Sally Bergesen, Oiselle’s founder and CEO, says she’s bored of fashion shows. She knows what’s going to happen during them. There’s only one story.
So this year, the women’s running gear company is doing something different. To highlight the spring 2018 line, Oiselle is putting on what it’s calling a Runway Slam. On January 13, in Seattle, 20 women will get three minutes each to perform a spoken word or music piece, slam poetry style.
Oiselle runners, like track and field athlete Lauren Fleshman, are speaking, but the lineup also includes a middle schooler, doctors, Kelly Herron—who fought off an attacker who attempted to rape her during a run—and a woman in Bergesen’s weekly running group who recently lost twin daughters during pregnancy.
All the presenters will wear the coming year’s Oiselle gear, which will help show off the new line, but Bergesen also wanted to host an event where women in the Oiselle community could tell stories about their running experience, both good and bad. “We wanted to look at what it means to be a female runner without reducing it to a single narrative,” she says.
Bergesen had attended poetry slams in Seattle and liked watching shy-seeming high-school kids bloom on stage when they had an audience, and she liked the energy of a DJ backing spoken word. Bergesen had also gotten hooked on author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk turned book, We Should All Be Feminists, and her ideas about broadening the definition of feminism.
There are often tangled lines between what women wear and say and how they’re perceived, and Bergesen says that’s particularly true for female athletes, whose value is often tied up in their bodies. She decided to frame this year’s fashion show as a performance to underscore the ways that clothes can make you feel powerful.
The brand has been focused on running as a tool for parity, in both sports and business, since it started in 2007. Oiselle has spoken out against body shaming, backed the first female Saudi Arabian Olympic runner, and waged a sponsorship battle against Nike. Now, by combining a preview of its new gear with stories about women and running, Oiselle aims to put a broader lens on how female athletes are pegged by their physical presentation. “Stories are how our brains are wired to explain the world. But from a very young age, we’re also fed stories that construct what it means to be a woman,” Bergesen says. “Wouldn’t it be cool to continue to redefine those stories?”
Bergesen was already thinking about doing something different, but she says a major part of the impetus for the show came from the political climate. Particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it felt important to give women a platform to talk about feminism, sports, gender-based barriers, bodies, and strength. “It’s this weird dichotomy we’re in,” she says. “The world has their ears open, so it’s the best of times and the worst of times.”
She thinks running can get a bad rap for being cultish, competitive, and only accessible to hyperfit people, and by highlighting different women’s stories and showing people who aren’t models or athletes in Oiselle clothes, Bergesen says she hopes she can expand the idea of what it means to be a runner. “The point being that it should really be about how the clothes makes you feel—instead of how they look.” she says.