Retro-style sportswear is back on track

Independent sportswear labels are garnering a loyal following with running gear that combines retro designs with high performance and eco credentials, says Marc Abbott

Iffley Road Drirelease-piqué Cambrian T-shirt, from £65
Iffley Road Drirelease-piqué Cambrian T-shirt, from £65

My father-in-law’s 1960s North Attleboro High School athletics singlet was one of the first inspirations for Tracksmith,” says Matt Taylor, CEO and founder of the Boston running brand. After the initial Van Cortlandt collection, with its signature ivory sash across the chest, came the three-button Henley top ($68) with its Chariots of Fire vibe, both in a high-performance breathable fabric. These styles were aimed at “core runners – whom we call the Running Class,” continues Taylor. “Competitive but not professional; striving for personal records and pushing themselves to improve simply for their personal growth.” It wasn’t long before the now-five-year-old Tracksmith gained a fan base – on both sides of the Atlantic – attracted to the earthy hues and retro aesthetic. And the brand is not alone. The desire for running kit that combines old-world chic with high-performance credentials has inspired other independent labels that are also garnering cult status. 

From left: Ashmei merino and microfibre 2in1 shorts, £110, and merino/carbon Running Man jersey, £109. Soar mesh singlet, £54
From left: Ashmei merino and microfibre 2in1 shorts, £110, and merino/carbon Running Man jersey, £109. Soar mesh singlet, £54

In Britain, Claire Kent and Bill Byrne were part of a new wave of backward-glancing brands when they identified a lack of classically stylish, highly functional running gear and, in 2013, launched Iffley Road, named after the Oxfordshire athletics track where Roger Bannister became the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile in 1954. “The 1980s rivalry between middle-distance runners Coe, Ovett and Cram also fired our imaginations,” says Kent. “Out minimalist kit was inspired by Bannister’s pared-back kit.” Take the Lancaster slim-cut singlet (from £50), Hove long-sleeved training top (£80) and Cambrian T-shirt (from £65), each in muted colour schemes (olive, burgundy, grey, navy), often with a pair of simple stripes that evoke a bygone era, but made from Drirelease piqué – a highly wicking, lightweight fabric that dries four times faster than cotton. Similarly, there are three styles of retro loose-cut shorts (alongside a compression version), including the Brighton (£75) with discreet zipped pockets, soft inner mesh and side vents.

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Other UK brands now pairing technical fabrics with a traditional finish include Ashmei, whose 2in1 shorts (£110) combine a loose-fitting microfibre outer with a merino, thermo-regulating inner compression layer, while the Running Man jersey (£109) adds carbon to the merino blend to speed wicking. London brand Soar’s collection includes a singlet (£54) in a lightweight, fast-drying mesh with either a bamboo print or a striking 1970s-style orange geometric design; the Race Short 2.0 (£72), now refined with a supportive liner and shortened length; and the Mid-Temperature Top (£110), another 1970s-esque style with long sleeves, half zip and a shoulder slash (in orange, navy or black with yellow), in an Italian-made wicking fabric that the brand says supports muscles and helps maintain a warmer core on springtime runs.

From left: Hove training top, £80. Satisfy technical-fabric Run! Punk Run! singlet, £107, with an image of Joe Strummer of The Clash on the starting line of the 1983 London Marathon
From left: Hove training top, £80. Satisfy technical-fabric Run! Punk Run! singlet, £107, with an image of Joe Strummer of The Clash on the starting line of the 1983 London Marathon

Sweden’s YMR Track Club, launched in 2017, takes the retro aesthetic and adds eco credentials. “We’re proud of our look, but sustainability is also high on our agenda,” says founder and Olympian Peter Häggström Lindecrantz. “Our polyester is made from 100 per cent recycled plastic bottles.” This breathable material is used for the signature Track Attack burgundy and navy singlet (SKr530, about £45), as well as the 1950s-inspired Norr Mälarstrand collection, named after Stockholm’s shoreside running route and including a long-sleeve training top (about £65), T-shirt (about £50) and cropped shorts with contrast piping (about £55). Other pieces have organic or eco-certified credentials, such as the calf-length Track Attack socks (about £26) in ÖKO-certified polyamide. 

YMR Track Club polyester/elastane long-sleeve training top, about £65 and socks, £26
YMR Track Club polyester/elastane long-sleeve training top, about £65 and socks, £26 | Image: Josefine Bäckström

“We make running apparel that we want to wear and do it in a way we can feel good about,” says Monica DeVreese, co-founder of Californian label Rabbit. “We believe in ethical, sustainable manufacturing, so all our kit is made just 100 miles south of our home in Santa Barbara. And more importantly, we know that all our apparel is made in conditions we approve of, by workers who are treated fairly.” Standouts are the Holiday Welcome to The Gun Show singlet ($45) with its “Born to Run Free” slogan, classic crewneck Ez Tee Ringer ($45) with contrast piping in an assortment of colours, and green FKT shorts ($62).

From left: YMR Track Club polyester/elastane singlet, £45, shorts, £55, and T-shirt, £50
From left: YMR Track Club polyester/elastane singlet, £45, shorts, £55, and T-shirt, £50

From eco and sustainable consciousness to social responsibility – and Massachusetts brand Janji, which marries vintage good looks with a commitment to donate five per cent of sales to clean-water projects. “We visit countries, meet with local artists and fabric makers, then design a collection inspired by that country and donate to local projects,” says co-founder David Spandorfer. The Las Caras de Carrera (Faces of the Race) range, based on Bolivia, is a 1980s riot of Chihuahuas and folk images; La Paz artist Claudia Gorena decorated the singlet ($48) and shorts ($52) with illustrations to reflect “the joy, suffering and ritual of racing”. Next up is a collection inspired by Cambodia

From left: Iffley Road Drirelease-piqué Lancaster singlet, from £50. Janji polyester Las Caras de Carrera singlet, $48. Rabbit polyester/spandex Holiday Welcome to the Gun Show singlet, $45. Tracksmith polyester/spandex Henley top, $68
From left: Iffley Road Drirelease-piqué Lancaster singlet, from £50. Janji polyester Las Caras de Carrera singlet, $48. Rabbit polyester/spandex Holiday Welcome to the Gun Show singlet, $45. Tracksmith polyester/spandex Henley top, $68 | Image: Simon Sinard

Lastly, France’s Satisfy produced the singlet of the season last summer with “Run! Punk Run!” (£107) featuring The Clash frontman Joe Strummer competing in the 1983 London Marathon. The punk vibe continues in the Run West collection, a celebration of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s and featuring tees with ventilation via “moth holes” engineered into the fabric to give them an old-school, flea-market feel. One such screenprinted singlet (£108) bears an image of counterculture icon Willie Nelson in the 1977 Run for your Life race in Austin, Texas. “We’re bringing running back to its roots,” says Satisfy’s head of brand Gabriella Kelly, “creating a voice for today’s creatives, visionaries and artists: a group we call ‘The Running Cult’.”

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