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Jill Chatwood, lululemon athletica, selects internship award winners

21 July 2014 by Jainnie Cho

We talk to Jill Chatwood, Design Director of lululemon athletica, the Canadian athletic apparel company dedicated to making functional and equally beautiful clothing for proactive, optimistic modern women.

At lululemon athletica, customers are “guests” and store employees, “educators”.  Since its founding more than 15 years ago this unorthodox approach to business and fashion has helped put lululemon on the map as the ‘go to’ innovative and fashion-led athletic apparel company. “I’m passionate about bringing together art and athleticism. These aren’t areas that people generally put together but athleticism is a form of art and art can be athletic and dynamic too,” said Jill Chatwood, design director of the Canada-based company, specialising in yoga-inspired clothing.

It’s this focus on design that is both original and commercial that drew lululemon to both sponsor Texprint and create the lululemon Texprint Internship Award, acknowledging creativity and the need for industry experience; it is also what drew Chatwood to become a judge for Texprint. “[Texprint] was always the area at Indigo/PV in Paris that had the most exciting stuff… the most exciting raw work unconstrained as yet by the garment industry”, she recalled of her first brush with Texprint.

Dennis “Chip” Wilson founded lululemon in 1998, amidst the yoga boom of the late 1990s and increasing female presence in sports. Starting from one shop in Vancouver, Canada, including a design and yoga studio as well as a retail store, the business expanded rapidly. It now has around 200 stores, mostly in North America, with a new store in Covent Garden among other locations.  In 2009, the company launched a subsidiary, Ivivva Athletica, a dance and gymnastics clothing line for young girls aged six to 12.

Each lululemon store is a small universe onto itself. Store managers are much more than just managers – they decide the store’s look, from layout to colour, and control what kind of events they hold. “It’s important for us to make sure that not only are we a big brand with multiple stores but that each store is its own little micro community,” said Chatwood, who joined lululemon as a store employee in 2003.

Nurturing young design talent is another passion lululemon shares with Texprint. This winter, the company is set to launch a line of specialist cycling jerseys designed by Texprint alumna Florence Colson, one of two designers to win the lululemon Texprint Award in 2013. We sat down with Chatwood to discuss innovations in athletic wear, her interest in artful yet functional design, and the brand’s future product focus.

Jill with lululemon Texprint Internship Award selected designers; Charlotte Beevor (left) and Federica Tedeschi (right)

What drew you to become involved with Texprint?

The more I learnt about Texprint, the more it connected with what we believed in from a design perspective. Three years ago we decided to get more involved and sponsor Texprint and now we benefit, as the quality of interns we get from Texprint is unparalleled.

What is great textile design, or great design in general?

Great design is design that brings together beauty (colour and print) and function. I think both qualities have to live together in harmony, particularly in the world of modern sportswear where a garment can’t be just beautiful or useful. Form too has always been as important as function, so we can’t have something that doesn’t function for the sake of form. I think that the combination of these elements is where great design exists.

Designer Ailis Dewar shows her work to Jill and colleague judges

When did you start your relationship with lululemon?

In 2003, straight from design school - they had just opened up a store in my neighbourhood in Toronto and it was maybe only the third or fourth store at that time. I went from working in the store when I was going to school, to immediately joining the design team. It was such a good foundation - I just worked hard and did everything, from quality checks to product design, fabric and trim development.

At that time we had a tiny team of designers. Our whole company was founded on young, entrepreneurial designers, all coming together for a common goal. And this is one of the things we love about Texprint - we really love to support and nurture the energy of young, up-and-coming designers because they are the future.

What made you identify so strongly with lululemon?

The lululemon company ethos was something very original that hadn’t been created before. A modern yoga company didn’t exist before lululemon, or such a female-focused athletic brand - that was the new thing - it was really nice to see a brand emerge that was active and focused towards women. Being able to marry fashion with the active lifestyle was something that really excited me and the more I learnt about technical fabrics, the more exciting it became. To me it had so much more substance than just designing another evening gown or something like that.

What is your key focus when designing for the brand?

What excites me the most is being able to bring new ideas to the market that make people’s lives easier and better, these are also the challenges. Take safety for example - we’ve used reflective ink, yarn and fabric, all in different ways so that we can make our guests safe but in a beautiful way. Most athletic companies just put a reflective stripe down the sleeves and say, “There you go – now you’re visible”, we’ve worked hard to integrate safety and function in a more beautiful, subtle way.

Looking forward one of our goals has been creating print that feels more handmade than computer-generated - designing prints with personality and feeling, made by human beings, with love. 

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