From the June 2012 issue of Runner’s World
Baggy shorts? Cotton Ts? Forget it! Enabled by newly creative apparel companies, female runners are grabbing attention – and PBs – in sassy and stylish athletic wear
By Sarah Bowen Shea
When April Powell, 34, started running three years ago, her workout wear took up one tiny shelf in her bedroom cupboard. As a newbie, she stuck to black Nike pants; after having her second of three children, she started tying a jacket around her waist to cover her mummy-bits. Then she discovered running skirts, “the best invention God has given women – a cover-up that makes you look cute.” After baby three, she found herself living in her running clothes. “I’m lucky if I’m out of them by school pickup time,” says Powell.
Today her daily uniform is pink and black athletic apparel. In fact, on a recent family holiday, Powell packed only running clothes. She even sold a load of shoes on eBay and used the profits to buy a Skirt Sports running skirt and new Asics Gel-Kayano 16s. “My running gear is taking over my wardrobe,” she says.
Powell is among the growing number of runners – mostly women – living in their gear.
While years ago, runners pulled on whatever shorts and cotton T-shirt for a 5K, today
more of them head out in such stylish technical duds as capris, skirts, and, yes, running
dresses. Which doesn’t mean style-conscious runners wear one brand head-to-toe or
matchy-match outfits. No, being fashion aware means wearing what you think performs
well athletically and aesthetically.
“Five years ago, when you got dressed for a run, you dressed in what you needed,” says Liz Wilson, the director of apparel sales at Brooks Sports and a 2:37 marathoner. “Now you might wear a jacket that has a little ruching.” Ruching? That’s fashion speak for fabric gathered at seams for a decorative effect. Bonus: it doesn’t hinder performance.
Even top-end runners are in on the popular mash-up of athletic function and fashion: when Emily Donker wore a Skirts Sports Marathon Girl Ultra Skirt and WonderGirl Tank in the 2011 Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon Junior Division, she made noise not only with her first place and fast time (1:21:55) – but with her flashy, purple-black, look-at-me colour. “These women have an attitude that says, ‘I want to kick some arse wearing a bold outfit that shows people I’m not afraid to stand out,’” says Ironman champion and Skirt Sports founder Nicole DeBoom.
When she runs in training and in races, Ginny Flynn sports splashy knee socks, a running skirt, and a vivid top. She calls her style “somewhat naughty Catholic school girl meets running mum.” The 35-year-old mother of three says, “It would be a lie if I said I don’t like to get noticed. I use it as part of my mental strategy on race day. If I look good, I feel good. It’s like dressing for a job interview. The job I’m dressing for is marathon finisher.”
Rise Of The Fastionista
The women’s running boom – double-X-chromosomal runners now make up more than half of all participants in 5Ks, 10Ks, and half-marathons – has helped change the very definition of “running clothes.” “A lot of our customers who run don’t necessarily deem themselves hard-core runners,” says Julie Baxter, vice president of Moving Comfort. “This opens up what they can wear – it doesn’t have to be split shorts. These runners might wear the same capris they wear for yoga.”
“There are different body types in this bigger group of runners,” says Skirt Sports’ DeBoom, who won a 2004 Ironman in a homemade skirt. Her company’s third-biggest seller is the Happy Girl Skirt, which at around 43 centimetres is a good eight or 10 centimetres longer than the average running skirt. And all these various-shaped women don’t slow down once their run is done, heading straight to school drop-off or back to the office. “With all these great performance fabrics that don’t show your sweat – and often make it so your sweat doesn’t smell – you can go from one activity to another without showering,” says DeBoom.
Women are spending more than ever on running apparel, but it has to have a cross-functional use with a fashion flair to it. It needs to have more of a life than just running.
Five or 10 years ago, apparel – and footwear – designers were limited by fabric and treatment options. But thanks to laser-automated cutters, no-sew welding equipment, and other groovy machines, designers have an almost if-you-dream-it, we-can-build-it range of possibilities. “We spend as much time talking materials and fashion as we do performance and function,” says Claire Wood, a running footwear product-line manager at New Balance. Companies like Pearl Izumi and Lululemon add reflective graphics that improve visibility and look cool.
Lululemon, a Canadian yoga-and-running apparel company, understands the power of colour. “When we first started expanding the running line a couple of years ago, what we found resonated best was really, really bright colours,” says Sheree Waterson, Lululemon’s executive vice president of merchandise management. “There’s an emotional connection with brighter colours. Women relate to colour, styling, and details.”
Which explains the popularity of stand-out accessories, like knee-high socks (compression or not), wrist cuffs and jazzy hair bands. Hidden design details offer a happy surprise to prosaic functionality. On a Lululemon top with “cuffins”– the knit sleeves that fold down over the hand like a mitten – one cuffin says, “Cold hands,” the other, “Warm heart.” The leg gripper on the inner liner of Brooks’ Glycerin Skort has a print. “It’s about function, but it’s so adorable and sassy,” says Wilson. “You don’t see it until you wear it.”
While running dresses tap into a lighthearted, whimsical girl-power thing, they are also about feeling capable and inspired. Practical, too: When up-and-coming Australian distance runner Cassie Fien placed second in the 2009 Gold Coast Half Marathon (1:12:21), she did so in a Skirts Sports WonderGirl running dress. Indeed, women appreciate their options: Sometimes they like to dress up, sometimes they prefer the anonymity of a pair of whatever running shorts – as long as they fit her well. “Our running guest loves to embrace not only her sport, but her femininity,” says Lululemon’s Waterson. “She puts together not just a great outfit, but a great running wardrobe to match whatever her mood is.”
And some intentionally cross the fine line between fashion and costume for the performance effect, especially on race day.
“When you wear something flashy, everyone notices you,” says Carrie Lundell, who competed in an ultra event wearing a sequined sparkle skirt over black Lycra shorts and argyle knee socks. It’s a look she taps into to boost her performance, a tactic every runner can understand, if not imitate. “When you know everyone is watching you,” says Lundell, “you push yourself to run harder, faster, and better.”
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