Under Armour bets on innovation to turn around sports apparel brand

Fabric samples line the walls of the “materials library” in Baltimore-based Under Armour’s innovation labs in a corner of Building 37 on a corporate campus in Baltimore Peninsula. A trend board for spring 2026 stands nearby, meant to inspire with its display of athletic shoe uppers in the latest textiles.

The textiles team meets here with product designers to select fabrics for seasonal apparel pieces and hash out fabric ideas. Team members aim to find the best intersection of sportswear and innovation, in areas such as performance and durability, for the market.

“Our textiles have to perform,” said Kyle Blakely, Under Armour’s senior vice president of innovation, development and testing. “We have an expectation from the consumer that we’re a performance brand. … That’s what makes our brand so different. … When you buy our fabrics, you don’t have to sacrifice performance or sacrifice comfort. You get both.”

In textiles, product design, testing and manufacturing, Under Armour is doubling down on technical innovation. Officials believe it will remind consumers of the sportswear maker’s roots, propel a turnaround for the faltering brand and push it ahead of a growing pack of competitors.

The reemphasis on innovation comes at a critical time for a company that invented a sweat-wicking T-shirt nearly three decades ago and rapidly grew into a multibillion-dollar sports apparel and footwear maker. But in recent years, sales, profits and the company’s stock price have slumped.

Founder Kevin Plank, who came up with the idea for the shirt that launched Under Armour, returned April 1 as president and CEO after more than four years. During a May earnings call, Plank told analysts that in an industry roiled by the coronavirus pandemic, intense competition and shifts in consumer shopping behavior, Under Armour is doing too much.

“There are too many products, too many initiatives, too much of too much,” Plank said. “We must be highly focused and prioritize what needs to get done.”

Almost immediately, amid slipping quarterly sales and with additional declines expected in the U.S., Plank began the company’s second restructuring since 2017. He outlined plans to reduce product assortments, speed up product development and improve in-store descriptions of what merchandise does and how it improves athletic performance.

At the same time, Under Armour plans to move its corporate headquarters in South Baltimore from Locust Point to anchor the Baltimore Peninsula waterfront community. On 50 company-owned acres south of Interstate 95, Under Armour has long run operations such as the innovation labs out of Building 37, a former Sam’s Club store named for Plank’s University of Maryland football jersey number, and where the new headquarters is under construction. Corporate workers will begin moving in November.

Standing near one of Under Armour’s knitting machines, Senior Vice President Innovation, Development and Testing Kyle Blakely holds spools of Neolast, a new fabric developed in the innovation lab at Under Armour’s Port Covington global headquarters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)

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In an interview, Blakely described the evolution of his 190-person innovation department. Its engineers used to work separately, almost in secret, from other departments — even those designing and testing products.

“That might be OK for building fighter jets, [but] for building shoes and shirts, it was challenging, especially if you want to innovate quickly,” he said. Now, “the innovation team is working hand-in-hand with the product teams and the design teams on a daily basis. It fosters this culture here that … innovation is influencing everything we’re doing.”

Blakely, who started as an entry-level materials developer 15 years ago, has overseen innovation since 2022. Just weeks ago, he took on oversight of materials, product development and testing, a shuffling meant to foster better collaboration on product development from start to finish and get innovative designs to market faster —  something Plank flagged as a turnaround goal.

Innovation team employees are split between Building 37, with a focus on apparel, Portland, Oregon, with a focus on footwear, and a textile and manufacturing facility at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Employees might work on projects that will hit the market within months or not for years.

“Kevin’s vision is that we’re doing commercial innovations,” Blakely said. “Yes, we need to inspire and, yes, we will build crazy concepts that are amazing. But we need to build things that are going to elevate the brand and are going to make money.”

One of the newest and biggest ideas is Neolast, a replacement for spandex that Under Armour co-invented with Texas-based chemical maker Celanese Corp. Under Armour believes the new fiber will not only perform better and be more sustainable, but will transform the sports apparel industry. The apparel maker began creating Neolast yarn seven years ago in Baltimore, working with Celanese and building a custom-made knitting machine for the Under Armour facility in North Carolina.

The fabric eventually will replace spandex in all Under Armour garments and is being sold industrywide by a third-party distributor. On May 7, Under Armour unveiled the Vanish Pro T-shirt, the first product made with Neolast, and plans to scale up manufacturing of additional products.

During a recent tour of the bustling innovation labs, Blakely showed off massive knitting machines used to make Neolast fabric, basketball uppers and other fabrics. In a section of the innovation labs called the Lighthouse, a small-scale manufacturing facility that first opened in 2016 at City Garage in Port Covington and is now in Building 37, pattern makers and sewing machine operators work just steps from design and product teams.

Besides creating prototypes, “if an athlete needs something, we can make it immediately,” Blakely said. “We’ve had multiple instances where we made Steph Curry something within 24 hours to support him if he needs it, or many, many other athletes.”

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Blakely picked up a sample of the basketball superstar’s latest signature shoe, the Curry11, made with “Flow” traction technology. A Nike shoe sat nearby, a rare appearance at Under Armour but needed for demonstration. When the rival shoes were placed side by side on a slanted board replicating a court surface, the Curry 11 stuck while the Nike fell off.

Candace Davidow, a materials lab engineer and manager for apparel at Under Armour, places a jacket on the lab’s “sweating torso,” a machine that mimics and tests sweating patterns. At left is a wind machine, so the company can test wind and atmospheric patterns and their effects on garments and fabrics under development. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)

Nearby, in a development department dedicated to team uniforms and apparel for retail, employees take fabrics and create ideas for garments and how they should fit. A workspace where different departments sit across an aisle from each other helps people across specialties take ownership throughout the creative process, Blakely said.

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Products in development go through rigorous, scientifically backed testing at an in-house textile materials lab, dubbed the Proving Grounds. It includes a climate chamber in which instruments simulate how bodies sweat and otherwise react in hot and cold weather.

“We do tons of different testing,” said Candace Davidow, a materials lab engineer and manager for apparel. “We do everything from durability testing, which is pilling, snagging, abrasions, to thermal testing. … We have stretch testing. We have wash testing. We do a lot of laundry.”

Other equipment tests for moisture management. Employees check drying time, drying rate, wicking speed and wicking distance, said Davidow, a nine-year employee.

In a new initiative, the company is coming up with fabric that reduces shedding, an attempt to limit environmentally harmful synthetic microfibers that pollute water after being pumped from washing machines. Besides testing for shedding from future retail products, the company developed its own fiber-shed test method and kit, used in its labs, and since December sold commercially to mills and apparel makers seeking sustainable options. Under Armour plans to launch its first piece of clothing made from shed-reduction material this fall.

Besides testing in the lab, Under Armour tests products in the field. It runs about 500 “wear tests” a year on new and modified products with some 10,000 athletes and other consumers, checking for fit, comfort, durability and performance. Neolast fabric, for instance, was tested many times on many athletes.

“We need to put it on bodies to get true, real-world perspectives from athletes,” said Meagan Marando, director of product testing and insights for the past five years. “I hear constructive criticism, but it could also be, ‘I love this piece of it.’”

The lab may show one result, but “can the athlete feel that benefit? Are they feeling cooler? Are they feeling drier? Do they feel it can help them improve what they’re doing?” Marando said.

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Her team often observes high school and college athletes trying out products, including the Maryland Terps, Towson University and Loyola University Maryland. The brand also keeps a database of 100,000 self-selected testers involved in various sports and workouts. Feedback has led to alterations of seams, pockets or waistbands, and changes in design, fit or material.

In her role as senior lead materials developer, Haley Bennett and her team work closely with lab and field testing departments to solve problems flagged by athletes or other consumers. When creating or improving materials, developers work with mills around the world, often starting with athletes to understand their pain points and relying on textile science to engineer solutions.

“I feel like I’m an investigator, when it comes to trying to figure out what’s the problem and what’s the best way to solve it,” Bennett said. “We try to tackle it as a team. Not one person has the best solution.”

Kefah Abbas, a designer, tailor and pattern maker, sews a pair of pants in the innovation lab at Under Armour’s Port Covington global headquarters. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)

Analysts have applauded both Under Armour’s turnaround plans and Plank’s return. But several warned change takes time.

Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData, said in a recent report that a string of weak financial numbers reflects problems with strategy and vision. He noted sales in the U.S., Under Armour’s most important region, slumped by more than 10% in the most recent quarter.

“In our view, there is not nearly enough product innovation, especially in important categories like sneakers, which has put Under Armour on the back foot as newer players like On and Hoka are churning out products that inspire and interest consumers,” Saunders said. “On apparel, ranges continue to be confusing as Under Armour jumps between trying to provide technical solutions and trying to appeal to those wanting fashion fixes.”

Plank’s return, while not an automatic fix, signals that management “intends to get to grips” with problems, Saunders said.

As executive chairman overseeing two consecutive CEOs since 2020, Plank told analysts he was able to step back, reflect and lead from a new perspective.

Ultimately, he said he took back over as top executive after he saw shortfalls in the goal of becoming the top athletic brand of choice, blaming struggles on a lack of continuity in execution and competition based mostly on price, “versus our core competency, which is performance and technical innovation.”

It also helped him to realize, he said, that “what I do love doing is selling shirts and shoes — selling the best shirts and shoes.”

Kevin Plank

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank listens during an earlier stockholders’ meeting.

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