In the bustling streets of Paris, Brice Partouche stands out as a runner who defies convention. Clad in a well-worn T-shirt, a vibrant paisley bandana, and tie-dye socks, he appears more suited for a heavy metal concert than a jog. However, it’s his sneakers, and perhaps his micro shorts, that give away his true intentions. Partouche firmly believes in maintaining his unique style while running, saying, “If I dress a certain way during the day, why would I change my style completely when I run?”
Partouche’s distinctive Parisian running style is a fusion of unconventional fashion and premium performance. Founded in 2015, Fulfill, the brand he created, challenges the traditional norms of athletic wear. Instead of opting for glossy, mass-produced materials, Fulfill embraces responsible fibers, matte textures, and earthy tones like desert browns, sage greens, and clay. Partouche explains, “I didn’t recognize myself in the choices from the mass-market brands. I knew I couldn’t be the only one who wanted something else.”
Fulfill is just one of the pioneers among a growing number of independent labels redefining activewear with a strong focus on design. District Vision, founded by Max Vallot and Tom Daly in New York in 2016, combines urban-ready silhouettes with cutting-edge technology. While the brand initially gained recognition for its sports sunglasses, it has expanded into a complete range of running apparel, including a stylish women’s line and a collaborative collection with New Balance.
London’s Soar infuses race-worthy accessories with bold graphic prints, while Wyrd, based in Hong Kong, adorns its loose jerseys with Celtic and Pagan symbols. Jareth Ashbrook, the founder of Wyrd, draws inspiration from brands like A-Cold-Wall* and Cottweiler, creating a unique fusion of running and streetwear aesthetics.
Today, running has evolved beyond a mere lifestyle; it’s become a social event. For many runners, weekend miles are punctuated by brunch, and after-work runs often lead to socializing over drinks. Boston-based Tracksmith, which is set to open its first UK store in Marylebone, plans to organize fun runs that conveniently end within jogging distance of popular spots like Chiltern Firehouse. According to Tom Daly, co-founder of District Vision, people now expect activewear to reflect their lives and interests, blurring the lines between fashion and functionality.
These independent brands stand out by avoiding the use of iconic logos from major sportswear brands. Instead, they playfully experiment with their branding. Fulfill is recognizable not only by its name but also by slogans like “Run Away,” “Possessed,” and “Running Cult Member.” District Vision incorporates painterly peace signs and “Centre for Inner Peace” catchphrases into its designs. Torsa and Pruzan from London opt for minimalist labeling, while Wyrd embraces Celtic-inspired motifs with phrases like “Binding Motion” adorning their sleeves.
Norda, a single-style brand from Canada launched in 2021, has gained a cult following for its featherlight and stylish running shoes. Co-founder Nick Martire, a lifelong endurance athlete, decided to create his brand after years of dissatisfaction with mass-produced, quickly-wearing-out footwear. Norda shoes, priced at $285, are made from Dyneema, a bulletproof, laser-cut fabric 15 times stronger than steel. To ensure a perfect fit, Norda asks customers to trace their feet on A4 paper, measure in millimeters, and send the drawings. The shoes are available in beige, black, and white, reflecting the brand’s commitment to simplicity and versatility.
What sets these independent brands apart from their mass-market counterparts is their small-batch production and meticulous design. Tim Soar, the founder of Soar, emphasizes that sportswear is more akin to product design than mass production. Soar employs 3D rendering, technical toiles, and extensive product testing. This summer, the brand introduced a hot-weather top with UPF50 protection and a women’s range, both rigorously tested by local runners. Pruzan, set to launch soon, offers women’s shorts that are specifically designed to cover the hips without being too baggy, ensuring a comfortable fit during long runs.
Fulfill takes pride in developing its own materials, such as the quick-drying “Justice” fabric, and incorporates features like sweat-proof phone pockets and external care tags to prevent chafing. District Vision’s eyewear is handcrafted in Japan using bespoke molds, lenses, and adjustable ear pads, setting a high standard for quality and design.
The wave of indie brands reshaping the activewear industry began with Rapha, a cycling brand launched in 2004, followed by On, known for its innovative hosepipe-derived soles. These brands challenged the market with premium products and disrupted traditional expectations. Norda’s co-founder, Willa Martire, aptly describes the experience of running in these artisanal wares as akin to “sliding into a Range Rover… or flying business class.”
Steven Alexander, co-founder of Glasgow-based running store Achilles Heel, welcomes this shift in the market, noting that it caters to a broader demographic of runners and offers refreshing, technical styles. Independent brands like Norda, Ciele, Saysky, and others have found their place in the running community, providing a blend of style and performance that resonates with a new generation of athletes.
Max Vallot emphasizes the community-driven nature of these brands, stating, “We’re the people standing next to you at the starting line.” These brands are so collaborative that Fulfill and Norda joined forces to create a limited-edition mint green trail shoe, with a second iteration set to launch in the fall. In the world of indie activewear, disruptors unite to push boundaries and revolutionize the industry. It’s a race worth watching.