The words “timeless” and “classic” rarely come up when talking about running apparel. You hear a lot about “moisture-wicking properties” and “strategically-placed reflectivity” but those aren’t exactly the kinds of phrases that get you excited to thrown on a particular T-shirt or pair of shorts.
As such, your running gear ends up being something you put on because it serves a purpose but not much else. You don’t Instagram a new pair of running shorts the same way you would new running sneakers. You simply put them on, go for your run, and then take them off without much ceremony when you’ve finished.
Tracksmith is a new brand that is trying to change the way we feel about our running apparel, and about running in general. Deeply rooted in the culture of running as sport (track & field, cross country, etc.) as opposed to running as fitness activity, Tracksmith’s apparel is purposefully designed to move with you naturally, and yes, wick moisture. But it also pays tribute to running’s heritage and the spirit of competition and camaraderie that is inherent in the sport. And that heritage also happens to have a ton of style.
Tracksmith’s collection of shirts, sweatshirts, and shorts have a preppy aesthetic that calls to mind everything from Chariots Of Fire to Dead Poets Society. They’re running clothes you’ll be psyched to wear even when you aren’t running. But all of the garments are built with a focus on performance, they just don’t announce that fact with a whole bunch of neon colors.
To find out more about the Wellesley, Massachusetts-based brand, which just celebrated its first year in business, we caught up with founder Matt Taylor, a former steeplechase runner at Yale, to talk about Tracksmith’s design sensibilities, the current athleisure trend, and his running heroes.
What made you want to start Tracksmith?
I’ve been a runner my entire life and I’ve worked in the industry for about a decade. Honestly I just wanted to make running matter again. It’s the oldest and most accessible sport but everything about it has been watered down.
What do you mean by watered down?
I think there’s been a massive shift over the last five to eight years where running brands have become much more about general health and wellness. That’s a larger market, but I think a little bit has been lost about the sport and what’s made it so unique and its history and heritage.
What are the kind of running stories that you’re attracted to?
We’re huge champions of the amateur spirit that this sport was founded on. When you look at the professional side of sports and the just-do-it-at-all-cost approach, I think that’s hurt a lot of sports. It has hurt running; it has hurt cycling. But the amateur spirit is still alive and we want to bring it back to the forefront. It’s about training hard and wanting to get better and being competitive but doing it the right way and for the right reasons.
What were you doing before launching the brand?
I was head of global marketing for running and training at Puma. I left there a little before the 2012 Olympics and worked with Usain Bolt directly and we launched an iPhone video game. That gave me a bit of a bridge time-wise and finance-wise to start working full time on Tracksmith.
How would you describe the brand’s aesthetic?
It’s classic and simple and quite easy to wear. We put a lot of focus on fit of the garment. Our color palette is quite distinct in running specifically because everything else is so loud to give the impression that something is technical when in reality it’s not. A lot of inspiration comes from New England. We’re based here and it’s the heart and soul of the running culture globally. There’s a lot of that classic New England menswear that you can see influencing some of the direction.
Do you see crossover applications for these garments outside of running?
Absolutely. We know that products that are designed to move well and keep you warm when it’s cold and dry when it’s wet will have a pretty strong crossover appeal. But everything we design is very purposeful for running. It keeps us focused. We design for running first and then just let the market decide what’s a nice looking short and what’s not.
Are most running companies are over-engineering products for customers that don’t really need it?
Maybe it’s the reverse. I think there’s a bit of faux-technology. The reality is textile innovation moves quite slowly compared to technology innovation. We’re accustomed now to need a new phone every two years, but we still talk about Gore-Tex and Dri-Fit even though they’re decades-old textile technologies. Nike really led this idea of being very innovative and it’s forced brands to try and keep up with this expected rate of innovation. Once you put your hat in the ring that what you do is faster or lighter, you can’t come out with a new product and say it’s slower or it’s heavier. You’re just in this rat race. I think our products are more engineered in the sense that we think about every component that goes into the product and every seam and how it gets sewn. The reality is that not every single garment needs to be super technical for it to work for a 30-minute or an hour run. It’s just about being a lot more thoughtful about how the garments are put together.
How do you stay out of that rat race and then still be new and fresh year after year?
I guess that’s a question for three to five years from now. It’s easy now because our product process is very conceptually led. We start with a very strong concept of a product that we want to create or some problem we want to solve. Our product pipeline list is massively long. We’re just scratching the surface.
Do you think that the athleisure bubble is getting ready to burst? Are more people finding Tracksmith because of the trend?
I don’t think it’s ready to burst any time soon. There’s certainly some people who see the brand as fitting in that space but once they really dig into it they realize there’s a lot more there. But are we benefitting from that trend of better looking activewear? Yeah, for sure we are.
What was the biggest thing you took away from your experience as a collegiate runner?
My primary event was steeplechase but I ran the mile and the 1500m and 5k quite a bit as well. I think the biggest takeaway from that experience was the cultural piece of it, being a part of a team. It put me on a path of just being passionate about the sport.
Who are your running heroes?
On the U.S. side it was Frank Shorter who was also a Yale graduate. I actually worked at the archives at Yale when I was there and discovered all these old photos of Frank in his Yale varsity jacket and stuff from the Olympics in ‘72. Then when I got to Boston and was digging into the culture here I learned more about the story of Bill Rogers. He’s a national hero, but in Boston, he’s revered. Also in my career I got to work a lot with some of the top Kenyan runners and marathoners, guys like Moses Tanui and Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat.
Obviously sneaker brands play such a big role in this space. Do you see footwear as part of your future plans?
The history of entry for the industry has definitely been footwear led. But at the same time two brands that have sort of changed that are Lululemon and Under Armour which were very apparel led. On the one hand, I think maybe there’s another way to approach it. On the other hand, to answer your question, yes, [footwear] is absolutely something we talk about. I think the bigger vision is we don’t plan to be an apparel company forever. We look at running lifestyle and what’s useful there. Obviously apparel, footwear and accessories. But also events and media are quite attractive. We have a quarterly magazine that we do called Meter that we are getting off the ground.
You did a collaboration with George Dole who competed with Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute barrier in the mile. Dole isn’t the most well-known athlete. Why was it important to tell his story?
I think that’s a really good example of what’s core to our larger vision of the brand. That’s pretty deep in the subculture of running, but I think it’s also inspirational to a lot of people and also educational. I think telling those stories that can inspire someone to run more, run harder, sign up for a race, and educate people about the culture. With anything that you decide to become passionate about, once that switch happens you want to devour everything you can. A good example in our recent memory is liquor or craft beer where all of a sudden people who didn’t really care what they drank, not only did they want to drink a craft beer or a really nice whiskey, they wanted to know everything about it. They wanted to know how it was made, who made it. I think telling all of those stories and putting together the bigger picture is a stronger way to keep someone really engaged with the brand and engaged with the sport.
What has Tracksmith’s growth been like?
Our revenues continue to grow every quarter. We launched women’s recently and the women’s collection is having a similar trajectory that the men’s did. We’re excited about that. Everything is pointing in the right direction. But 99.9% of the people that we think we can target and connect with, we haven’t even been introduced to yet. We are focused on making sure that the product engine is running correctly. Once we have a foundation built I think we’ll start to be a bit more aggressive in our acquisition strategies.
What other projects do you have coming up in the future?
Content and community are our key areas of focus for the next 12 to 24 months. We have this tremendous advantage of being in a passion category where people are participating in the activity that that we’re selling. It’s not like eyewear or khakis, those categories don’t have passionate customers who are consuming content or self-organizing in communities. But running has that.