Women of Altura: Changing the Industry from Within

We took a trip to Darlington to meet the women championing change

Altura was founded almost twenty years ago, in 1997. Though they’re still famous for their very early creation – the Nightvision commuter jacket – the brand has evolved a lot over the past two years.

Director Clint Vosloo joined early in 2015, and since then Altura has entered into some new partnerships. Notably, with the World Global Style Network (WGSN) to make sure they’re on trend, and with Alvanon who have provided them with best-fit mannequins based on over 30,000 body scans.

All of the road, commute and mountain biking kit is designed at the UK office in Darlington, not far from the notorious Yorkshire Dales. Based inside distributor ZyroFisher’s office, the Altura team is quite notably full of women – not a circumstance you meet often in cycling.

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Despite a sales split that still stands at over 80 per cent in favour of men, the women of Altura seem to somewhat rule the roost – in numbers and in share of voice. That shines through in the existing and emerging product, and in the brand’s Tuesday rides – which we had the pleasure of joining on a recent visit.

“The industry is currently male dominated, and until it’s equal we will keep driving.” – Sophie Laliberte – Product Creation Manager at Altura

Left to right, Emma (Product Line Co-Ordinator), Sophie (Product Creation Manager), Amy (Product Developer), Julie (Accessories Designer)
The most recent women's summer kit on display in the office
The brand's inspiration mood board

It hasn’t always been this way. Emma Robertson works on the business side of the team – managing elements such as their relationship with One Pro Cycling and the custom clothing. When she joined, in a role at Altura’s distributor Zyro (now ZyroFisher) over three years ago, the business was very different.

Emma explained: “It was very, very male orientated I would say. The brand management was quite male orientated. There was no weekly ride. I was the only person that wanted to go out. Then three people got together. And slowly it got up to the point that we had 15 riders on a Tuesday, within the business.”

There are many industries – cycling being one of them – where women ‘get used’ to working in a male dominated environment. We’re ‘alright’ with it, but most of us would like a little more female company.

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Emma explains: “I’ve never felt like I couldn’t do what I was doing because there were [mainly] men there, I’ve always felt like I can be quite a strong person in what I’m doing. But the mentality is just a bit different. Just to come into an environment where you say ‘what did you see in the shops’ and ‘what have you done this weekend’ and have that female vibe. It’s nice to have the boys as well – it’s nice to have balance. The products that we’re developing are very much those that we’re passionate about –  that we’re excited to test, and that we want, too.”

“The products that we’re developing are very much those that we’re passionate about”  – Emma Robertson, Product Line Co-Ordinator

To name a specific example, the team worked hard on the women’s version of the Pro Gel chamois pad. The new pad is designed to take the elements of a sanitary towel that ‘work’ and apply them to a cycling pad. Emma explains: “We were trialling something based on the old chamois, but [we weren’t happy] so we returned to the drawing board. We went back to looking at women’s sanitary towels, and came up with the Pro Gel which we very much prefer.”

Currently, there are more Altura products for men than for women. The brand now sponsors One Pro Cycling Team and their road cycling range has begun to cater for those after higher levels of performance. Though the women’s range has seen a major revamp, the top end kit is generally not available in women’s fit.

Emma says: “The male market is where our business has been, but there has been growth in the women’s market. We’re trying to grow the range, but we’ve got to be able to go to our board of directors and say ‘this is the product range, this is what we’re bringing in’ – and know it’s what we, and other women, want. We’d like [top end women’s kit] to be something we could just have today, but we have to develop and evolve gradually.  If someone came to us and wanted a women’s Time Trial suit, we have it, it’s ready for custom order – but for the mass market we’re working gradually and building traction.”

The differance between men's and women's chamois' is clear - in this case the women's versions are on the right
The Pro Gel chamois really does contain actual gel - not all brands offers this

Sophie Laliberte looks after the creation and design of product. She’s got years of experience working for brands such as Nike and Mizuno, and at Altura works primarily on the women’s kit, but also oversees all the other designers and developers.

She moved to the UK from Canada, and is a runner as well as a cyclist. Whilst she’s well aware that female cyclists are far outnumbered, she’s seen gender equality gained elsewhere and is confident we’ll see it in cycling.

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She wants Altura to be at the forefront of clothing brands catering for women, telling me: “[The women that work here] are really dominant, we have a big voice – we’re really strong. We know that girls like looking good, and like following trends. We say ‘how many women did you see cycling 5 years ago, compared to now?’ – we know that the audience is growing and we need to provide kit for them. When I moved back to England, I was one of the only ones – I was in Richmond park doing my ride every day, the only girl – and I asked ‘what’s wrong here?’ now it’s increasing – it’s not 50/50 – but it’s growing a lot.”

Sophie told me: “I remember when I was running in Canada, we’d do races and there would be a huge queue outside the women’s toilet, and it was empty for men. When I first moved to England, it was the opposite, the queue for men’s was so long and the queue for women’s was so short. Then it started to become more social, and the queue became more equal. It’s the same thing for cycling.”

She believes that the social element of sport, encouragement and a less competitive environment will all draw women in. She tells me she’s a big fan of events that allow women to hire bikes and test them, in an all female environment saying: “Women are less competitive than men. And they’re less likely to just go out and buy an expensive bike because their friends say they should. Women need to know if they’re going to like it. If they try once –they will say ‘this is amazing’. They’ll say ‘I felt free, and I felt faster’ – I felt like that. They need the invitation of trying, feeling comfortable and not intimidated.”

The Altura ride leaves ZyroFisher on a slightly damp Tuesday afternoon
TWC's editor Michelle ready to ride
The lunch time event is open to all - but there are just as many (if not more) women in most weekly rides

“In cycling they still haven’t [grasped] how to approach women. It’s missing in the retail environment.” – Sophie Laliberte – Product Creation Manager at Altura

Designer Sophie also thinks that the bike shops need to learn a thing or two from retailers that cater well for women – saying: “Women will go shopping at Lululemon, Sweaty Betty – you have that service and environment, you feel like you’re at home. In cycling they still haven’t got that – how to approach women. It’s missing in the retail environment, but it’s why women are shopping online. I’m a working mum, I shop at midnight, when I’ve finished everything else I need to do. Do I really want to go to a bike shop to buy my stuff? To have a young teenage boy telling me what I should wear, with no changing room? No – I order it online, if I like it I keep it, if I don’t I send it back.”

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Describing what she thinks makes great women’s kit, she says: “The first thing women do when they put kit on is look for the mirror. We prioritise performance, but we also make sure that aesthetically the kit looks good, so when we put it on we’re like ‘ohh’. It needs to look good on the hanger, and on the website – it needs to look as good as the performance is good. Not one or the other, but both.”

A strong believer in Altura’s vision to provide an equal offering for women, she says: “Women are loyal to a brand when they feel like it’s working hard to do the right thing for women – we are trying to go deeper into the women’s market. Equalisation of gender is happening across all industries – but at different levels. In running it’s more equal, but cycling is on the way. Women are high achievers, they are multi taskers, and I think that’s one of the things that makes them successful. Women’s cycling is coming; in the last five years I’ve seen a huge difference. The industry is currently male dominated, and until it’s equal we will keep driving. I do believe women will become equal to men in the industry.”

It’s great to see a brand with such a strong female presence, and we’ll be watching closely to see how the brand’s offering grows in coming years.

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