Tracksmith Made Running Culture Something You Can Buy

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, roughly 87 percent of Tracksmith’s sales came through its website; another 10 percent came from its brick-and-mortar location on Boston’s tony Newbury Street and occasional pop-ups at big-ticket marathons like New York and London. Since last March, 98 percent of sales have come via the internet, according to Taylor. This is consistent with a larger recent trend, in which the growth of online retail, and the attendant shift away from wholesale-centric business models, has spawned a number of smaller companies in a running-apparel market that used to be dominated by the major shoe manufacturers. Brands like Janji and Oiselle have given consumers an indie alternative to corporate behemoths like Adidas or Nike. From a product perspective, these newcomers present themselves as a refreshing departure from brands that, as Janji cofounder Dave Spandorfer put it, “made shoes first and apparel last.” According to Oiselle founder Sally Bergesen, the clothing lines put out by big shoe companies in the early aughts were plagued by “bland and uninspired designs” and continue to be rather “meh.” 

For Taylor, the meh-ness managed to be garish and boring at the same time. “If you went into your local running shop in 2010, everything looked exactly the same,” he recently told me. “It was a very specific aesthetic. Very futuristic. Very neon. There was a sort of Power Rangers thing going on.”

He was in a position to know. Back then, Taylor was the head of marketing for Puma’s running department. He’d grown up in Pittsburgh as an athletic kid, and, in the grand tradition of runners everywhere, eventually discovered that his talent for ripping laps around the track exceeded anything he could hope to achieve on the basketball court. He went to Yale, where he competed on the cross-country and track and field teams. In 2000, he graduated with a degree in psychology and a mile personal record of 4:10—a time that, while plenty fast, meant he likely wasn’t going to be vying for a spot on the Olympic team. Before landing the job at Puma in 2008, Taylor worked at a small, Boston-based professional-runner management agency and media company called Kimbia Athletics. The agency’s director, Tom Ratcliffe, reached out to him after seeing a web-based miniseries called “Chasing Tradition” that Taylor had made about several of the NCAA’s best cross-country programs. He was hired to produce similar documentaries about Kimbia athletes, while also helping on the client-management front. In effect, Taylor was in the running-media business at a moment when, in his eyes at least, the scene looked pretty bleak.

“As a consumer, I felt that there was a kind of cultural void,” Taylor says. “When I was growing up, you could turn on ESPN and occasionally see track and field or a major marathon on live television, or you could flip through Runner’s World and read a story about Marc Davis competing in the steeplechase in the Olympics. As time went on, through the late nineties and early 2000s, there was sort of a trough for the sport. Not only from a performance perspective, where American distance running was at its worst, but the sport as a whole was nowhere to be seen in the media landscape.”

(For what it’s worth, this analysis is slightly contested by Larry Eder, a veteran of the running-publishing scene, who worked at Runner’s World for several years in the eighties and proceeded to launch several titles of his own—including American Athletics, which was later renamed American Track and Field. Eder told me that he thought running media was quite robust at the regional level throughout the nineties and 2000s, though he agrees with Taylor that mainstream interest in professional U.S. running declined dramatically after the ’84 Olympics. As a consequence, Eder says, there was an editorial shift at Runner’s World, which saw the magazine cater more toward a general fitness audience than running obsessives, with fewer Marc Davis profiles and more three-day-a-week training plans.)

For Taylor, the media’s focus on the general runner was mirrored by a retail space that also seemed to lump running into a broader, amorphous fitness category. The Power Rangers look had no soul. 

Working at a multibillion-dollar company like Puma gave Taylor an understanding of the apparel business from both the marketing and production sides, as well as an idea of what was possible with a large budget. He also developed a professional relationship with Usain Bolt—arguably track and field’s only bona fide global superstar. The connection came in handy when, prior to the 2012 Olympics, Taylor collaborated with the world-beating sprinter on an iPhone game called Bolt! According to Taylor, he invested about $35,000 of the money he made from this venture as seed capital for his new clothing brand. 

Officially, Taylor is the cofounder of Tracksmith. The other half of that equation is Luke Scheybeler, himself a cofounder and former creative director of the über-posh British cycling brand Rapha. Taylor, who is not a cyclist, had never heard of the company when an acquaintance recommended he check it out as potential inspiration. Impressed by what he saw, he “cold-Skyped” Scheybeler, and a casual consultation session morphed into a formal partnership.

“The thing that Matt and I hit upon as the identity of the brand was this kind of preppy, New England, Ivy League aesthetic, matched with running gear,” Scheybeler, who still owns a stake in the company but hasn’t been directly involved for several years, told me. Tracksmith’s trademark sash, for instance, was inspired by Cornell University’s track teams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As for why Tracksmith seemed to be catching on, Scheybeler’s explanation was that, up until recently, performance-wear brands had been in denial about the fact that they were in the fashion business. Tracksmith never suffered from any such illusions. Rather than echoing an argument that’s often used to explain the athleisure phenomenon—that flaunting your active lifestyle is a kind of subtle power move—Scheybeler insists that, in effect, the opposite is also true. As endurance sports are becoming ever more central in people’s social lives, there’s demand for products that are less aggressively technical in appearance. Indeed, one cliché of gear reviews is that we all need sports attire that we can also “wear to the bar.” Although Tracksmith is hardly the first company to cater to the growing demand for more socially versatile exercise apparel—Lululemon and Outdoor Voices also come to mind—it has so far managed to do so without watering down its hardcore-amateur image. 

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