04 Nov Nick Bale from Leo Workwear explains the journey they’ve been on to create the largest women’s high visibility range on the market
It all started with a quandary; why were our sales team consistently being asked for X-Small or even XX-Small garments? Was our sizing wrong? Are the people wearing our garments getting smaller?! So, we dug a little deeper and it did not take long to conclude that most of these enquiries were people looking to clothe their female workforce.
With our 2021 hats on, this seems obvious, but in 2013, when the conversation started, high visibility clothing for women consisted of a few men’s jackets with some elastic in the waist and a “Ladies Jacket” label slapped on the bag.
It became apparent that women in the industry were wearing over-sized, ill-fitting garments. These garments posed a safety risk in themselves, loose fabric could get caught in machinery, overly long trousers a potential trip hazard. Just as important a question for us to ask was “How do the people wearing these garments feel?”, working in an environment where women were already in the minority and every day, all day, wearing garments that were uncomfortable or ill-fitting. The effects of this on a worker’s morale could be significant.
As experts in high visibility clothing, we knew that that these issues had to be addressed. How could we allow the products we’ve been designing to protect the wearer, be a hazard to them? It flew in the face of the core aim of our business, to keep people safe.
So, we set to work on the first women’s garment, and we knew, from the off, that this would be a long process. Throughout the whole women’s range development, we reached out to two key groups for invaluable insight: focus groups of women working in the industry and to our own Leo workforce (of which 60% is female). This way we could conduct wearer trials to get extensive feedback on fit and functionality and understand what our priorities should be.
What was abundantly clear from the beginning was that good fit was essential. To achieve a good fit, the use of higher quality fabrics and reflective tapes was desirable. Besides this, we wanted the women’s range to showcase the best of Leo: the most innovative fabrics, the newest reflective tape technologies, and the highest possible quality components. In bringing a new range to the market, we didn’t want the focus to be on producing garments for the lowest possible cost, which would essentially be a poorly made standard product, that wouldn’t solve the issues at hand; and so the predominant focus was on fit and quality to provide garments of great value.
It was our long-term aim that this mentality would filter down to our menswear, that the attitude of safety procurement could tip from an importance of cost to the importance of value.
The Rosemoor Jacket arrived in 2014 and was greatly received; a waterproof, windproof and breathable fabric was used on a pattern that loosely took inspiration from ski jackets, where the shorter length body worked well with the female silhouette and the articulation in the sleeves created the perfect fit.
Now in 2021, we have the most comprehensive women’s high visibility range on the market, with 15 garments, all available in at least 2 colours, the majority of which are sized from a size 8-26 (XS-6XL) and includes the first UK stocked maternity garments and the first ever modesty tunic.
So, clearly the development of the range over those 8 years was hugely successful, but there were many challenges along the way, with two key challenges in particular:
The first was conformance; ensuring the garments complied with the international standard on high visibility clothing, ISO 20471, was a challenge, as the requirements of the standard didn’t encourage innovation in womenswear. The standard is based on minimum area requirements of fluorescent material and reflective tape but doesn’t take into account the size of the wearer, meaning many of our smaller sizes were a class below our larger ones.
Adopting designs based on the dual conformance of the upper and lower body garments combined meant that we were able to achieve compliance without compromising on the functionality and fit of the individual garments.
The second challenge was about design; when we first released the range, we decided that the products should have a marker that showed that the garments belonged together and used a striking purple trim to achieve this. This massively split opinion with our wearers, where some loved that it offered something a bit different to the norm, many understandably felt that the garments should appear to match the look of their male colleagues. Our focus groups showed that the majority would prefer a grey trim and so we set about making the change.
One product in particular was born out of someone else’s vision. One of the major projects where this range has been worn is the construction of the Thames Tideway super sewer in London. Here we met Leena Begum, who was unable to visit sites and carry out her full job due to her religious beliefs, which stipulated the type of clothing she could wear; working with Leena, we were able to design, manufacture and stock the first modesty tunic. Now, due to Leena’s vision and Leo Workwear’s expertise, there’s a new garment on the market that enables people to work where it previously wasn’t possible.
The future for the Leo women’s range, beyond bringing in more products, is in sustainability. Leo have always designed with product durability in mind, sought out the best quality components and certified the products to the highest possible level of washes, as we all know that the longer a product lasts, the better for the environment. Going beyond this, many women’s products will join our EcoViz® range and so will be made from recycled polyester, which will significantly reduce the amount of energy consumed and CO2 emitted from the manufacturing process.
Whilst there is still work to do, more products to introduce and more improvements that will be needed, over the last 8 years we have gone from providing small men’s products that don’t fit properly to a choice of 15 products that offer full-body coverage, across all seasons and weather conditions, designed specifically to fit a woman. Garments that have been tested rigorously, have evolved as a result, and will continue to evolve in ways we’ve yet to discover.
What we do know 8 years on, in 2021, is that a company can now show their female force that they are valued through the clothing they are provided. Moreover, a young woman looking to start their career in construction, engineering, transportation, or anywhere that high visibility clothing is needed, can see that these industries are ready for them and, at Leo Workwear, we’re proud to have played our part in making these industries more accessible.