Historically, running tends to spike in popularity during times of social upheaval.
On a Thursday night in September, Virgil Abloh’s latest collection for Off-White made the fashion-sphere dream of lacing up a pair of running shoes.
Dramatic? Maybe. But the buzz surrounding the label’s Spring 2019 runway show — track-and-field-themed, to a meticulously-executed degree — was palpable, an adrenaline rush in the final stretch of the fashion month marathon.
Off-White doled out race bibs as invitations, cast all-stars athletes to join its lineup of professional models and constructed a four-lane race track to function as the presentation’s catwalk. The clothes, particularly those that were courtesy of an ongoing collaboration with Nike, closely adhered to theme.
Most palpable of all, though, was the power and expression of athleticism that Abloh conveyed. As is the designer’s way, the track aesthetic soon began trending in earnest — but there was more to it than Off-White’s newly-reworked pair of Vapor Street sneakers.
Running is in the midst of a sort of renaissance. Take the applicant pool for the New York City Marathon, the world’s biggest and most popular marathon and one of the six World Marathon Majors. In 2018, the number of marathon hopefuls was the largest in the race’s 48-year history, with applicant numbers increasing by seven percent from 98,247 in 2017 to 105,184 in 2018. Only half of those applicants actually get to run the race; 2018 saw 52,000 finishers.
The resurgence stretches toward the other, less extreme end of the spectrum, too: Treadmill-based workouts are the fastest-growing trend on ClassPass, reports Runners’ World; millennial-beloved retailer Outdoor Voices is sponsoring hyper-local joggers’ clubs from San Francisco to Nashville; Walmart is even considering amping up its stores with large green spaces to promote “pedestrian connectivity.”
The timing of this uptick is not a coincidence: Historically, interest in running swells during times of social upheaval — so, yes, one can easily deduce why the sport is enjoying that kind of widespread enthusiasm right now. Matt Smith, founder and CEO of independent running brand Tracksmith, explains that we last saw this kind of boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the U.S. in the throes of a crippling economic (as well as energy and geopolitical) crisis. In a chaotic world, running is one of the few activities, and certainly one of the few sports, that you can personally control almost entirely.
“It doesn’t take fancy equipment or require you to travel somewhere; you can literally walk out your door with a pair of running shoes and some fitness clothes and go for a run,” says Smith. “Running is the one thing you can do and feel like, ‘Okay, I have control over this 30 minutes or 60 minutes of my life.'”
Human beings love control — we thrive on it. But to be human in our current condition also finds us to lacking the control we crave. Something like running, which has an incredibly low entry point across all socioeconomic and geographical levels, helps replenish that. However, we can’t do it alone: Humans also have a desire to seek out belonging and community, especially when the going gets tough.
Running’s professional and recreational roots, the latest iteration of which stem from 150 years ago, are in those same grassroots clubs that Outdoor Voices is hosting all over the country. Historian Andrew Hutchinson — who literally wrote the book on running (“The Complete History of Cross-Country Running”) — is especially interested by this spell of localism and culture and how attire intermingles with the two.
In the mid- to late-1800s, organized amateur athletic clubs began cropping up across the East Coast in spades, with track-and-field very much at top of mind. The New York Athletic Club and the Manhattan Athletic Club became fierce rivals; for the former, $10 covered the first six months of dues. These clubs began sponsoring track-and-field meets along with marathon movements — which is exactly how the first Boston Marathon came about in 1897 — and members were looking to vigorously support their team. Apparel was, and still is, a big part of that.
“This is something that had its roots in the 19th century, when people could only buy locally, and when the idea of shipping something long-distance wasn’t even possible,” says Hutchinson. In many ways, today’s track-and-field attire is going back in time.
“What’s exciting to me is that the people behind these movements are making a statement against the mainstream manufacturers,” he adds. “But they’re actually upholding a tradition that’s quite historical, and quite powerful.”
The 1950s ushered in an era of unparalleled capitalism, in which large-scale companies began advertising, and subsequently cashing in on, the American Dream. That lasted nearly 30 years, during which time major apparel brands like Nike, Adidas, Puma and New Balance plastered the market with their names and logos. Then, the world changed.
“Because of this group dynamic — the social media, cellphone, smartphone dynamic — that we see today, we have a lot of smaller brands who are now nudging their way into the conversation,” explains Hutchinson. “Tracksmith isn’t the only one, but they’re a really important one on the East Coast, and not only are they valuable, but they’re also bringing a retro aesthetic back into the modern day.”
As the running renaissance continues to infiltrate its respective industries, so too does the sport’s ties to fashion. Many of sportswear’s more running-centric (or at least running-adjacent) brands embody that same vintage appeal that Hutchinson noted about Tracksmith. Tracksmith’s designs are intended to be classic and timeless, which, in this context, means they’re compatible with those styles that were so popular during the last running boom 40 years ago: rich, solid colors, streamlined silhouettes and clean racing stripes, with the occasional 1970s-era contrast trim.
A retro aesthetic was also a cornerstone of Off-White’s Spring 2019 collection, like the slime-green running unitard worn by American track-and-field sprinter English Gardner, the powder-blue, one-shouldered bodysuit that also featured a pristinely pleated tulle skirt and, of course, those ’80s-tastic, pastel Vapor Street kicks.
“Running is one of the oldest sports in the world, and, as such, it’s always been at the forefront of sportswear,” says Smith. “You have to think about sweatshirts or joggers or tights or a coaches jacket. These are pieces that have literally existed for decades, and in some cases, a century or more.”
Smith offers Run-DMC’s iconic Adidas tracksuits as the prime example: “That was a piece that [athletes] Tommie Smith and John Carlos were wearing in the 1960s, training in California and getting ready for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City,” he says. “It wasn’t Adidas at the time, but the style, the fabric, all of that — that comes from running.” Steve Jobs, too, caused a frenzy with his New Balance 990s, the first iteration of which was released in 1982. Years after Steve Jobs made it his uniform, it became a staple of normcore, “Dad” fashion and the like.
“If you look at history, you would see that running — from an aesthetic prospective — gets caught up in whatever was popular for a long period of time,” says Smith. “I think that was part of what helped us stand out when [Tracksmith] launched four years ago, because everything else looked exactly the same. We came along and did something that looked very distinct.”
Outdoor Voices has come at the market from a similarly unique perspective: Last January, the Austin-based brand went to war with activewear retailer Bandier for knocking off its signature color-blocked leggings. The style is ubiquitous within the market now, but it started with Founder and CEO Tyler Haney while she was still a business student at Parsons. Outdoor Voices, too, is stylistically quite classic, with 1970s-inspired fleeces, shorts and graphics in as high-demand as those leggings.
Haney hates the word “athleisure,” telling Fashionista in 2016 that its connotation detracts from the garments’ actual technicality. “Everything is meant to sweat in,” she said. “I didn’t want trendy activewear; I wanted classic silhouettes that were flattering on lots of body types.” But now that jogging is becoming so closely associated with leisure time, the context for athleisure is shifting.
“Activity makes you happy and healthy,” Haney tells us more recently in an email. “We are building a community of ‘Recreationalists’ who share our mindset — moving your body and having fun with friends outlasts a win, every time, and our weekly programming is a direct reflection of that.”
In the last 10 to 15 years, Hutchinson has documented a movement toward social running, in which people who otherwise have office jobs are training for Spartan Races and Tough Mudders on the weekends. All that in turn becomes part of their personal #brand throughout social media.
“They’re what we call the ‘Weekend Warriors’; it’s become trendy to wear the best brands,” says Hutchinson. “These [people] are like, ‘Yeah, sure, I want to look good and exercise and get fit, [but I also want to] show off in the neighborhood when I’m doing my marathon training.'”
Instagram has made a big world much smaller, and that’s certainly impacted running as it has the rest of the planet. “Weekend Warriors” are traveling to races all over the globe now, which Smith says didn’t necessarily happen 10 years ago. Those global barriers that used to separate the recreational running community just don’t exist as they used to — and that extends into fashion, too.
In addition to its race-track runway and zoomy sneakers, Off-White’s track-and-field extravaganza also featured a functional scoreboard that displayed a rotating roster of which models were on the runway when, next to their respective countries of origin. Models got to lap around the field knowing they were representing Off-White, but also that they were walking for something greater than just themselves.
“Think of the days when you were on a sports team as a kid,” says Haney. “Everyone was working toward the same goal and lifting each other up. Moving together brings us joy, and builds our brand.”
Homepage photo: Models during the finale of Off-White’s Spring 2019 track-and-field-themed runway show during Paris Fashion Week. Photo: Imaxtree