Controversial Executive Jennifer Sey Launches New Activewear Line

As a former competitive gymnast and a seasoned fashion executive, Jennifer Sey doesn’t shy away from the controversial, and her new company, XX-XY Athletics, is no exception.

The just-launched direct-to-consumer brand XX-XY refers to the XY-sex determination system that is used to classify many mammals, including humans. The way Sey sees it, the activewear company’s debut comes at a time when elite women athletes are at risk of losing the protections of Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any federally funded educational programs, including sports. Sey takes issue with the movement to redefine women’s sports as for anyone who identifies as a woman under what she sees as the false assertion that male bodied athletes do not have physical advantages over girls and woman.

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XX-XY press material reinforces that notion: “If the premise that allows for trans-identified males to compete in women’s sports is taken to its conclusion — that there are no physical differences between the sexes — women’s sports will eventually cease to exist.”

In addition to spelling out her views and the brand’s ethos during a recent interview, Sey is working with a few controversial athletes, including former collegiate swimmers Riley Gaines and Paula Scanlan and advocates like Chloe Cole, to spread the word. Sey contends that “the single biggest determinant in athletic performance is biological sex and people are too afraid to speak up to say, ‘This needs to be fair. Girls and women need an even playing field.’ When you come up with another solution, everybody has a right to compete. Everybody has a chance when you come up with an open category. This is not about exclusion,” she said.

Sey has spoken out about women’s sports before. A former seven-time member of the U.S. women’s national team and the 1986 all-around national champion, she detailed abuse in the sport in her first memoir, “Chalked Up,” in 2008 and followed that up by producing the 2020 Netflix documentary “Athlete A” about sexual abuse at the Olympics level, including the crimes of Larry Nasser.

“It seems so commonplace now since the [Larry] Nassar scandal and #MeToo, but it’s hard to describe how scary it was to stand up and say it [in 2008] and how controversial it was,” she said, alleging that she was threatened verbally and with legal action. “But it was important to stand up to say that young athletes were being harmed.”

Sey, a mother of four, has faced controversy before, having publicly criticized the extended closure of San Francisco’s public schools during the pandemic. After 23 years, she exited Levi Strauss & Co. as brand president and focused on her own creative projects. Her documentary “Generation COVID” about the impact of the pandemic on students is in post-production. Sey said she had not planned to start her own company, but expected to return to the industry to work for another firm after a few years. But the interview process made her decide to “succeed or fail on her own terms” instead of working for someone else.

At 55, Sey is not interested in listening to other people tell her how to do this, what’s wrong with her, what she doesn’t know or that she doesn’t know how to speak to women. She said, “I’m just done with people telling me I don’t have enough experience, I’m too controversial, or don’t know digital even though I led e-commerce for one of the biggest brands in the world for three years.”

XX-XY Athletics’ name refers to the XY chromosomal sex determination system.

The initial investment in XX-XY is seven figures and the first-year projected retail volume is also seven figures, Sey said. Based on conversations with founders and research of start-ups that emerged in the past 10 years (including several in the $40 million to $60 million volume range), Sey said most had first-year volumes between $1 million and $2 million.

The XX-XY first drop consists of casual cotton T-shirts, sweats and other products made in Peru, and the second drop will be performance-driven pieces produced in Vietnam. The premium line retails from $40 for a T-shirt to $110 for joggers. Some of the proceeds from a collaborative T-shirt will support the Independent Council on Women’s Sports (ICONS), the nonprofit that is funding the lawsuit against the NCAA for allowing men who identify as transgender to participate in women’s sports. Gaines is among the 16 athletes who filed that suit to challenge the NCAA’s guidelines.

Of the opinion that “brands can inform and influence culture in really powerful ways,” Sey pointed to Dove’s body positivity beauty campaign, Nike’s mainstreaming exercise, and how Lululemon’s expansion into China sparked greater interest in yoga as examples. “The biggest contribution we can make is normalizing this idea of speaking truth and standing up for girls’ and women’s sports and spaces.”

Referencing the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statement in delivering a 1996 court opinion, “Physical differences between men and women are enduring. The two sexes are not fungible,” Sey said, “That remains as true today, as when she said it. Again, I don’t think this is a left versus right issue. This is a truth issue.”

The new brand is trying to create a movement to protect women’s sports for women.

But XX-XY “can’t just be about the message, but has to also be about outstanding products,” the Denver-based founder said. Contrary to her expectations that people might be “too nervous” to join the team, seven “very enthusiastic and experienced” people are on board. However, a few models and the modeling agency pulled out of the brand’s first shoot at the last-minute last month without any explanation. “I expect there will be people, who are afraid to stand with us, and that’s OK…this is probably one of the most controversial issues of the day. Everyone is afraid of being called a bigot or anti-trans. Look at what happened to [‘Harry Potter’ author] J.K. Rowling for saying biological sex is real. One of the most beloved writers of our time has been dragged through the mud.”

Despite feeling “very confident” about XX-XY, Sey said, “I know this is going to be a slog and very hard. I am not naïve. I know the success rates are slim, but I have faith in my team and my ability. We’re really disciplined and hardworking. We’re going to make amazing product and emotionally uplifting content to support the brand. I’m excited for everybody to see it, embrace it and join this movement with us.”

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