Established in 2007, women’s running brand Oiselle set out to take on a retail space crowded by big players like Nike and Under Armour. Oiselle aimed to show that it understood the whole complicated enchilada that is women’s lives—jobs, pregnancy, kids, family, dreams, and reality—and how running fit into it rather than, as founder Sally Bergesen says, “just selling cute clothes.”
It was a classic David and Goliath story that served the brand well. Oiselle’s holistic philosophy lured pro runners Kara Goucher (formerly with Nike), Kate Grace, and Lauren Fleshman to the company, even though their sponsorship contracts featured more intangibles than dollars. Combined with Oiselle’s scrappy underdog persona, those women’s star power in the running world helped the brand boom; Oiselle had sales of about $10 million in 2014 and has experienced “a hundred percent growth rate every year for the past four years,” Bergesen says.
Now the company is expanding from an online-only sisterhood to a physical presence, with walls and racks and salespeople like, well, like any store in the mall. On top of that, Oiselle was inundated with requests from around the country to become a part of the company’s 250-member club, dubbed The Flock, that gave discounts and other perks for a $100 one-time membership fee. The move prompted backlash on running forum LetsRun.com because the company inevitably had to exclude some of its most fervent supporters (those 250 spots were nabbed quickly), and because of the idea itself. “This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard,” one commenter wrote. “We're all sisters in sport, but only if you pay us."
Behind this grumbling is a bigger question: Can Oiselle, a brand built on inclusivity and that underdog image, maintain that identity as it becomes a dominant player in women’s workout apparel?
“Can they yield institutional power without getting institutionalized?” asks Jeff Johnson, creative directive and owner of Replace Design, a Minneapolis-based brand design firm. Jonhson's bread and butter is dealing with brand evolution. “They’ll need to grow their mission first: The finances are there to feed the mission.”
Johnson called a brand a promise to the customer. He said companies need a firm grasp on what their brand is and how growth—in this case, a brick-and-mortar store—will help them deliver that promise to the customer, rather than simply provide a way to sell more stuff.
He pointed to a number of retailers who’ve managed to hold onto their underdog image even as they evolved into major players—Equal Exchange coffee, REI, even Subaru. Duluth Pack, a maker of high quality luggage and outdoor gear, eventually expanded their line of bags to apparel and cabin furnishings, and opened one store in Duluth, Minnesota. But they reinvested most of their earnings into maintaining premium quality, keeping production in Duluth, and raising their employees’ salaries. So while Duluth Pack has thrived, they’ve stayed true to their underdog, different-drummer image—the image that ultimately drives sales from customers who identify with it.
Bergesen has no doubt studied those same case histories. “Bigger sometimes means more inflexible, more systems, that you’re less likely to take risks because you have more to lose,” she says. “We try to stay humble, ask people to take risks, push the envelope, keep an eye on what’s next—that way we’ll always be evolving.”
Aside from Oiselle’s underdog image, Bergesen said the brand is also going for “feminine fierce” and “the thinking woman’s athletic wear.” She looks forward to translating these credos into a physical space.
“The store will be a unique space with powerful imagery,” she said. “There will be key words, like our ‘Heads up, wings out’ phrase, and images of our athletes inside. It’ll be a small store, 700 square feet, like a clubhouse for women to come and experience the brand.”