Sally Bergesen launched Oiselle in 2007 with an idea for running shorts that didn’t poof and a bigger question: What would it look like to start a running apparel company by women, for women?
The difference would start with the clothes. They’d fit right, move well, and look good. The combination has fueled the company’s consistent growth over the past nearly decade and a half, and has even paid off during a pandemic. Seattle-based Oiselle’s online sales shot up in April and stayed strong—in part because gyms were closed and more people turned to running, but also because work-from-home culture accelerated an existing trend toward performance fabrics in everyday life, Bergesen believes.
“I’m all for it, not just because it’s my business, but because we believe that when you are comfortable in your body and in your clothes, it’s a form of self-care and self-respect,” the founder and CEO says. “Historically there’s been this lens of fashion, that whole beauty is pain line of thinking, that I think is dated. Women know that ultimately, the way you feel impacts the way you think.”
The contrast would continue when it came to elite athlete sponsorships. As a startup, Bergesen knew Oiselle couldn’t compete with the bigger names and deeper pocketbooks of established brands. Besides, the more she and her staff learned about standard runner contracts and the way they penalized things like injury and pregnancy, the more fiercely they rejected the status quo.
Instead, Oiselle aimed to support its elites in a way that valued more than their medals and podium spots. Athletes have stories to tell, Bergesen knew. Narrative deepened their connection to fans; it also, she suspected, would move more product.
They signed their first elite, Lauren Fleshman, in 2013, when she was pregnant with her first child. Her value wasn’t just her performances—though she had those, including two U.S. Championship titles in the 5,000 meters—but her blog and her other ventures, including Picky Bars and Believe Training Journals. Her compensation included stock and a role in shaping the business.
Now, Oiselle’s payroll of pros features three athlete-advisors—Fleshman, Kara Goucher, and Alison Mariella Désir, who joined this summer. The company supports them as much for their activism and thought leadership as their athletic accomplishments, and each has input into Oiselle’s direction.
The Haute Volée, the company’s roster of competitive elites, has expanded to more than 40 diverse women, including field athletes like discus thrower Valarie Allman and pole vaulter Megan Clark, pushrim racer Jenna Fesemyer, and Littlewing Athletics, a team coached by Fleshman in Bend, Oregon, that prides itself on putting runners’ health first.
They’re all part of the sisterhood Bergesen has aimed to build, and that she’s recently deepened her commitment to making more inclusive. When Ahmaud Arbery was killed, and then George Floyd, she sought to deepen her own understanding of racism—then act on it. How could Oiselle do better on issues of race as a company, and by extension, influence the running community? “More than anything, it awakened in us a desire to be a part of what the future could be,” she says.
So Oiselle brought on Désir, along with diversity and inclusion consultant Courtney Carter, a marathoner and active member of the company’s 4,000-strong Volée running community. (Carter had already helped shape the company’s product line—Bergesen hesitated to offer visors, saying they made her feel like a tennis player, until Carter pointed out many women of color couldn’t fit their hair in hats). In addition to their individual roles, both now serve on an advisory group meeting quarterly to guide the company’s progress.
Oiselle’s anti-racist efforts include everything from small details—for instance, filtering job descriptions through screening software to root out unintentionally discriminatory language—to grand gestures. Last summer, Oiselle teamed up with Désir’s grassroots activist group Run 4 All Women to host the Womxn Run the Vote virtual relay. Through it, around 10,000 runners logged miles, learned about voting-rights history, and raised nearly $300,000 for the non-profit Black Voters Matter. The event was such a success—“an aha moment of women coming together across different boundaries and barriers,” as Bergesen describes it—that they plan to hold another relay with a different focus in 2021.
Commerce and commitments to social justice haven’t always been easy companions, Bergesen acknowledges. For instance, when the brand donated 100 percent of its Global Running Day sales to the Loveland Foundation, some questioned why people should have to make a purchase to support the cause. Bergesen takes the point to heart, knowing that the brand as a whole, and she as a leader, have more to learn. “I don’t think we have all the answers,” she says. “But as Alison has reminded me—it’s a commitment to imperfection. You’re going to get it wrong or take a step somebody doesn’t agree with. It sucks when it happens, but doing nothing is worse.”
Meanwhile, as the company continues to evolve, so do the clothes. In fall 2020, Oiselle extended its sizing to fit more body types, introducing a new collection with styles up to size 24/26. In January, they’ll begin offering band- and cup-sized bras, with more support for larger cup sizes. The Runaway Bride collection—popular with speedy newlyweds since 2009—now sports a tuxedo shirt as a non-binary option.
It’s all part of bringing that confidence to all types of women, both in their athletic goals and the rest of their lives. “Runners are uniquely suited to be leaders on in any number of areas, whether that’s politics or social justice or community endeavors,” she says. And no matter what you do when you’re wearing them, “we’re making garments that help you feel strong from the inside out.”
This profile was first published in the Winter 2021 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Women Who Lead: Power Women of 2021” which celebrates 25 women who are reshaping the running industry for the better. You can see the full list of honorees here.