That all changed last month with the launch of Nike (M), the first dedicated maternity collection from the global sportswear giant, which is now available online in North America, Europe and Africa.
“When I heard the news, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Clarke said.
On the one hand, it validated her thinking that maternity activewear was a massive untapped market. On the other, it meant competing with a multi-billion-dollar company. While Cadenshae has grown rapidly over the past six years and is now turning over around NZ$7 million, it is still a small business with just 10 staff.
“It’s just made me even more driven. We’re in this space, we created this space, we are so passionate about this,” Clarke said. “We know mothers so well – they’re our core market.”
Nike for mums
Clarke had the idea for Cadenshae after the birth of her second child. A “really active” person, she was surprised at how difficult it was to find a sports bra she could wear while breastfeeding.
“I thought, ‘I can’t be the only mother in the world who wants to go for a walk or a run, or go to the gym and work out […] without having to get changed three times a day’,” she recalled.
With no background in fashion, it took Clarke and her husband Adam about 19 months to design their first nursing sports bra, but they quickly expanded into leggings, tops and hoodies.
“Anything you’d find in a Nike, Adidas or Lululemon store, just that you could breastfeed in,” Clarke explained.
The brand was picked up by retailers right away, and at one point, Cadenshae products were stocked in around 100 stores. But about a year-and-a-half ago, Clarke started to move away from wholesale and focus on direct-to-consumer sales.
“Listening to mothers and learning about what products they want and being connected to customers, especially in this industry, is so crucial,” she said. “I felt like having that little bit of disconnect by going through retailers wasn’t the right fit for us.”
The comfort challenge
According to Clarke, comfort is the biggest factor for women buying maternity clothes.
“As soon as you get pregnant, your shopping patterns change. You don’t care if you’re wearing a dress and stilettos anymore, you want to feel comfortable because you’re pregnant, or you’re carrying a baby, or you’re nursing,” she said.
But designing comfortable maternity clothes is harder than it sounds, because women’s bodies change so much during and after pregnancy.
“With sports bras, for instance, you don’t want them to have underwire because when you’re getting a bump, having underwire is just uncomfortable, and then when you’re breastfeeding, it can increase the chances of developing mastitis because it can block the milk ducts,” Clark explained. “So wireless bras are quite important both from a medical standpoint and from a comfort and functionality standpoint.”
The bras are also extremely adjustable, with additional hook-and-eye closures at the back, so customers don’t need to purchase different sizes during and after pregnancy. Similar thinking has gone into Cadenshae’s leggings to make sure they don’t stretch out.
This might be one of the reasons the maternity activewear market has been overlooked for so long – the products require a lot of R&D.
Nike said it took three years to design the four-piece Nike (M) collection, which includes a pullover, bra, tank and tights.
From viral video to global sponsor
While Cadenshae is based in the Northland region of New Zealand, its biggest market is Australia. It also has a strong presence in the US and Canada, and it plans to set up operations in North America over the next 12 months.
One of the main reasons is to be closer to Alysia Montaño, a US track star who Cadenshae started sponsoring last year.
Montaño made headlines in 2014, when she competed in the United States’ annual track and field championships while 34-weeks pregnant. The stunt was intended to break the stigma around pregnant women exercising. Then, on Mother’s Day last year, she released a viral video with the New York Times calling out Nike and Asics for their lack of support for female athletes who have children.
In the video, Montaño revealed that Nike, her former sponsor, said it would “pause” her contract and stop paying her if she became pregnant. She ended her relationship with the brand and moved to Asics, but said she was pressured to return to racing soon after giving birth to her first child.
The story caught the attention of Clarke in New Zealand.
“I just was like, man, this is exactly the problem that we’ve been talking about for years. We just haven’t been in a position to do anything about it,” she said.
Clarke reached out to Montaño, and to her delight, the Olympian and World Athletics Championships bronze medallist, accepted her offer of a four-year sponsorship.
“One of the things I wanted to make clear to her was that it’s not about her racing next year, or how fast she can run. It’s about her as a person and as a mother and how we can work together,” Clarke said.
Cadenshae is now in talks to sponsor more female athletes, including a professional women’s team in New Zealand. For Clarke, these sponsorships are a way to tell the world what the brand is about.
“We’re really shouting from the rooftops that we’re here and why we’re here and what we’re doing and what it’s really for,” she said.