Editor’s note: Aurora Tights is hosting a webinar tonight (April 19) at 7 EST for coaches, performers, retailers and parents. It will discuss major gaps for diverse performers within the dance and ice skating sports and what a more inclusive future can look like in these spaces.
Above: Aurora Tights founders Imani Rickerby, Jasmine Snead and Sydney Parker display their brand.
By Blair Bryant
There is an incredible amount of privilege in being able to walk into a store and easily find items that match your skin color or size. For those who reside outside of this privilege, finding anything from makeup to tights, and everything in between, can be a daunting, and often isolating, experience — the contrast between your skin and clothing only emphasizing your status as an outsider, the minority.
For Aurora Tights founders Jasmine Snead, Sydney Parker and Imani Rickerby, the slogan “Perform in Color” is more than a motto; it’s a way of life.
Their experiences as Black women in figure skating and dance inspired them to create a performance wear line in which all athletes, no matter their size or skin color, feel represented and are able to perform at their best.
From hand-dying tights in their college apartment at the University of Maryland to working with manufacturers to meet the growing demand, the Aurora Tights story is one of sisterhood, resiliency and the power of community.
The inspiration comes from the founders’ own experiences. Snead, a competitive figure skater, had to dye her own tights due to darker-toned tights not being accessible. While her coaches encouraged her to wear the tights that matched her, working to get a shade that fit her was time-consuming, messy and often expensive.
Rickerby, a synchronized skater, spent her entire competitive career in tights and dresses that did not match her complexion; she often felt isolated because she didn’t feel as confident as she should have when it came time to compete.
Parker had a similar experience as a darker-skinned dancer unable to perform in apparel that truly matched her. These experiences paved the way for them to create an environment of inclusion, where each performer’s individuality can be embraced.
Members of Delta Sigma Theta, a historically African American sorority, Snead, Parker and Rickerby continued their involvement in figure skating and dance in college, with Snead and Rickerby skating on the University of Maryland’s synchronized skating team and later coaching at the local rink, and Parker performing as a member of the university’s dance team.
As coaches, Snead and Rickerby were able to instruct a generation of young diverse skaters, but they also saw the cycle repeat itself with their students not being able to find tights that matched their complexion.
“We had this team that was so diverse, so beautiful, but they were still stuck in pale, ugly tights,” Rickerby said.
Sharing this experience with Parker, they took the initiative to meet the needs of the young performers.
The launch of an empire
Snead, Parker and Rickerby began by dying tights on their own, but quickly realized that hand-dying would no longer be able to meet the demand. Working alongside the University of Maryland Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, they were able to figure out the next steps necessary to bring their passion project to scale.
Startup funding came from winning $15,000 from the Pitch Dingman Competition, a “Shark Tank”-style of competition for student entrepreneurs at the University of Maryland in 2019. Snead also went on to win the Student Entrepreneur of the Year award that same year.
After working tirelessly to find manufacturers that were able to provide the product they needed, Aurora Tights officially launched on March 7, 2019, with three shades, each named after a performer who inspired it.
Their initial launch shades were named Debbie, in honor of actress and performer Debbie Allen; Rory, in honor of former competitor and professional skater Rory Flack; and Surya, in honor of three-time World silver medalist Surya Bonaly of France.
The reception was incredible, and people wanted more.
A few months later, Aurora Tights added shades on both the deeper and fairer sides of the spectrum, growing its shade range from three hues to five and adding children’s sizes.
This rapid growth allowed the founders to take a moment to reflect on their hard work and truly find what motivates them as business owners.
“We made this big transition and had to ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Snead said. “We are doing this for the people who inspire us, the community we’re a part of, the kids we are teaching and the coaches who taught us.”
The Aurora Tights business model is to support its customers and community, a commitment that can be seen in the names of its shades, in its dedication to inclusive sizing and its openness to the feedback to influence the brand’s next steps. Its Inclusivity Project is an initiative driven by surveys and community focus groups to ensure customers have a say in what they want to see from the brand moving forward.
The present and the future
The year 2020 was looking strong for Aurora Tights, but the pandemic brought a halt to large-scale events where their tights truly stand out. With many rinks and dance studios closed, they launched their apparel line to support athletes as they continued to train in preparation for when they could perform again. Aurora’s “Stay Ready” campaign provided customers with training apparel while remaining engaged with customers over social media, hosting giveaways and challenges.
This past year also brought about incredible business growth. Aurora Tights began selling in stores (now in six states), launched a remote summer internship program and onboarded a fulfilment center.
With the Black Lives Matter movement highlighting racial injustices in America, the Black, woman-owned business used the moment to highlight the incredible Black performers within its community.
With its semi-annual sale in the summer of 2020, Aurora Tights highlighted the resilience of Black athletes in figure skating and dance, showing that they, too, can perform as their most authentic selves in apparel made with them in mind. Later last summer, Aurora Tights used its platform to host its first Perform in Color Showcase.
“A core value of our business is to increase the retention and accessibility of these performance sports to minority athletes, and a lot of our nonprofit partners are working daily toward this mission,” Parker said.
Last summer, Aurora Tights’ fundraiser highlighting diverse performers raised $13,000 for nonprofits such as Figure Skating in Harlem, Diversify Ice and the Figure Skating Diversity & Inclusion Alliance.
“As servant leaders, we’re creating products for others, which has been our driving force throughout,” Snead said.
Similar to the northern lights, for which the company is named, the sky appears to be the limit for Aurora Tights.