When it comes to athletic gear, there is perhaps no garment more complex than the sports bra: It needs to offer serious support, of course, but it also needs to be flexible and comfortable enough for athletes to get a full range of motion. Getting all of those qualifications down pat is a tall order.
"They're so complicated," says Nicole Rendone, Nike's senior innovation designer. "First of all, every woman is totally different, so their needs are very different. But also, looking at the tissue movement you get through different sports, the bras bounce up and down as well as in a butterfly shape."
Previously, the way that companies aimed to offer support was through two different methods: compression, the classic sports bra style that often leads to a uniboob, and encapsulation, which uses more traditional bra technology to create cups for each breast. Nike's latest sports bra, however, taps into the mechanics of its popular Flyknit style of shoe to offer both in one sleek, knitted design. Dubbed the FE/NOM, it's the first time Nike is using the Flyknit technology in apparel.
"Looking at what Flyknit was able to do in footwear — they could add shape, they could knit in support, they could knit in strength, zones of breathability, all in a flexible fabric that really conformed to your foot — that's everything we need to do," Rendone says.
Nike developed a new yarn for the sports bra that is both soft and flexible, as well as supportive. Rendone and the Nike team looked at everywhere a sports bra would be engineered to offer support, from underwires and foam cups to elastic straps and hook and eye closures and knit all those elements into one flat panel. "If you think about where a wire channel would be or where you'd have added support, the structure of the knit was changed to be stronger and more supportive," she says. "If you think about where you'd put a mesh for breathability, a mesh knit construction would be used so that the bra could breathe in that area."
That means Nike was able to get the sports bra down to just two panels and one binding — remarkable since other high-support Nike bras can have up to 41 pieces and 22 seams — which also makes it 30 percent lighter than any other Nike sports bra. It could be revolutionary in minimizing or eliminating discomfort and restriction of movement for female athletes. The FE/NOM bra makes its debut on Nike.com on July 12, but the team is already looking to see how they can innovate other athletic staples with the Flyknit technology.
"We got really excited about the bra because it's the most challenging piece of engineered support for women," Rendone says. "I felt like if we could make this work in the bra, we could make it work everywhere."