On Catwalk, Runners Replace Models for a Sportswear Company

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — The models at the Oiselle fashion show in New York this week were the first to admit it: They were more at home on a running track than on a runway.

They stepped barefoot onto the catwalk anyway, wearing sports bras and spandex, with ponytails and abdomens shredded neatly into sixths. Instead of look books and go-sees, from which the waifs of Fashion Week are typically culled, they were cast based on their portfolios of race times and medals.

The women were not, technically, models: One was a 45-year-old doctor with three sons and a degree from Yale who had just run a 5 minute, 13 second mile. Another was Olympian Kara Goucher, 36. Leading the group down the runway was Lauren Fleshman, 33, an NCAA national 5-kilometer champion at Stanford.

They were all wearing clothes by Oiselle, a women’s sports apparel line that took the unusual approach of launching its spring 2015 line using professional runners from its roster.

The show stood out from sports fashion lines that advertise women’s clothes with representatives who are models first, athletes second. Last week, Under Armour launched a campaign featuring model Gisele Bündchen.

Oiselle’s show last year featured a mix of professional models and runners, who had been coached on navigating the runway by model Christy Turlington Burns, who is an avid runner.

“But this year we decided to go with only our runners,” said Sally Bergeson, who founded Oiselle in 2007. “There’s something about them; they’re just different.”

Her company recently signed both Goucher and Fleshman. They are both working mothers, educated and in their mid-30s, and are using those qualities to attract enthusiastic followings, particularly among other women and recreational runners.

As they move into the twilight of their athletic careers, Fleshman and Goucher are trying to redefine what it means to be a professional female athlete.

“We’re trying to expand people’s definitions of what might count as an athlete, or as a model,” Fleshman said. “Fashion is about showing your best side, but sports is about winning and losing. I bring my A-game to everything I do, but I think by being in this show, I’m able to show both sides. You’re vulnerable out there, but proud, too.”

Her candor in discussing gender and body issues, particularly as she navigated the complexities of sponsorship arrangements during her recent pregnancy while continuing her athletic career, has resonated with her fans.

Fleshman walked in Oiselle’s fashion show last year, three months after giving birth to her son. After a picture of her with abdominal muscles etched like an ice cube tray ricocheted around the Internet, she cropped other photos of her loose stomach and a handful of cellulite on her leg from the same week and posted them on her blog, writing, “Who needs Us Weekly to capture unflattering images when you can post them on the Internet yourself!” The decision sparked a debate.

“Some people expect you to stick to a certain postpartum narrative. They want to say, ‘Look how fast she got back in shape,'” Fleshman said. “But it’s hard to see a picture of yourself that people are bouncing around and speculating about how you look that way, using words like almost perfect, when really your life is more complicated.”

Goucher is more measured in her public persona, peppering her athletically oriented online profile with pictures of her 4-year-old son, Colt, and her husband Adam, who is also a professional runner.

“Before she had Colt, Kara felt untouchable, she was superhuman,” Bergeson said. “But now she’s a mom, and as far as I’m concerned, in a lot of ways she’s just like me.”

Walking after a hammer thrower who is an aspiring Olympian and who draped her equipment over chiseled shoulders, Goucher wore the same ensemble she will wear to the starting line at the New York City Marathon in November. She hopes to be the first U.S. woman to cross the finish line in this year’s race.

Another muscular runner had just walked the runway, trying not to smile. She unzipped her sweatshirt for the waiting photographers at the end of the catwalk, kept her composure and walked off.

After a victory lap and high-fives from Bergeson, the lights dimmed and the show’s next line came up. The thin models sauntered down the runway deliberately; their thighs did not touch and they did not smile.