“When I started looking at running apparel, everything looked exactly the same,” says Matt Taylor. “If you went into a running store and took the brand logos off all the T-shirts, you’d have absolutely no idea what belonged to what brand.”
Taylor is the founder and CEO of Tracksmith, which was established in 2014 as the purveyor of running kit that is classic and low key, yet instantly recognisable. The company eschews the eye-watering shades of the big brands – acid yellow, vomit green, sickly pink – for more muted shades and timeless styles, with the same palette for men and women. And while the likes of Nike and Adidas will always dominate market share, smaller premium brands with their own distinct ethos have started to make headway: Tracksmith and Oiselle in the US, Soar and Iffley Road in the UK.
One thing these brands have in common is that they seem to “get” running in a way that the big brands, with their huge markets, multiple sports and obsession with fitness influencers, don’t. Their messages are pitched at the enthusiastic regular, perhaps a club runner – certainly someone interested in performance as well as participation. Though if you follow Tracksmith on social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone who works for the company is ridiculously hardcore. Last month, the manager of its Trackhouse store in Boston, Louis Serafini, ran a sub-four-minute mile. Eric Ashe, the head of logistics, is a 2hr 17min marathon runner.
Is running, I ask, obligatory for Tracksmith employees? Taylor laughs. “Culturally, there are a lot of nuances in our sport that are important to understand. They can be learned but it does help if you come from that background.” (Taylor himself ran track in college.)
“The athletes we use in all our marketing are, for want of a better word, sub-elite,” Taylor says. “They aren’t professional and they don’t have contracts with other brands, but they are competing at a high level. All of them work full-time jobs and it’s a hobby – a passion, not a profession.” Some of these athletes have even gone on to work for the company directly.
Until relatively recently, the market for premium running brands was small and faced a backlash from purists who viewed (many still do) paying £50 for leggings as insane, possibly even borderline insulting. Yet where cycling led – with brands such as Rapha going mainstream – running was always bound to follow.
“My theory on this,” says Taylor, “is that footwear has always led the industry. And if you look at the price points of shoes over the last 10-15 years, the upper limit of what the market will bear, it’s just gone crazy. Not too long ago, if a shoe was $100, it would be like, “Wow, a hundred dollars for a shoe!”. And now that’s pretty much the entry point, with $150 or $175 the new norm. So what we always assumed was that apparel would follow. Now, that is happening: if you walk into a Nike store they have shorts or a tank top for $80. There’s always been this idea that runners are cheap, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.”
Indeed, though running can be a cheap sport, there are nevertheless plenty of runners with disposable incomes. But I ask Taylor about the resistance I constantly see to anything perceived as expensive in running – the “all you need is a cheap pair of Green Flash” school of thought.
“We make so many of those choices in our everyday lives,” Taylor says. ”If you applied that to everything, everyone would drive the worst car, drink the cheapest coffee. No one would go to yoga classes, they’d do it at home in their living room. People indulge in the things they care about. And lots of people care about running.”
Tracksmith’s collections are indeed inspired by people who cared about running. The sash design on its best-selling vest comes from those worn at Cornell University in the late 19th century, when athletes who scored points in the league championship earned a satin sash sewn over their singlets. And the Boston marathon – the world’s oldest annual marathon – is at the heart of what the company does. It was based at the halfway point of the course and is now very near the finish line, and produces kit for the race each year. However, in 2018, it has been expanding to include ranges for other races, including a kit for the Tokyo marathon and now one for London.
“We do have a big customer base in the UK and Japan,” says Taylor. “And of course the World Marathon Majors are a moment in time where a lot of people in our sport are paying attention. For London we have created a small capsule collection. We’ve found inspiration can be really simple – in this case it’s the colours of the union jack. It’s a way for us to celebrate one of these major events in our sport. And of course we love the history: few people in the US know this, but London was the birthplace of the 26.2 distance. I love those stories and its fun to dig them up.”