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The Fabric of Fitness

Designing activewear for the long-ignored older body, Arizona-born clothing designer Shirley Kenan is outfitting America’s “actively aging.”

Jimmy Magahern | Jun 26, 2012, 3:06 p.m.

You’re not supposed to still be running around a tennis or basketball court — or even, for that matter, running around the block — once you’re old enough to qualify for the senior discount at the movie theater. And if you are, you’re certainly not supposed to care what kind of clothes you’re running around in. Anything loose-fitting, drab and, preferably, out of style for the past three decades should suffice.

At least that’s the way most sports apparel companies seem to view the over-50 population. While garment design has become increasingly sophisticated in terms of developing innovative clothes to enhance the active lifestyle — incorporating lightweight insulation, stretchy textiles and “breathable” materials — most of this design has been focused on the youth market, with little attention paid to older wearers.

Where is the sportswear made in the appropriate sizes and shapes for older active people? The functional sports outfits that pay attention to the most common postures, movement ergonomics and protection needs of older adults? Where, for goodness sakes, can an older woman buy a tennis skirt that fits her figure and actually looks good?

Enter Shirley Kenan, owner of NEDLady (NED is an acronym for “No Expiration Date”), a company designing clothing for active older women. After decades spent raising her five kids and working in a variety of careers outside the home, Kenan, who had at last retired with her second husband, Bud, found she finally had time to pursue more leisure activities, particularly tennis and golf. But she also discovered how difficult it was for her and her friends to find appropriate, well-fitting clothes for such sports, not to mention pickleball, Zumba classes and aerobics.

“Where were the skirts that weren’t too short, or the tops that weren’t too tight and revealing?” asks the native Arizonan, who, at 70 herself, still looks remarkably vibrant and fit. “There are ladies who play tennis in the senior leagues in the East Valley who have nice figures and nice legs, but they come out in these short, tight outfits and it just seems like too much exposure for our age group. A lot of us, myself included, also have these little flabby wings,” she says, good-naturedly flicking her upper arm. “And it would be nice if we could find tennis shirts with a little half-sleeve that kind of covers that.”

Surprisingly, finding sportswear for aging but still active adults proved an almost impossible task — a dilemma the clothing industry itself has only recently begun to take note of. In a 2009 issue of Textiles, the international trade publication of the Textile Institute, the editors noted the irony that aging baby boomers, “a generation of people that grew up with design at its core; a generation now much larger in numbers than the young; a generation actively seeking ways to enjoy life to the fullest,” is yet “not consulted in terms of design needs or targeted as a significant market sector.”

“Nobody’s paying attention to us!” Kenan exclaims. “I listened to the things my friends were saying about why they couldn’t find suitable sportswear, and I started thinking, ‘Why doesn’t somebody do something about that?’

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