On a dark November evening, the tidy interior of Vancouver Running Company – a fashionable running shop in the city’s upmarket Kitsilano district – is filled with the chatter of 40 trim Vancouverites (and one Japanese tourist). Like they do every Thursday, members of the group stretch, tighten headlamps and adjust bulky wrist-watches designed to track heart rate, distance and every other fitness-related detail imaginable. Around them are Baltic-birch shelves laden with bright running caps from Montréal-based maker Ciele and streamlined black jackets from North Vancouver high-performance brand Arc’teryx.
Together they make up Vancouver Running Company’s Flight Crew, a social running club that meets under the guidance of the shop’s owners Rob and Becky Smith. Experience levels vary and tonight Rob gives the group directions for the 5km, 7km and 10km runs circling the leafy neighbourhood. They’re a smart-looking bunch, decked out in technical trainers, monochrome running tights and tops with “Flight Crew” emblazoned across them. There’s not a garish strip of neon or stained sweatshirt in sight.
Vancouver Running Company is one of a handful of retailers that are pushing the limits of how stylish a running shop can be. These trailblazers – which also include Distance in Lyon, The Loop Running Supply in Austin and Juice in Oslo – are building a loyal customer-base and sense of community by hosting running crews. They are pioneering a new breed of shop that is able to keep pace with modern consumers who are serious about fitness – and looking good.
The notion of Vancouver Running Company, which opened in 2015, came about because Rob found it impossible to track down nice jogging clothes in a physical shop. “For a while I bought my gear [online] from a little UK soccer shop because it was the only place that I could find anything that looked half decent or pushed the boundaries at all.” The Smiths sensed an opportunity and, while Becky was on maternity leave, Rob quit his job at a software company and they converted the second floor of a once-dingy spa into Vancouver Running Company.
Inside the shop, instead of those sportswear-emporium staples of unsightly carpet and discount sock bins, you’ll find polished concrete, blonde-wood shelves and trainers and running tops laid out across movable displays. Trainers range from Nike’s thick-soled Zoom Fly Flyknits to Salomon’s high-end S/Lab line, which has appeared on global runways in recent months. Rob has his eye on Zürich footwear label On Running. “They’re one of the brands that’s innovating the most: the quality of product, their ability to listen to consumer feedback: there’s not many brands on the same level,” he says, pointing to the rippling soles of the Cloud model.
The shop’s modern branding and minimal interior, designed by local firm Mak Interiors, is a natural setting for a new wave of fashion-forward sportswear brands (such as Paris’s Satisfy). Yet it wasn’t easy to get some of the major shoe brands on board. “People hadn’t seen anything like it,” says Rob. While Adidas jumped in feet first, more conservative brands were hesitant to collaborate with a new, unproven retail model.
But the existing “proven” retail format was failing. Most running shops have had difficulty meeting the demands of modern consumers. When running broke into the mainstream in the 1970s, a flurry of family-run shops sprung up. “They were making money hand over fist, which built up the running speciality, but where it failed was they really just set up shop and forgot it,” says Rob. While running-shoe sales doubled in the US between 1999 and 2014, running retail has struggled. Sales have increasingly shifted to online avenues and, while the industry has seen consolidation by major chains, these behemoths are battling too. Finish Line Sports sold off its speciality running division in 2017 and Dick’s Sporting Goods has shut its TrueRunner shops, despite there now being an estimated 60 million Americans who jog regularly.
Retailers such as Vancouver Running Company are offering a different proposition to lure customers back to independent shops. “Brick and mortar now needs to be a much more experiential-based space,” says Rob. “People are more community and design-minded, and there’s a bigger emphasis on the experience of purchasing and being part of something.” Running, and other sports, lend themselves to inclusive programmes that can offer more than just a transaction. Vancouver Running Company has staged clinics such as an 11-week training programme with an Olympic marathoner. The Flight Crew is its baby though. “It’s about having a social run and building the community,” says Rob.
In recent years, serious running crews have cropped up everywhere, be it Run Dem in London, Black Roses in New York or BlacklistLA. Their members are athletic and often fashionable, and with a burgeoning subculture of runners more concerned with their appearance than their forebearers, niche brands are popping up to serve them. “The integration of fashion and lifestyle into running really is small-business and small-brand driven,” says Rob. “None of the major ones, save for Nike’s Lab collections, catered to that lifestyle-fashion side of running or crew culture until they had to. We started seeing tops called the ‘crew top’ roughly two years ago.”
The success of these running troupes means every brand has its eyes on them. Crews continue to drive the industry and are the best place to see running’s most fashionable. Beyond the nuances of running, the fashion industry has become obsessed with performance-wear generally. The increasingly murky distinction between athletic and everyday clothes, of wearing natty trainers to the pub as well as the gym, has been well-documented. You can now buy a pair of Salomon S/Lab trainers from high-fashion boutiques such as Dover Street Market or Browns in London.
But speciality shops such as Vancouver Running Company have an edge: unlike a luxury retailer they can discuss the nuances of stack height or heel-to-toe drop. These aren’t sexy topics but they’re important. A high heel-to-toe drop, for instance, while a less natural running position, provides support for your achilles and calf. “Runners are nerds,” says Rob, laughing.
The Smith’s shop has become something of a tastemaker. Its running crew tests products for Nike and the shop recently collaborated with Californian sock-maker Stance. “We went from trying to get brands to, all of a sudden, people coming to us for our expertise and ability to put together a group of people that can influence design decisions,” says Rob.
But the Smiths haven’t reached the finish line yet. They envision a future where they make their own clothes and operate a concept shop that houses physiotherapists and a coffee bar. “If you were to sit in the meetings of any of the big running retailers the discussion would be around, ‘How do we evolve?’,” says Rob. “The running world is headed in our direction.”