The running world is finally starting to pay attention to Seattle. After years of focusing on athlete breeding grounds like Portland and Boulder, the industry has had to reassess the Emerald City now that two high-profile runners—Lauren Fleshman and Kara Goucher—have broken up with longtime sponsor Nike for tiny Seattle-based Oiselle.
Oiselle (pronounced wa-zell) is the brainchild of Sally Bergesen, a collegiate runner who went on to spend 10 years as a brand strategist for big corporations like Microsoft and Nordstrom. She never left the running world, though, and when she looked at the industry in the mid-2000s she saw a marketplace dominated by dude-run shoe companies that weren’t serving their female customers. “Many offerings are a subset of a bigger product puzzle led by an all-male team,” she says of the products made by the big guys. “I’m not against all-male teams; I just don’t think they’re well-suited to design and produce great women’s apparel.”
Bergesen saw two gaps to fill. She wanted to take women seriously as a part of the running market and prove that small brands could be more nimble and make high-quality female-specific gear. Women purchase more than half of all running shoes and in 2013 accounted for 57 percent of 10K participants and 61 percent of half-marathon racers. But Bergesen found a lot of the available clothing to be ill fitting and not fashionable. She wanted running gear she wasn’t embarrassed to wear.
In 2007 she launched Oiselle and gained a modest following of lady runners who loved its shorts and graphic tees, but the company remained relatively under the radar until two-time 5K track and field champ Fleshman joined the team in July 2013, followed by two-time Olympian Goucher this March. Goucher liked Oiselle’s gear, but she also liked its small-batch approach to production and the way it supports its athletes. Sponsored athletes—which also include middle-distance runner Kate Grace—help decide what gets produced and are relatively hands on. Bergesen stresses how much Oiselle depends on its athletes to shape what they’re doing and make sure the gear—like the flagship Roga shorts, which combine the waistband of yoga pants with the lightweight material of running shorts—actually perform. “I feel grateful we’re not another Lulu knockoff,” she says.
Because female runners span a broad swath between Green Lake mommy joggers and competitive athletes, the company makes everything from competition briefs to a new running wedding dress, which is white, wicking, and has a pocket for your ring. “We always have fun cross-pollinating running and popular culture,” Bergesen says. And that all-inclusive attitude even extends to how the gear is presented: This fall a Oiselle contingent is headed to New York Fashion Week, where they’ll use athletes instead of stick-thin runway walkers as models. “I’m really looking forward to putting more strong athlete bodies on the runway,” Bergesen says.
Thanks to Oiselle’s rise, Bergesen is confident that Seattle’s stock in the running world will keep going up. “It’s the best running city in the world,” she says. “I’ve traveled a lot, to a lot of cities, and I firmly stand by that statement.”
This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.