In this special edition of Dawn Patrol, we bring you an exclusive interview with Oiselle founder Sally Bergesen.
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Sally Bergesen’s quest for women’s athletic apparel that actually fits
When Bergesen founded Oiselle in 2007, she wanted to make a pair of women’s running shorts that fit. Then she got into a spat with USA Track and Field and the IAAF over the logos her athletes could wear during competition—and secured her place as one of the running community’s icons. Oh yeah, and those shorts? Turns out they fit pretty well.
By Ariella Gintzler
Photo courtesy of Bergesen
Outside caught up with Bergesen to learn about Oiselle’s product-testing process and what goes into designing well-fitting, functional women’s athletic apparel.
What are some of the primary fit issues in women’s clothing that Oiselle aims to solve?
There is an ill-conceived notion among designers who don’t have deep experience doing women’s apparel that adding volume—gathers, ruching, or pleats—will make a garment fit and look better. Often the opposite is true. More fabric simply means more ways for fit to go wrong, via material migration (think loose fabric riding up in the crotch) and the illusion of added width through the butt, hips, and thighs. In fact, more fabric is usually just a shortcut to terrible fit. It may solve the coverage issue, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how fabric moves with an athlete’s body. An expertly designed garment takes into account which areas need to be eased and which need the fabric to be fitted. It’s definitely harder to accomplish, but in the end the experience is better.
What goes into determining the fit of your clothes?
Fit is everything, and the secret sauce is in size grading—how each design “grades up” from one size to the next. For many companies, this is a simple math problem: each measurement (shoulders, waist, hips, bust) increases by the same increments. But women’s bodies are much more complex. For example, shoulder width won’t grade up very much from one size to the next, but bust does—the bust can have a lot of volume, not just chest circumference but also height. For bottoms, waist increases might be smaller while the rise (from crotch to waistband) and hips will increase at greater increments. It’s both art and science, and it requires fitting clothes on many sizes of women, not just a single size.
Who are your fit models?
We use one fit model in the initial rounds of prototyping. She’s a size 4. Then, when the design is final enough, we get—in addition to size 4—sizes 8 and 12. We have in-house fit models and staffers who try those on and give feedback.
How does Oiselle test new products?
Staffers at Oiselle and teammates in our Volée community—our team of 4,000-plus women—are all part of the wear-testing process. After a design is sketched, the factory will make a first prototype. Then we put that prototype on our fit models. If the fit is off, we get a second proto. If the fit is good, we start wear testing. Wear testing involves wearing, running, washing, and drying. We know that many people hand-wash and line-dry their technical clothing, which is great—it saves water and energy and will extend the life of the garment—but we also want all Oiselle apparel to be washer-dryer capable.
Women-specific design is trending, and lots of brands are hyping up their women’s cuts and fits. Is this progress?
There are a lot of great options on the market. We’re getting to a good place. But there’s still a lot to do. Women’s bodies are almost infinite in their variation. From height to width and circumference, from thighs to hips to chest—there are a lot of unique fits to solve for. I love how manufacturing is getting more sophisticated. At the same time, I’ve seen “women-specific design” go to an unnecessary and almost patronizing place. Do we really need a women-specific water bottle?
How do you choose the athletes you sponsor?
We look for athletes who love Oiselle and have great stories to share. But we also look for athletes who want to give back to the running community and connect with the Volée. We like to say that the best way to get fans is to be a fan, and we want even our most elevated pro athletes to be fans of the women’s running community. Fortunately, that’s not a hard sell. At the end of the day, the athletes we love working with are the ones who recognize that we’re all on the same team.
With the 2020 Olympics a couple of years away, how are you approaching your athletes’ singlets, and will there be another confrontation with Nike?
We haven’t yet designed that 2020 kit, but you better believe it will be special. And of course, we’re more than willing to push against the inequities in sport that are still very entrenched. The fact of the matter is that American track and field athletes (and all Olympic athletes for that matter) are not getting their fair share of the spoils. That can and should change. Whether it’s Nike, the USATF, the USOC, or the IAAF and the IOC, we’re ready to be a voice against exploitation and in favor of positive change.