In early 2014, Olympic runner Kara Goucher threw the running world into a veritable tizzy when she ditched her billion-dollar longtime sponsor Nike for Oiselle, a small “women’s apparel” startup company in Seattle.
Nike sponsorship is the golden ticket for most professional athletes. But somehow Oiselle wooed a world-class runner away from a seven-figure paycheck.
Who on earth were these sporty Svengalis?
Started in 2007 by Sally Bergesen, Oiselle is an online running apparel shop with more in mind than outfitting the buffest bods. After raising two children, Bergesen decided to end her hiatus from competitive running and get back into serious training. When she went to running shops to buy a new pair of shorts, she was dismayed by the athletic clothes out there for women. “Too poofy, too baggy, too high-waisted, and all wrong in the color department” she says.
So she decided to create her own company and named it Oiselle (pronounced wa-zell), the French word for “bird,” to convey the sense of freedom that she felt when running. But Bergensen wanted her company to be about more than just selling clothing. She envisioned Oiselle as a company dedicated to celebrating female athletes of all stripes. She created a list of her company’s most important principles: “We want to raise the ante in showing how women can support other women. To go further with the sisterhood, fostering strength and leadership not just in competition, but through every action, every day.”
So when it came time to show her clothes during Fashion Week, Oiselle skipped the super-models and put real-world athletes on the catwalk. (And not just the super-svelte ones, either.) Professional hammer-thrower Britney Henry (pictured above) strutted right down that stage at 6’8, 165 pounds. And she rocked it.
But it was important to Bergensen that her company help women develop strength in more than just their muscles, and in women outside of their team of athletes. She reached out to former supermodel Christy Turlington Burns after discovering her work with Every Mother Counts (EMC), a charity dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for mothers everywhere, from Haiti to Florida.
In addition to encouraging runners to fundraise for the charity, Oiselle created the EMC Collection, where 40 percent of the apparel line’s proceeds are given directly to the charity.
Oiselle’s track record sounds great for a do-gooder. After all, it includes giving away profits to charity, forgoing willowy fashion models for women whose bodies are trained to hurl ten pound weights for a living, and assembling a team of runners whose best attributes are not just their speed, but their passion. But are these kinds of companies something Wall Street’s going to get excited about investing in? Not historically. So how’s this whole “let’s make the world a better place for women” thing working for the bottom line?
Brilliantly. The company reached $10 million in revenue in 2013 and it completed its second round of funding this spring.
Runner Kara Goucher explains the reason she left a seven figure contract behind to become part of Oiselle: “I could not believe how this company seemed to operate with such honesty and integrity. They put importance on family and empowering other women.” By welcoming runners whose half-marathon records are two hours longer than Goucher’s, Oiselle has created a family of female fitness enthusiasts (or as Oiselle calls them, their “flock”) who keep returning to a brand that makes them feel strong.