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  • Writer's picture Alysse Soll

Alysse Soll Interviews Athleta's Sheree Waterson

By Alysse Soll, President of NewModel Advisory and WiST Advisory Board Member

Sheree Waterson, Chief Product Officer, Athleta

The Power of She

Athleta is a technical apparel company that sits at the top of premium fitness and lifestyle brands for women in the US. Launched in 1998, Athleta was acquired by Gap Brands in 2008. Since 2012, Athleta has seen a steady 25% CAGR, putting it on track for $1B+ in sales over the next few years. Their marketing mission, The Power of She, ignites a community of active, healthy, confident women who, together, can realize their limitless potential.

Women who wear Athleta love the fit, the feel, and the experience of these garments. This is not by chance, but rather, by design – a design process that is driven by Sheree Waterson, the Chief Product Officer of Athleta. Sheree’s team designs product across four segments: Studio, Train, Hike and Travel, “the 360 degree expression of the way our core consumer lives her life.”

Listening to Sheree describe her mission at Athleta is akin to taking master classes in fashion, technology, sustainability, process, problem solving and customer journey metrics all at once. Sheree believes, “the technical apparel business is about solving problems and putting beautiful style over the top of it.”

Product Love, Where Design Meets Data

Sheree describes the Athleta customer journey as the “three stages of Product Love.” Stage One is love at first sight, when the consumer falls in love with a piece, and must have it. Stage Two is dating, when the consumer wears the piece and feels great about how she looks and feels. Stage Three is best friends, when the piece and the brand become an indispensable part of her life.

While Product Love is a personal and emotional customer journey, its outcome drives the business model. KPIs matter. In league with most sophisticated consumer brands, Athleta measures its metrics starting with high level sentiment, drilling down to specific data points and behavioral insights across their three core purchase points: catalogue, online and in-store.

In this ecosystem, the immediate feedback loop from consumer to brand drives incremental iterations that keep the product fresh and relevant for its growing community of women. This is where design meets data.Sustainable, Technical, Beauty

Sustainable, Technical, Beauty

Building technical performance products is an art and a science. Athleta’s goal is to create, in Sheree’s words, “sustainable, technical, beauty.” To do this, her product team works with a vast network of technicians, suppliers, scientists, and extreme athletes, to generate performance solutions for Athleta’s community of women.

This ‘community first’ focus for both supply and demand aligns with Athleta’s core values: inclusion, diversity and sustainability. Athleta is a certified B Corp, recognized as a sustainable for-profit business that meets the rigorous standards of environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Sheree believes, “soon all clothing will be technical, not just performance wear.” She is laser focused on reaching that benchmark.

Q and A with Sheree Waterson

Sheree’s perspective is that work and life are a journey of creation and performance. With some Q and A, we unpack her journey and her thoughts on how the next generation of women can stand out in a crowded field by using technology to set new standards for performance and design.

WIST: You have been in leadership positions at Levi Strauss, Speedo, Lululemon and now Athleta. Was the fashion vertical always your path?

SW: Actually, no! Starting out, I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. I was working my way through college in the apparel industry and became a buyer for a luxury brand, where I learned that true craftsmanship and flattering the feminine form is the highest expression of fashion. Along the way, I combined that fashion discipline with business learning at Levi Strauss, and technology innovation at Speedo. Now here I am at Athleta, using all my business, fashion, technology and sustainability experience to share with others, helping them to connect the dots. So, I guess I am a teacher after all.

WIST: Why is the journey so important to you?

SW: Life takes you on a journey, and regardless of what that journey is, it will ultimately serve you the best. The universe wanted to teach me some lessons first. My journey taught me what true craftsmanship was, and how technology and science enhanced that craftsmanship. It is this insight and unique knowledge that I can share with the next generation of product designers, to show them what the future could look like. 

WIST: Where do you see the future for technical apparel going and how long will it take to get there?

SW: Mass casualization of the way we dress is transforming fashion. The innovations developed to meet the requirements for technical apparel, like wicking, breathability, thermoregulation and form-fit construction, is being readily adopted by mainstream apparel. Within five to ten years, all apparel will be technical, whether or not they look active. Technology is the future of clothing.

WIST: Based on your experience leading high-performance teams at the top of their game, how would you mentor women to lead this space in the future? 

SW: You’ve got to be a pro, curious and learning all the time. You’ve got to be super tenacious, sometimes just holding on by your fingertips. The power of knowing your own gifts, matching them with your personal values and engaging with a company that shares those values creates an alchemy that enables you to achieve. Be brave. Be very brave.

WIST: Can you share your ‘aha” moment? When you knew you did something awesome, you accomplished your goal?

SW: Actually, I haven’t had an ‘aha’ moment yet, the feeling that “I’m there, I’ve made it.” I’m constantly pushing, constantly improving. I suppose “there” is always ahead of me.

Our sincerest thanks to Sheree for sharing her product passion with the WIST community. Sheree’s journey to master craftsman is one of learning and teaching. Inspiration comes in all forms. 

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