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Brand Spotlight is a new conversation series that highlights SPY editors’ favorite up-and-coming brands. We’ll introduce you to unique brands and share some of our favorite products.
In college, Matt Taylor (founder of high-end running brand Tracksmith), ran a 4:10 mile. For those who know next to nothing about Track and Field, that’s fast. Really fast. That sort of fast not only places a runner on a Divison 1 college team (in Taylor’s case, Yale) but also imparts an understanding of the sport that no book, movie or well-worded article can truly convey. To get to 4:10 (hell, to get to 5:10), you have to put in endless hours of work. And with that work, and all of those lonesome miles logged on countless weekends and weekdays, you develop an intimate appreciation for the equipment you carry along with you.
But this isn’t a profile about Matt Taylor and his insane personal records. Off the track, Taylor produced mini-documentaries on Usain Bolt and logged time as the Head of Marketing at PUMA. Now, he’s the man behind Tracksmith, which produces some of the best high-end running gear in the world.
While editing one of our pieces on the best running shorts, I came across Tracksmith. As a lifelong runner myself, how could I just now stumble upon a brand that not only celebrated the elegant side of running but offered up some of the most well-designed garments I had seen to date? The more I dug into Tracksmith, the more I liked. The garments were high quality, sure, but they were made with serious runners in mind. The cuts were just the right length, the materials did the right things, soothing issues I’ve long had with past shirts and shorts. And on top of that, they showed a respect for the history of running. And I’m not just talking about the big names, but shout outs to random runners who only students of the sport would recognize.
To find out more about where Tracksmith came from and how they were able to separate themselves from a pack of formidable opponents like Nike, PUMA, Adidas, Saucony and countless others, I got Taylor on the phone. Over the course of a 30-minute phone call, we discussed the brand’s past, present and future, as well as some of their best selling products, and their ability to make truly useful running garments.
Read on for our chat with Taylor, as well as SPY editors’ favorite products from Tracksmith.
You were at PUMA when you started Tracksmith. What made you want to go off on your own?
I had obviously been in the industry for a long time. Both as a participant and a competitor and consumer. But then also being on the industry side working at PUMA for a long time. Prior to that, I did projects within the running industry. So, I had gotten a very broad exposure to it as a whole. And I got to a point where I felt like there was an opportunity to do something that was quite distinct from what everyone else was doing and really elevate the way that running is presented.
As someone who grew up in the sport, a fan of the sport and in the sort of heyday of running as a mass-market sport that people paid attention to, you know, in the 80s, and as it slowly started to decline I just wanted to be in a position to elevate the way that it’s presented in all its forms. Not just in the product itself but the photography and storytelling, film, events and all the things.
How would you say your running career has impacted your clothing as you’ve gone from consumer and competitor to creator.
It’s obviously been a huge part; running has been a huge part of my life and my identity in a way. So I had a lot of different experiences and exposure to the sport and different areas of the sport. I draw a lot of inspiration from things that have happened in the past. An example, the sash that is sort of an iconic element on our Van Cortlandt Singlet and our Van Cortlandt tee. That sash is not necessarily new in running or in sports, it’s been around for a long time. But a lot of the inspiration comes from these amazing Ekiden relays in Japan they literally use a sash instead of a baton. So you sort of hand the sash off to your teammate and they put it over, and some of the Olympic uniforms had that.
But really, for me, it was my father in law, he ran in high school and college at UCONN. In the early days of Tracksmith, I was just digging around his archives and his closet and he still had his uniform from high school, so that’s like from the mid-60s. It’s this beautiful white singlet with a red satin sash sewn on top of it. It was North Attleborough High School so it had NA cut out and sewn onto the garment. And there’s just something so classic and understated and simple about that approach to the design and to the construction. And obviously, materials have improved and construction methods have improved but things like that had a massive impact on the influence of the design aesthetic and simplicity of our line.
But then obviously, taking advantage of more modern techniques and fabrics and really elevating. There’s so much on the fabric side, so many amazing, beautiful fabrics that just haven’t been used in sportswear because frankly they’re quite expensive and most of the brands are so wholesale driven that they lose a huge percentage of the cost to the wholesale market. So we’ve been able to reinvest that amount into better raw materials.
Interesting. I was going to ask about the aesthetic and how you got there but that’s really awesome. As soon as I saw your brand and started snooping around the website, it just had this old school but yet modern aesthetic and feel to it. Like, if Prefontaine was still around, it’s what he would wear. Which, for me, was, like, “Okay ya. Sold.”
Whereas, and no hate to Nike or PUMA or anyone else, but they have a lot of neon. While yours is much more, it has this traditional feel to it. Even though I know where running history comes from, the Prefontaine’s and all that stuff, I feel like anybody could see it and be like, “Oh this has a classic aesthetic to it.”
And you kind of hit the nail on the head. We talk about it as classic and timeless and understated instead of retro or vintage. Occasionally we’ll do a direct story about something that’s from the past but we certainly draw inspiration. When I started the process of starting the brand — and it has changed a little bit — but back then you would walk into a running store, a big box sporting goods store and go to the running section, and everything looked the exact same. It was all the same neon colors. They were all even the same color trend forecasters. Yellow one season, orange the next, bright blue the next.
That to me, was like, “Okay, why when I dress the rest of my life, I don’t look like this. And then when I go for a run, I have to sort of choose from these options.” There was a fun little experiment we did where we would line up people’s clothes, you know, what they wore every day, and then hang their running clothes at the end of it.
The dichotomy between those two things was so stark. So, it was like, “Okay, can’t we make very functional, highly performing, technical garments, but in a much more understated and classic aesthetic?”
It seems like only recently that people started looking at activewear and fitness clothing with a fashion eye. And making the cuts more form-fitting and better tailored. Whereas for the longest time, you know, sweatpants were double XL for everybody. I remember being in high school and our warm-ups were gigantic. And I don’t know why. Nobody really paid attention or cared. So it’s awesome to see that you guys are really making it happen.
You had actually mentioned because these bigger brands are playing the wholesale game, they’re leaving the opportunity to play around with the other more expensive fabric, which you (doing the direct to consumer model) have an opportunity to play around with.
What are some of those fabrics?
Two primary categories for me: one is on the merino wool side. So Merino is an amazing performance fabric. It’s something that is gaining a little bit more awareness and acceptance as a performance fabric, but it’s amazing. It’s great for hiking and being outdoors but for running, there’s one characteristic that just makes it amazing which is that it doesn’t stink. It does not retain odors. So you can wear a top for an entire week and not have to wash it.
So there are maybe some limitations in the dead of summer when it’s really hot and humid, where it may not be a good choice. But like, spring, fall, winter, it’s an amazing fabric. So we’ve primarily done that in tops but are bringing it to some bottoms this year, which we’re very excited about. So that’s one.
The other is this category of stretch wovens. Super technical, really durable. Primarily for us, out of Switzerland, we work with a mill there. They’re just the best at making these types of fabrics for endurance activities. You know, it allows you to do things that maybe make a product not necessarily look like a super technical running short, but then you go run in it and it’s absolutely amazing the way it performs. So it allows us to do some things that are a bit more versatile in the sense that you can go for a run in them, absolutely, but you can also go to the coffee shop afterward. Or if you in a group run, hang around afterward and not be in your split shorts or like super revealing half-tights or something. There are times and places for those products, but for a lot of people, there is also a need for something that is a little more versatile. So there are some amazing fabrics that allow us to do those things well.
Those are the two areas that we like to push on the most.
You’re right. There were so many days where we’d get done with Cross Country practice or everybody piles in to get breakfast somewhere after a run and we’re wearing — especially in LA in the summertime, we’re wearing these split shorts — it’s absurd. Sure, they’re great for running but it’s great to see there could be a happy medium. Also with the Run Cannonball Run shorts, being in Southern California, having a short that can go from a run to the beach and flow so smoothly is very well played.
That’s a great example of being a conceptually-lead organization. Where it’s not about some merchandising decision about what’s going to sit on this rack or this shelf. It was literally something that many of us had experienced, where we’ve either run to a body of water and then we’re hanging out there for a couple of hours with friends and family, whether that’s a beach, pond, lake, river. Or, the other example, which I did in high school, where you run to a body of water, jump in to cool off and then run home. And especially in that situation, the run home is usually miserable because your shorts are falling down or chaffing. Nothing was really designed for getting submerged in water and then going for a run.
So that was the whole idea. We said, ‘maybe we can solve this. There are fabrics that work for this.’ So that, conceptually, has been such a great product. We launched it in the first year in very small quantities, sort of like experimental, and it hit right away and has grown and grown and grown.
It’s fun when people like you have discovered it for the first time because we think, ‘Oh, we’re doing Run Cannonball Run again this year,’ but it’s still so new to so many people. It’s good to hear that.
Tracksmith is obviously more than just clothing. As a runner yourself, what are you trying to accomplish with this brand?
It definitely is more than just clothing. The way we think about the world is we want more people to fall in love with running. We love it. And everybody is at different phases. Some of us have been running all of our lives and it’s just something that is a part of us. Some of us are new to it and falling in love with it for the first time, but that sort of goes back to your first question. That idea starts elevating everything we do so that people can really fall in love with this sport and indulge. Like anything in life, once it becomes a passion, once it becomes something that you’re committed to, there’s like a switch that happens where all of a sudden you want more. You want to read more, consume training, understand nutrition, you want to know the history of the Boston Marathon. You know, once you start to get into it, it sort of snowballs.
So, that’s the lens through which we approach running. How can we share our love for the sport but then also make more people fall in love with the sport? Because I think, you know, there’s the sport side of it, the competition side of it, which there are many amazing things that happen when you, as an individual, decide to go down the journey of competition of really pushing yourself and seeing how far physically, mentally and spiritually you can push yourself. But, there’s also the side of running that is just very meditative. And especially in the world we live in right now, I think that running has been a relief and a release for a lot of people.
So, running can serve different purposes for a lot of different people and that’s what’s is amazing about it. You need so little. Pair of shorts, a pair of shoes, a sports bra, in the summertime, and then you’re out the door. So it’s a very accessible and easy sport to get into.
Speaking of running and the community aspect, how has COVID affected you all? Unfortunately, I didn’t come across Tracksmith until we were living in the COVID-ruled world, but I noticed you had sections on the site about doing runs and meeting up at the storefront and doing regular events. How has this affected Tracksmith?
Ya, certainly a big part of our brand is physical activations. Community building in Boston where we are, but also in other cities, major marathons, we were going to be at all six of them with pop-ups. In London, we were going to be there for about a month. So ya, that has certainly shifted our plans. We’ve pretty much just shifted to a digital focus. We’ve created a slack channel for our Hare A.C members. We’ve created some specific micro newsletters for summer training or 100 days out from a marathon. So we are finding ways and everyone is still learning. But we’re finding ways to keep runners motivated, especially at the beginning of COVID, everyone was training solo. Now, as things start to open in some parts, maybe you can go with a few people.
A lot of us are content training by ourselves and that’s fine, but a lot of people need that — that social aspect, to hold you accountable, to make it more fun and interesting. We’re social beings so ya, it certainly has been a challenge but we’ve found some creative ways so far to adapt as things progress.
I’ll leave it with one last question. Being in the running game, having worked at PUMA, have you ever considered going the route of shoes? Or are you just sticking with apparel?
Apparel now, but we’ve thought about not only shoes but really everything within running lifestyle. We talk a lot about events and media and technology. And when I was starting the idea of Tracksmith really, in the beginning, I took a deep dive into the running space as a whole, and looked at those things and ultimately landed on men’s apparel as the launch but quickly added women’s because we were limited with resources. That was the approach we took. But, the vision has always been much grander and so starting with apparel but overtime thinking about other things that a runner might want or need.
So rather than the approach of, I don’t know, getting to a certain size and thinking about other sports, we think we can go really deep and verticle within running and still be a great successful brand.
So ya, no plans currently, but we think about all of those options all of the time [laughs]. But also try to keep ourselves focused on the goals at hand and the next couple of years in front of us.
As running and exercise enthusiasts ourselves, we here at SPY wanted to highlight a few of our favorite products from Tracksmith. Take a look at our staff picks below!
TWILIGHT SPLIT SHORTS
Jamie Miles, our Editorial Director, said all that needs to be said regarding these running shorts: “These shorts are literally MADE for running. They have a quick-drying fabric and internal pockets to hold gels or a credit card so you don’t have to weigh yourself down with anything else during your long runs.”
“I’m a sucker for a good bandana,” says our Managing Editor, Tim Werth. As previously mentioned, Werth’s got great taste and he’s not wrong with this one. Bandanas are one of the most versatile garments you can own, whether for blocking sweat or staying safe in a COVID-ruled world. Tracksmith’s bandana is a fun spin, using a soft rose for the background and a mix of white and a calming navy blue for the graphic.
HARE A.C. TWILIGHT LONG SLEEVE
Tracksmith does a lot of things right, but their ability to deftly meld high-performing gear with a classic aesthetic is unrivaled. Case in point, our Assistant Editor Taylor Galla’s, pick. Available in a rich, navy blue, this polyester/elastane long sleeve will keep you warm on evening runs without making you overheat. It’s the sort of staple an all-season runner should always have on hand.
Tyler Schoeber, our newest E-Commerce Editor, got straight to the point with his pick. “These green shorts are calling my name.” We could end it there, but we won’t. Though these shorts were technically designed with racing (specifically the Ekiden relays) in mind, we find they’re great for more than that. They also make great summertime loungers. Especially if, like Tyler, you’re based in New York City where summers are stifling. These are the sort of shorts that you can put on to crush a PR or crush a beer on the balcony. Your call, we support it either way.
VAN CORTLANDT SINGLET
While I love the Run Cannonball Run shorts from a technical perspective, you can’t beat a quality singlet. A race isn’t a race unless you’re wearing a singlet and since my collegiate days are long gone, I need something new to race in. Made of a breathable and flexible mesh/poly blend, this is the sort of singlet I wished I had in high school. In other words, it doesn’t get in your way. Also, Tracksmith includes four gold safety pins for securing a bib. That’s the sort of attention to detail I’m talking about when I say Tracksmith isn’t a just a running company, but a company ran (pun intended) by runners.