Women's running brand Oiselle—pronounced wah-ZELLE—was founded in 2007 stemming from a combination leap of faith and solution to a problem. At the time, there was a lack of running apparel on the market designed specifically with women in mind. Sally Bergesen set out to change that.
We spoke with Oiselle's founder and CEO for our On Brand series about helming a female-led, female-focused company, being an unabashedly feminist brand, and sponsoring pregnant athletes ... back in 2013.
"Creating Oiselle was really the coming together of my two life passions: I was passionate about running, and then professionally I had gotten into brand strategy and design," says Bergesen. "I had the observation after being a lifelong runner and loving the sport that the apparel offerings on the market were pretty low quality and created by running shoe companies—who are really good at making running shoes, but not so good at making apparel. It was kind of a leap of faith initially because I didn't have any apparel manufacturing experience so I had to really dive in and learn that part of it.
"I think there really hadn't been much innovation in terms of really thinking about the woman athlete and the woman runner, and really understanding what her needs are, which can be something big but it could also just be the small, thoughtful details that go into product design that really kind of sing and make something super special," continues Bergesen.
"That was 2007, and since then we've just been busy building the brand, having that thoughtful product design ethos with everything we do. And the other part of our brand that is equally as important is the community side."
The Seattle-based company aims to make running an inclusive sport for women and girls while supporting organizations that fight for equal voting rights and against white supremacism and racism. The company created Bras for Girls in 2017 to donate sports bras to late elementary to middle-school age girls. While the mission may sound simplistic, it comes at a pivotal time in young girls' lives.
"We had raised money for other organizations, and we've sent money to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Time's Up, Run 4 All Women," Bergesen tells Muse. "Bras for Girls was really our first intersection of what we do as a business, in making sports bras, and the understanding that young women and girls are faced with this really challenging time in their lives when their bodies are changing and the research we discovered at that time about how it's a fork in the road.
"Girls will either experience that moment and get what they need—a lot of times that's simply a sports bra—and continue to feel that they belong and that they are valued in the sports space, or they get made fun of, feel uncomfortable, they feel insecure and they kind of leave sports. That important fork was a place where we felt we were uniquely suited to make a difference. Bras for Girls really became our biggest and best representation of what we were doing as a company and building product. And then the impact we could make in girls' lives. Bras for Girls became a 501(c)(3) this fall, and we're going to keep building and breathing life into it. There's no end to the potential good you can do there to help—every girl in the world needs a sports bra."
Companies toe the line when it comes to vocalizing opinions and stances on topics that affect people's everyday lives—whether it's politics, racial injustice, social injustice, women's rights. Oiselle as a company got vocal during the 2016 presidential election and continues to share their opinions, even if it costs them customers.
"I love the quote I read recently, it was something about how 'Activists aren't really activists, they're just people advocating for their existence,' " says Bergesen. "There's kind of this idea that whether it's feminism—intersectional feminism is what we really try to talk about—and social justice, racial justice, all these issues we face in the world that somehow those are separate from sports or separate from other identities that we hold. And we just found that because this community is wide-ranging that these are things that we couldn't not talk about and be authentic to who we were and what we were all about."
The 2016 election was a catalyst for Bergesen. "We just knew that we had to come out for Hillary," she says. "We're a feminist brand and we're not going to make apologies for it and we support Hillary. And of course there were a good number of people who went on our social media and said, 'Oh, I'll never support your brand again,' or 'You should leave politics out of it,' that kind of thing. I think growing, understanding, and then through the Black Lives Matter movement, it's like politics and life are not mutually exclusive. And politics very much dictates what our lives are and the nature of them and everything. We have increasingly come to the realization that that's an important part of the value we bring is to show a brand can and should have a voice on important matters, especially as they impact women, and even further, women who have not had as much privilege or have been marginalized in some way.
"For a long time I felt that running was the ultimate accessible sport because it was so easy," adds Bergesen. "All you needed was shoes and a sports bra and whatever. But the sport hasn't necessarily made good on its promise of being accessible for all and a safe space for all. So I think that's something we're continuing to ask ourselves as we're building a community and also be a part of. There's a really important organization called the Running Industry Diversity Coalition. The work they're doing is really important. Personally and professionally, I don't want the running industry to lose sight of those goals and of the change that still needs to happen."
When Oiselle started sponsoring athletes in 2013, Bergesen's first athlete was groundbreaking. Lauren Fleshman was the first elite athlete Oiselle signed after she requested a release from her contract with Nike. And she was pregnant.
"Fleshman came over in 2013," Bergesen says. "Lauren is an amazing human—just a multidimensional feminist, writer, musician, athlete. No brand had done that [sign a pregnant athlete] and so that was huge. But it was really our stake in the ground of, well, why wouldn't we sign Lauren Fleshman when she's pregnant? Why does the woman-athlete, pro-athlete experience only have to be about her rankings and results? It should also be about her life outside of sports.
"And we felt we could tell that story in a way no other brand was doing. So that was pretty unique and innovative at that time. And a lot of brands have jumped on that bandwagon since then, like shoe brands have jumped on that bandwagon. Athleta signing Allyson Felix within the last couple of years. That's a great bandwagon to get out there, right? We feel proud that we were one of the first performance brands to really put forth that that's a completely rational business decision to make."
In 2019, Felix left Nike and signed with Athleta after Nike offered Felix a 70 percent reduction in pay following the birth of her daughter and would not guarantee she not be punished for not performing at her best level, months after giving birth. Nike changed its maternity policy later that year and in 2021 launched a campaign promoting its Nike (M) maternity line.
"We love following all aspects of [running]," Bergesen tells Muse. "Whether it's the recreational athlete who is potentially running their first 5K ever, doing a couch to 5K or a first marathon to the highest levels of the sport on the elite side. The thing we really wanted to show to the world is that those ends of the spectrum are not mutually exclusive. It's not because you are supporting recreational athletes that you can't be about supporting elite athletes. We dove into the elite side by starting to work with some really well-known athletes who were formerly Nike athletes who were kind of tired of being mistreated by that brand."
Company-wide, Oiselle has 35 employees—all women, except for "one part-time, really-trying-to-retire" male. "We punch above our weight for sure, which we've always liked doing," says Bergesen.
"When you are independently women owned and led, we call it the through line. It's the through line from everything. From conceiving of a product to development of that product to the marketing of that product. When you have that through line, there's all kinds of things that come to light about how we will do things differently. Some of that just has to do with how you grow a company. We live in this capitalist system that is about grow, grow, grow, buy, buy, buy, kind of this irrational consumerism. But I think there's new trends around business that are 'Buy something quality and buy it to last and buy less of it.' That's one of the most promising things you can do to be sustainable is to buy great things that work well and hang onto them."
That, and bring runners together. Running can be both a solitary sport and one filled with community. Oiselle continues to bring women runners of every level closer together both in-person and online.
"The great thing about running is that it really does have a strong social and community component to it," Bergesen says. "Runners love to run together, they love to train together, go to races and experience that whole thing. We knew we wanted Oiselle to also help facilitate and create a women's running community that was really strong and really needed. We have a team called the Volée, which is thousands of women all over the country that are part of this club. We have a team app that we can communicate on and it can cover running, of course, but it could also just be life's trials and tribulations. All different topics that we're all facing as human beings."