Equine by Design: Top Equestrian Designers

The stories behind some of equestrian fashion's top 'designing women.'
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The stories behind some of equestrian fashion's top 'designing women.'

Effective equestrian clothing begins with knowledge of the mechanics of riding. But beyond that, the sky's the limit--and certain designers have taken that to heart, creating performance-oriented garments that rival anything seen on the runways.

Here's a look at some top equestrian designers and the inspirations behind their creations, brought to you by Everything For Horse & Rider magazine.

Beth Cross
Ariat International

800-899-8141; www.ariat.com

If you've ever put boot to stirrup, chances are you're familiar with Ariat International, which revolutionized equestrian footwear in the early 1990s. Indeed, the founding of this company by Beth Cross is one of this industry's best-known success stories.

Beth Cross | Photo courtesy of Ariat International

Beth Cross | Photo courtesy of Ariat International

No stranger to horses, Cross grew up as the seventh of eight kids on a Thoroughbred farm in Pennsylvania. "My mother ran the farm, and we all worked taking care of the animals," she recalls. As an adult, Cross acquired an MBA at Stanford University and embarked on a career in strategy, marketing and sales.

It was while working for Bain and Company, a consulting company that helps Fortune 100 companies develop and refine their business strategies, that Cross first ventured into the realm of athletic footwear. "I worked with the executives at Reebok and Avia on a variety of business issues, with a focus on identifying growth opportunities," she explains. Aware how technologically backward riding boots were, Cross queried Reebok about entering the equestrian market--but was promptly turned down.

One thing led to another, and by 1993, Cross and her colleague Pam Parker had drawn up a business plan and launched their own version of the California dream--a dream that combined Cross' equestrian interests with her knowledge of design and business strategy. For their debut product, the pair sought input from riders, trainers and their own athletic shoe industry contacts, which resulted in the creation of a high-tech, comfortable and supportive footwear foundation dubbed the "Advanced Torque Stability Footbed."

"When we started Ariat in 1993, as riders we saw an opportunity to develop performance riding boots designed specifically for the needs of professional equestrian athletes, much like Nike did for running and other sports," Cross explains.

The response was overwhelming, and in one fell swoop, the notion of equestrian footwear as stodgy and uncomfortable was banished to the 19th century. But Cross didn't stop there. Though her partner had to leave Ariat in 1995, Cross got busy reinventing women's footwear, addressing the special needs of female riders with Ariat's trademark commitment to quality and attention to detail.

Business has boomed since then, to the point of expansion into Western riding boots, leather accessories and even apparel--all with award-winning results. In fact, Ariat has been "Official Apparel Supplier" of the United States Equestrian Federation--and therefore the U.S. Equestrian Team--since 2006. This year, in honor of the Olympics, the company is unveiling a special USEF-branded sportswear collection.

In a company known for its innovations, Cross considers the most important of these Ariat's "relentless commitment" to continually improve and refine its technology to meet the evolving requirements of riders. "Five years ago, we took the same approach to creating a line of technically advanced riding apparel, and our incredibly talented design team has developed a line of clothing designed to meet the needs of top riders around the world," she notes.

As Cross goes on to explain, "Every design element that goes into our clothing, from stretch to moisture wicking to sun protection, is designed to improve the comfort and performance of the rider. And our designers make sure that the colors and patterns are as beautiful and trendy as they are functional."

Cross is excited about Ariat's 2008 clothing collections. "For women, we have developed a performance layering system that offers moisture wicking and sun protection properties built into the fabrics themselves," she offers. "Our woven shirts for men are designed specifically for riding, with an exclusive cut or pattern that allows greater arm mobility while riding, and also provides moisture management and SPF sun protection."

Nor has she forgotten her equestrian roots. "Today I live with my husband and our three children in Northern California," she says. "All three kids ride, and we have a pony that they all share."

Sharie Loychuk
Arista Equestrian

800-229-3288; www.aristaequestrian.com

Sharie Loychuk | Photo courtesy of Arista Equestrian

Sharie Loychuk | Photo courtesy of Arista Equestrian

Sharie Loychuk's love of horses and fashion led her to breeches and beyond. The result, today, is Arista Equestrian.

"I began riding in 1982 after purchasing two horses," she recalls. "I started training with a wonderful coach taking private lessons in my backyard, but soon realized that I wanted to be with other riders, and I could learn so much more being in the environment of all the different disciplines and breeds of horses.

"I chose dressage as my focus and loved trail riding the mountains right at my barn door," she adds. "I continued to take lessons each week and entered a few small shows. It was important to me to be a good rider, but I discovered that being a pleasure rider was the best fit for me. I rode for nearly 20 years and loved everything about horses."

Horses weren't the only love in Loychuk's life. She started designing clothing at age 15 and wound up taking a few courses in tailoring. She also worked with a high-end lingerie company for four years, gaining a good introduction to the manufacturing side of the business. However, Loychuk maintains, "I am basically a self-taught designer. I have always had a love for fabrics and clothing, and spent all my spare time designing and sewing for my family and friends."

Eventually, there was an intersection of interests. "After purchasing my horses, I needed to buy all the tack and to outfit myself in riding clothes. I shopped all the tack shops, and found very little in the way of 'barn clothes' that I liked," she says.

While researching fabrics suitable for breeches, Loychuk realized that the materials she preferred were of European origin and not readily available in local stores. "In the meantime, I made up some yoga-style breeches that were a hit at my own barn--which led me to testing the market with this simple breech," she explains. "First store, nice order, sold out in a week. I really wanted to make the breeches in the European fabrics, which led me to a sportswear company in Vancouver, which led to a partnership with them--and Arista was started."

Originally, Arista's focus was on breeches only--and for good reason. "It is an extremely difficult garment to fit," Loychuk explains. "They have to look good, be extremely comfortable and wear well. We have made many changes over the years, always wanting to perfect the fit, and believe now we have maybe the best-fitting breech to be found. We continue to use only the best fabrics and washable leather from Europe."

One success led to another, and before long, Loychuk and company had launched Arista outerwear. It was an opportunity, she says, to create complementary pieces for the breeches--and for riders to start building a collection to which they could add each season. "We started introducing vests and jackets, and then some schooling shirts," she remembers. "The response was very positive, and equestrian fashion was gaining popularity with the tack shops. The riders were loving the availability to purchase specifically designed garments to meet the demands in all of the disciplines."

Every season, Loychuk strives to present beautiful, unique and classic riding apparel. This year is no exception, and Arista starts the spring with some "amazing" show shirts and some great outerwear for schooling and clinics. "My favorite piece is our Modern Competitor show, schooling and clinic jacket," she enthuses. "It has an incredible fit and looks fabulous on. It looks great with a pair of jeans, too!"

Irene Filacchione

Connoisseur Equestrian Collection
301-830-1796; www.connequestrian.com

Irene Filacchione | Photo courtesy of Connoisseur Equestrian Collection

Irene Filacchione | Photo courtesy of Connoisseur Equestrian Collection

The elegance of dressage meets the chic sophistication of European couture in Irene Filacchione's designs for Connoisseur Equestrian Collection.

A rider for more than 20 years, Filacchione's longtime interest in dressage is matched only by her passion for fashion. "My background is in retail with Bloomingdale's and the May Company," the Potomac, Maryland, resident explains. "I was a buyer for many years and did product development overseas for the corporation. But even before I got into retail and worked for the United Nations, my love was always fashion, and I designed my clothes and had them made to my specifications when I lived in Vienna, Austria. So I have a long love affair with fashion design."

As a professional "shopper" who also rides, Filacchione found equestrian clothing sadly wanting in terms of quality, style and performance. So she started her own equestrian clothing company, naming it after a former Region 9 Prix St. George champion she owns. "I founded Connoisseur Equestrian Collection based on my vision of what I wanted to wear when I school my horses," she explains. "I wanted to offer colorful, coordinated, high-quality and chic designs for the woman who is particular about what she wears [when schooling]."

Gone are the grungy jeans and sweats that so many riders wear around the barn. In their place are stylish and practical garments that make clever use of color. "I make it easy to put together a versatile wardrobe in either tonal or contrast color combinations where tops, vests and several jackets (along with socks and matching saddle pads) present a chic, sophisticated look suited for the most discriminating woman," the designer says.

"I feel color--I mean pretty color--is important, and I'm winning over many women who used to wear khaki or whatever color they felt did not 'show' dirt."

These garments also fit well and are comfortable, being made from Filacchione's own washable, durable fabrics--various combinations of triblend (cotton, polyester and spandex) that dry quickly, but that have the look and feel of cotton. "My bonded lightweight jacket repels hay and is the most comfortable jacket in the world," she offers. "[Dressage star] Yvonne Barteau says I should advertise it as 'the best jacket you'll ever own,' and I agree."

"The other thing I consider important is that when you layer my shirt, vest, bonded jacket and quilted jacket on top... they all fit on top of each other in a super-comfortable way--no pinching, no pulling; just a perfect look," she notes.

Not surprisingly, clothes with these characteristics also speak to the general market. "My collections have appealed to the non-rider right from the beginning, as well as to the golfer--and my line can now be found in top resorts worldwide," she attests.

A dedicated businesswoman, Filacchione remains a dedicated horsewoman, as well, lamenting (as many of us do) that she can only ride "as often as my business allows, which is not often enough."

Laurie Rockwell Whittaker
Equine Couture

570-708-JPCE; www.equinecouture.com

Laurie Rockwell Whittaker | Photo courtesy of Equine Couture

Laurie Rockwell Whittaker | Photo courtesy of Equine Couture

Lest you think that formal training is necessary to design equestrian wear, consider the case of Laurie Rockwell Whittaker, who started Equine Couture with just an idea and the drive to develop it.

A longtime horse lover, Whittaker majored in Animal/Veterinary Science at the University of Rhode Island but didn't start riding until after graduation. Then she bought two horses, started training with John Blair and competing in hunters, equitation and jumpers. In 2002, she packed up her horses and headed to Wellington, Fla.

An enterprising sort, Whittaker created a website on which feed stores could post their inventory and customers could place orders 24/7. However, it wasn't yielding the income for which she had hoped. "One day, while at a horse show, I was browsing through one of the vendor booths," she continues. "I had a huge addiction to the Lilly Pulitzer-style belts and ended up buying one with palm trees that day."

Whittaker now considers that the best $75 she ever spent. As she recalls, "I vividly remember sitting in my room when I got home and looking at that belt, thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great to have ribbon trim like this around a saddle pad?'" In one flash of inspiration, Equine Couture was not only born, but off and running. "I quickly started designing my own ribbons, ordering huge amounts from Taiwan... [I also] bought an industrial sewing machine and, within a couple of days, taught myself how to sew this ribbon around the border of a saddle pad. I then began making matching belts, polo wraps and show shirts by sewing the ribbon around the collar, choker and cuffs of the shirt," she says.

In 2004, Whittaker set up a booth at the National Horse Show. By the end of the week, she had sold virtually all of her stock and realized she was onto something. At her first wholesale trade show, the buyers from SmartPak Equine were among the first retailers to approach her. "They were literally screaming with excitement when they saw my items and immediately put one of my saddle pads on the front cover of their catalog!" she exclaims.

Clearly, she had found her mission. "Ever since I began riding, I always felt equestrian clothes, saddle pads, etc., were so plain and boring. Everything was pretty much white, navy, black or hunter--with no fashiony flair whatsoever," she opines. "Being somewhat of a trendy dresser, I would always be able to envision what I'd like to find in a tack store but never be able to find it. I've now luckily landed in a place where I can not only envision something, but actually create it!"

Though Whittaker has sold the Equine Couture trademark to JPC Equestrian, she remains its very-hands-on designer. Her most important concept to date is, without a doubt, the ribbon trimming that launched her business. But if she had to choose a favorite line, it might be her London collection, which is highlighted in the SmartPak catalogs. "It's a very elegant gold bit motif, offered in two color combinations, and featured on coordinating shirts, saddle pads, silk scarves, etc.," she explains. "My other favorite is definitely my chocolate-colored soft shell outerwear jacket with fleece/fur collar and cuffs... as well as my 'Tuscany' stable sheet, which I believe will be the new designer version of the Baker Blanket."

Whittaker has completed her 2009 designs, and is already bursting with new ideas for 2010. "I absolutely love what I do, and feel so blessed to have come as far as I have," she muses. "What started as merely ribbon-trimmed saddle pads, belts and polos has now blossomed into an entire line of show breeches, show coats, outerwear, casual wear, stable sheets, halters, schooling breeches, t-shirts, socks--you name it!"

In conclusion, she says, "I don't necessarily believe it's the training you've had that defines your career path, but more importantly the passion you possess that motivates you to pursue your dreams and attain your goals."

Sheryl Rudolph

Fun in the Saddle/FITS
888-360-FITS; www.fitsriding.com

Sheryl Rudolph | Photo courtesy of Fun in the Saddle/FITS

Sheryl Rudolph | Photo courtesy of Fun in the Saddle/FITS

There are breeches, and then there are the distinctive "full seat" breeches designed by Sheryl Rudolph of Fun in the Saddle/FITS.

For this bold designer, it all started with a horse-loving father and years of riding school mounts or leased horses. In her 20s, her husband of one year surprised Rudolph with a horse of her own: a little Western Pleasure palomino Quarab. As she comments, "I knew I'd married the right guy at that point!"

By her 30s, Rudolph was eventing, and more recently, she has switched to dressage. "I just purchased a Welsh Cob a couple of months ago, and am having the time of my life of my new dressage 'pony,' " she confides. Whatever the future brings, "Horses will always be a part of my life!" she says.

On the design front, Rudolph credits her liberal studies degree with giving her the opportunity to study all kinds of subjects that were of interest to her--from art, design and sewing to business and various design-your-own programs. "I studied at Oregon State University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Lewis and Clark College, and Centre Universitaire of Avignon, France," she says. "I also interned at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.

"I was always interested in sewing and design," she continues. "Once out of school, I went to work as a merchandise manager for Speedo swimwear, where I worked on their racing and fashion swim lines. From there, I went to Pendleton Woolen Mills as a brand manager for two of their menswear lines. After that, I owned a small private label business where I developed product for such companies as Nordstrom [and] Eddie Bauer."

The turning point in Rudolph's career came when she went to work in sales for one of the nation's largest technical fabric mills, H. Warshow & Sons Inc. "At Warshow, my top accounts were Nike, Adidas and Jantzen swim[wear]," she says. "Working and problem solving with the best of the best design minds at Nike led me to combine my career experience in apparel with my passion for horses and riding."

More specifically, "Working with great designers from Nike, Arc'teryx, Jantzen [and] Adidas really re-shaped the way I looked at design as it pertains to athletics," she explains. "I started seeing the intersection between my riding life and professional life as a possible business. I was absolutely consumed by the idea that no one had really developed athletic performance apparel for riders yet."

Rudolph started by designing full-seat breeches, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, her company Fun in the Saddle/FITS still specializes in full-seat breeches with segmented leather panels to allow for maximum range of motion and a deeper, more secure position in the saddle. PerforMAX leather technology is paramount in her designs; the deerskin she uses is dotted with tiny perforations for improved grip, stretchability and breathability. Add to that a gusseted crotch, Powernet four-way stretch panels in strategic places, and body-sculpting fabric, and it's easy to see what makes this garment unique.

These days, FITS has breeches for just about every season and every climate imaginable, as well as all-season breeches with both wicking and warming capabilities.
"We have now been shipping our breeches for a little over two years, and the response has been over the moon," the designer attests. "Our full-seat design is patent pending and is my favorite because it has been so revolutionary and so well received."

FITS has also started making riding shirts in fresh, moisture-wicking "Tech" designs. "Looking ahead, I would love to branch into other equestrian product areas," Rudolph admits. "But so far, I am super busy just trying to keep up with the demand for our breeches!"

Suzanne Vlietstra
Hobby Horse Clothing Co. Inc.

800-569-5885; www.hobbyhorseinc.com

Suzanne Vlietstra | Photo courtesy of Hobby Horse Clothing

Suzanne Vlietstra | Photo courtesy of Hobby Horse Clothing

You know the old story: Santa Claus brings you a pony, and from then on, you're hooked.

Such was the case with Suzanne Vlietstra, founder of Hobby Horse Clothing Company and a resident of California's horse-saturated Chino Hills community. Nowadays, "I'm a non-denominational horse lover, having shown hunters when I was a kid, Arabians, Paints and National Reining Horse Association reining," she says. "And I just bought an American Quarter Horse Association gelding to show in amateur Western events."

Vlietstra's involvement in clothing design began in childhood when, confronted with a horse-crazy daughter in need of riding apparel, her sewing-teacher mother said, "Let's make it!"

By her junior-high years, the entrepreneurial youngster was making horse blankets. "Then I learned to make chaps, and added more rider apparel over the years," she recalls. "I am self-taught in the school of experience, but have been very fortunate to have a series of caring mentors who each added something important to my design or business experiences."

Since she rides and shows a variety of horses, Vlietstra serves as a guinea pig for many of her Western designs. "We also have a very vocal group of customers that share their likes and dislikes about our products!" she notes. "Being in the thick of the horse world and surrounded by like-minded and very clever women is a fertile field for making new and improved versions of so many things we need to support our horsey habits."

She considers the "Ready-To-Win" show apparel concept, which debuted about 15 years ago (and which she has trademarked), one of her most important contributions to date. "Before Hobby Horse, there was either custom Western apparel or there was off-the-rack Western wear," she explains. "So you either spent a fortune and waited a long time to have things made, or you had to make do with masculine-looking Western wear.

"After quite a few years in the custom business myself, I looked around and realized that I saw very few naked people, and made the great leap to realizing that very few people require custom-made clothing in real life, and hoped that revelation would prove true for women's show apparel. It did."

Because of her custom-design and pattern-fitting experience, Vlietstra claims she can accommodate about 80 percent of her female clients with her range of girls', women's, plus and even toddler sizes. "If you have a horse show this weekend, you can call Hobby Horse today and have a box of show apparel on your doorstep tomorrow," she says. "If something doesn't fit, or you don't love it, send it back. Or visit one of the more than 100 Hobby Horse dealers around the world and play Barbie. Hobby Horse makes show apparel shopping fun and easy!"

Style, value and convenience are also evident in her Limited Edition program, which features garments made in small batches and in unusual designs and fabrics. And by the way, Hobby Horse's lines are color-coordinated with saddle blankets, hats and more.

"My goal is to never forget I was a horse-crazy kid whose family couldn't afford to spend a mint on good-quality show equipment, and that, even today, it shouldn't cost a fortune to go around in circles," Vlietstra muses. "Ordinary people deserve to look great when they compete, and we try to help make that happen."

Along those lines, her company has recently started the Hobby Horse Rookie Rewards program, which gives $100 gift certificates and ribbons to shows that hold Rookie Rewards Walk-Trot Horsemanship classes. "I'm very excited to be able to do something for those at the beginning of their show career, to help encourage them to ride, show and improve their skills," Vlietstra says.

Kerri Kent
Kerrits Equestrian Apparel

800-274-7946; www.kerrits.com

Kerri Kent | Photo courtesy of Kerrits Equestrian Apparel

Kerri Kent | Photo courtesy of Kerrits Equestrian Apparel

"Horses have been my passion for as long as I can remember, even before I could talk!" admits Kerri Kent, dedicated outdoors type and founder of Kerrits Equestrian Apparel. "As a young girl growing up in Canada, I did everything I could to be involved in the horse community. I cleaned stalls in exchange for riding lessons. I took every opportunity I could to be around horses. When I moved to Hood River, Oregon, in the mid '80s to be a competitive windsurfer, I had the chance to live on a small farm so I could have horses of my own."

Wait--did she say "competitive windsurfer"? It gets better, as Kent's introduction to apparel design actually came in the context of the ski industry (that's right, the ski industry). "In 1986, I used what I learned about the construction and manufacturing of performance garments and started my own swim and active wear company, branded as Kerrits Activewear," she explains. "The niche it filled was simple: providing functional clothing that looked great, too! In 1991, I took an opportunity to design a line of equestrian apparel that combined my knowledge of technical performance fabrics with my passion for horses. Kerrits Equestrian Apparel was born!"

As Kent explains, Hood River abounds with outdoor sports from windsurfing and skiing to mountain biking and riding horses--making it the ideal proving ground for performance fabrics and garments made from these fabrics. "Hot or cold, rain or shine, it is understood: Dress for your sport and the weather that comes with it," she says. "Being a rider and manufacturer here, I am in the unique position to test products in a variety of conditions."

Kent especially enjoys finding innovative ways to use performance fabrics in riding clothes. "For example, from working with ski vendors, I developed a synthetic leather fabric that would provide riders with a no-slip grip," she maintains. "I named the fabric GripTek and use it in a variety of ways in the Kerrits line: the fullseat of the Sit Tight, the palm of the GripTek Glove and (instead of leather) in our GripTek Gaitor."

Her favorite design from Kerrits' 2008 line? The Bootcut Tight. "The slimming silhouette and casual cut allows me to wear it to work, pick up my son, go the grocery store and hop on my horse for a ride," she says. "It's the perfect multi-tasker for working moms on the go!"

Yes, as busy as she is, Kent still rides. Her current herd includes five homebred Dutch Warmbloods, and when she gets the opportunity, she loves to event. "The balance of my time is spent working on the family cattle ranch in Washington," she adds. "Riding in a variety of disciplines at the ranch and eventing gives me a variety of experience that inspires my designs."

It's obvious that Kent loves what she does. "I enjoy the challenge of the business and the opportunity to create new and exciting clothing for riders," she says. "I take pride in the fact that each finished product is a true team effort, drawing on my own riding experience, the knowledge of my staff and input from our team riders to create the clothing we call Kerrits.

"The next frontier for me is finding new ways to manufacture [with] minimal impact on the environment," she continues. To that end, look for Kerrits' new division, g.r.a.s.s., which features green riding apparel for style and sustainability.

Lorna Goode and Kristin Calandra
Goode Rider

415-637-6226; www.gooderider.com

Lorna Goode | Photo courtesy of Goode Rider

Lorna Goode | Photo courtesy of Goode Rider

What do two young women and a pair of Levis have in common? A lot, if they are Lorna Goode and Kristin Calandra of Goode Rider, a California-based company with a fresh approach to equestrian clothing.

Over five years ago, both women were working at Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, Calif.--Goode as the designer for Dockers, and Calandra as Dockers' brand manager. Goode had attended Sweden's Ester Mosessons College, majoring in Fashion Design and furthering her education in the United States with another degree from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Calandra had majored in Fashion Merchandising at the University of Delaware before heading to New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, where she majored in Fashion Design and Merchandising.

Another thing they had in common was a love of horses. Calandra is a longtime equestrian, while Goode competes at Third Level dressage. So it was only natural that they should turn their talents to equestrian fashion.

Kristin Calandra | Photo courtesy of Goode Rider

Kristin Calandra | Photo courtesy of Goode Rider

As Goode explains on their website, "We were tired of looking frumpy and dirty, coming from the barn." Calandra echoes that thought. "In today's busy lifestyle, who has time to go home and change?" she says. "We created a look where you don't have to."

The Goode Rider look starts with the latest performance fabrics and technologies. Most of the company's creations boast Stain Stopper, a waterproof finish designed to keep you clean and dry. Other performance innovations include the Stretch Ultra Seat/Knee, a full seat with stretch for ultimate comfort in the saddle, and the Stretch Custom Fit Waistband.

But above all, Goode Rider apparel--which ranges from breeches, jackets and coats to vests, shirts and sweaters--flatters the female body. "We are the 'divas' when it comes to fit!" exclaims Calandra, noting that Goode Rider breeches are a standout in that department.

Other noteworthy designs include Goode Rider's "famous" dressage coat (see the summer 2008 issue of Everything for Horse & Rider) and the Aviator Program for fall 2008. The latter, according to Calandra, is a "really fun, washed-down, vintage looking program that consists of an aviator-styled jacket and vest with a leopard lining!"

Check out the summer 2008 issue of Everything For Horse & Rider. To order, call 301-977-3900 ext. 0.