When Oiselle, a women's running apparel company, started a brand ambassadorship program in 2010, it went with what other companies were doing at the time: Find people who love the company and run a lot and give them gear to wear at races and all over their blogs and social media feeds.
In 2015, that changed. Instead of a few hundred hand-picked brand ambassadors running races in Oiselle clothing, the company now has a program called Volée, which is made up of an army of about 4,000 women who pay $100 a year to be living, breathing, running, tweeting, Instagramming billboards for the brand, a membership that will open up to new members again on April 13th.
Members say they're paying to be part of a supportive, active running community that just happens to be put together by a brand they love. Critics, of whom there are many, call the program a marketing tactic for an already-expensive brand charging another fee to be associated with it.
“Why are you paying for the privilege of something you'd be doing anyway?” asked Interrobang Group founder Rachel Weingarten, who has worked on ambassadorship programs for the Vancouver Olympics and Bike New York. “If a woman feels [Volée] gives her more incentive to run, and she recognizes a sister runner wearing this, they can strike up a conversation, but it's disingenuous for brands to be creating this.”
Oiselle, which was founded in 2007 and is French for “bird,” is a higher-end brand. The non-sale price points are in line with Lululemon and Athleta: Tights run $76 to $106, shorts are $34 to $56, and jackets are $98 to $208.
Unlike those brands, though, Oiselle is hyper-focused on running. It sponsors five professional track and field athletes, and it has more than 30 women in Haute Volée, a program that supports emerging athletes — ones who are very good but who haven't broken through to the top level of the sport yet. Twenty-five dollars of every $100 annual Volée membership fee goes into the Women Up Fund, which pays for gear and travel for Haute Volée athletes, and Oiselle's GOT Bras initiative, which aims to donate 2,000 bras to middle school girls in 2017.
Jenn Phillips, 37, joined Volée in November 2016 after finding out about the program through a regional Volée area team leader. She said she didn't join for the material benefits — which include a racing singlet, spike bag, early access to new and limited-run items, $20 off a pair of bottoms, and free domestic shipping — but “for the camaraderie and what the brand stands for.” She'd tried running with Team RWB, a charity group, but said she didn't feel the same connection there like she does with the members of Volée.
She sees her $100 as supporting both those Haute Volée athletes and the stances Oiselle takes, including one against Rule 40, which regulates what non-Nike sponsored athletes can wear and do — including tweeting about non-Nike brands — surrounding competition on national teams. (Nike sponsors USA Track & Field.) Oiselle CEO and founder Sally Bergesen is part of a group of non-Nike brand representatives that has been very publicly against Rule 40. In 2014, she went so far as to Photoshop Nike logos off the uniforms of women who ran on the US women's 4 x 1500 meter race in the IAAF World Championship Relays, adding their sponsor brands' logos instead.
It was a controversial move — she was reprimanded by USA Track & Field — but it raised the company’s profile quite a bit.
Oiselle started with a traditional brand ambassadorship program because that's what everybody did, said Bergesen, “where you find people who are active in their communities and have a reach, whether they have a blog or they're in social media or teach a class or run a club locally,” she said. It started with 10 women, herself included, and expanded to about 700.
Women applied for these positions and, if accepted, would get branded gear to wear in races, 30 percent off anything they ordered from the website, and free shipping on domestic orders. Ambassadors, as is typical with these kinds of programs, weren't paid. They were, however, required to wear the Oiselle singlet in all their races and commit to a certain number of races per year, according to Lisa Alcorn, 35, who joined the ambassadorship program in 2011 and stayed with it through the transition, and is now one of Colorado's four Volée team leaders for that state.
Lindsey Hein, a running coach who writes on Out for a Run, was part of the program when it was in that form. She joined because she thought “it was a cool opportunity to meet other people who were interested in running and that whole deal. And I did like their clothes.”
She says that relationship soured when she applied for a contest to be on the cover of Women's Running magazine in 2014. The contest was sponsored by Saucony, and she knew that if she won — which she did — she'd be wearing Saucony on the cover.
She said Oiselle was supportive at first, but then pushed back when it realized she'd be wearing Saucony in the photos. In a 2015 blog post, she posted a tense email exchange with the company, a post where she also said that in exchange for being part of the ambassador program, “you are their marketing bitch.”
Her thought at the time, she said in a recent phone call, was that she wasn't paid by Oiselle to wear the clothing like a sponsored athlete and that “this is a great opportunity for me, and your brand is all about supporting women and women doing really cool, inspiring, big things and chasing their dreams,” she said. “It ended a little bit ugly.”
She left the program, and while she has friends who are in Volée and has coached three of its team members, she has mixed feelings about the program as it is today. She recognizes that that the community aspect is a big draw, but “you're paying to support them and get their brand out there,” she said. “It's great marketing on their part.”
Bergesen said that for her, running is akin to a religious/spiritual experience, and through running she has been able to forge connections and friendships. “I wanted Oiselle, in some capacity, be able to help women form those connections, especially in that early age of their young adult life when there's just a lot of competing forces,” she said.
What do you wear when you warm up? How are you trying to feel? What’s your ideal emotion toe-ing the line? How does this affect what you choose to wear? On the blog, Haute Volée athlete @alexinawilson tells us about her race day #powersuit. What's yours? . . . #running #womensrunning #trackandfield #flystyle #race #steeple #stanfordinvite #flystyle
To help make those connections beyond seeking out members at events and on social media, Volée members get access to the Oiselle Team Portal, a social media network, and are invited to Oiselle meet-ups and Oiselle running camps. Bergesen said that often runners will post that they're visiting a city and ask for running routes or someone to run with.
For the Colorado group, Alcorn writes a newsletter and helps organize those meet-ups and camps. As a state leader, she’s not paid for her work, but her membership fee is waived. She considers the experience worth it, even though it is a lot of work.
“If I wasn't a leader and I was paying $100, I would still pay it because of those benefits of being able to meet up with these really incredibly women and meet women from all over the country,” she said.
Bergesen said that, on a strictly transactional standpoint, her community doesn't make money off Volée. The cost of building and managing the community, even with volunteer team leaders, is expensive. “We know that this program has built a very engaged community of women that benefits Oiselle, but we also maintain a healthy distance between Commerce and Community — where neither can be subservient to the other,” she wrote in a follow-up email to our conversation.
Separate or not, it does push the brand. If you run a lot, you can't miss them. Same if you spend any time on social media tuned into anything running-related. One hundred and forty members will be running the Boston Marathon on April 17th. I saw one member in a race series I ran in March that had less than 400 runners overall.
I run a lot, and I’ve been writing about running for almost seven years. In that time, I have never seen an apparel brand invoke such strong opinions of love or hate — from men and women — with very little in between. From the time Oiselle started selling a running wedding dress in 2010 (which is when I first became cognizant of the brand) to reporting this story, and just from being a runner who writes and talks a lot about running, I’ve been told Oiselle is either a force of change for both women in running and small, independent brands — or a cult.
Oiselle’s gear is high-quality stuff, but the price points are above what I like to spend on running clothes (and why I also don’t shop at Lululemon or Athleta, or buy Nike or Brooks stuff at full price). I feel the same way about it as I do Disney races: It costs more than I want to dedicate to my running, but I’m not mad about it, because I can sign up for a cheaper race or keep buying my favorite discontinued Nike running tank on eBay for less than $10. I do have three Oiselle shirts, though. Two were bought on deep discount from my local running store years ago. The third, the Distance Crewneck I bought at full price directly from the website, was something I bought myself as a present for finishing my first ultramarathon.
Emotion made me spend more than I typically would on a T-shirt, and in reporting this story, a lot of people talked with or about emotion when it comes to Oiselle.
Bergesen believes that running is “a path to confidence and empowerment.” As it turns out, you need things to put on your body to do that activity. “When you support Oiselle, you are supporting a 95 percent female-led, dedicated, inspired company that has a very close and direct relationship with its customer base, which means we listen carefully, which means we make changes based on that. I'd be hard-pressed to say that you get that from a Nike or a Lululemon.”
“If you want to say we're selling empowerment, well, maybe we are.” Later on — more than a week after the phone interview — Bergesen still seemed to turn the question of empowerment over in her mind. “I was thinking about that ‘selling empowerment’ thing,” she wrote in reply to a fact-checking email, “and I thought ‘I wish! But turns out you have to [do] that work yourself!’” She finished her sentiment with a winky face.
Other than location and age, Oiselle doesn't have demographics as to who makes up Volée members — the sweet spot is women in their mid-30s. Of course there are exceptions, but in looking at hundreds of Instagram posts with two common hashtags used by Volée members on Instagram — #oiselleVolée and #oiselleteam — it's hard not to see a lot of these women are white, skinny, and rich, or at least try to appear as if they're affluent. It doesn't help either that Oiselle's professional field, including elite and Haute Volée, is overwhelmingly white, and that the largest size Oiselle makes is a size 12.
Bergesen doesn't shy away from talking about diversity issues. “Even though I considered myself a woke feminist prior to the election, my eyes have been opened to my own white privilege in new ways since then,” she said. When it comes to diversity and representation, she said the company has “made strides and is improving, but we're not there yet.”
In that vein, Oiselle’s athlete models, who are drawn from its athlete community and appear all over the website, are different races, ages, shapes, and sizes. For the 2016 Olympics, the brand made a custom racing kit for Sarah Attar, an Arabian-American marathon runner competing for Saudi Arabia that met the coverage requirements of that country's sports federation, but also be something that would be functional to wear while running a marathon in Brazil (and then collaborated with her on items they still sell on the site). Oiselle is also creating larger sizes, which are currently scheduled for release in 2018.
For Volée, though, Weingarten said it will be hard for the make-up of the membership to change because, in that it has a membership fee, it's always going to be a self-selecting group. “By virtue of being inclusive, they have to be exclusionary,” Weingarten said. It's not social media stats or a blog that's the criteria to get in now. Instead, to be part of the club, it's applying when memberships are available — and that $100 fee.