration and attention that other athletes do. I quickly realized there were few products designed specifically for the needs of wheelchair athletes, especially when it came to athletes at the elite level. The athletes who compete in wheelchair racing events for team USA are issued the same uniforms as standing Olympic track and field athletes. However, it’s obvious when the athletes compete that they’re using their body in a very different way than standing runners, and the uniforms and apparel they wear then has different requirements that need to be considered in the design and creation of apparel for their sport. For example, the uniforms athletes were issued in Rio 2016 were adorned with AeroBlades–an innovative concept from Nike that placed rubbery protrusions on the sides of the uniform leggings and singlet to make runners more aerodynamic. However, these protrusions prevented the wheelchair racers from easily getting into their tightly fitted racing chairs.

Initially going into the project, I thought the problems I was solving were going to be incredibly complex. I was anticipating aerodynamic issues and the like, but my first interview with Paralympic gold medalist Yen Hoang taught me how big of an issue it is to simply find clothing that fits. That insight made me pull back and try to solve more basic problems first.

What lessons did you apply from your experiences during your time at the College of Design to your graduate career? 

One of my biggest takeaways in terms of why I continue to pursue functional product design come from something Dr. Lucy Dunne (Apparel Design) said in a lecture–that you can design the most functional solution in the world, but if no one is willing to wear what you’ve created, it isn’t going to solve the user’s problem. I think this reaches the heart of the form vs. function balance and the role of a designer in that process, that apparel and other wearable goods become an inherent part of how people are seen. As a designer, it’s our job to anticipate how people want to be perceived so we can design for that. This is something I also find incredibly fascinating about trend research and the connection between what’s going on culturally and how it impacts what people want to wear.

In a perfect world, what would you want to happen with your master’s project?

In a perfect world, someone with the power to develop it further would help take it forward and implement some of the concepts I used. On a basic level, there is no market for athletic apparel specific to wheelchair athletes and there are small changes that companies can make to existing silhouettes to make them better interface with seated positioning (things like adjusting pocket placement, silhouette, and rise on the waist). There are a lot of things I haven’t solved or perfected with the design of the uniform and weatherproof apparel, and there is much more research to be done on the topic. A big finding during this process was that there were no studies for me to reference on designing specifically for wheelchair racing athletes. All of my design decisions were based on direct feedback from wheelchair racers. I realized how privileged I am to be in a group that is readily designed for.

At the end of the day, I want my own research to spur more research on fit and sizing for all types of athletes. I want the sports apparel world to be a more inclusive one.

What advice do you have for aspiring designers?

My biggest piece of advice is to stay involved in things outside the realm of design. There’s this pervasive notion that you need to spend 24/7 in the studio to be a successful designer but to truly be innovative and design to your best potential you can’t be stuck in a vacuum. All of your experiences influence your design style and unique design identity.

The second piece of advice is to make time to sleep!

Where can people find you?

Runner’s World did a great article about my master’s project. I also have a portfolio website and can be found on Instagram.

Photo credit: Layla Alazawy

Model credit: Susannah Scaroni

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