When American track star Allyson Felix arrived in Eugene, Oregon this past June for the Summer Olympic Trials, the five-time Olympian and holder of nine Olympic medals wasn’t just vying for another opportunity to compete. She was also determined to use the Tokyo games as an opportunity to upend another standard.
Ahead of the 2021 Olympic Games, Felix announced the launch of her new women’s lifestyle brand, Saysh, as well as the release of its signature sneaker, the Saysh One. The shoe is meant to be worn for everyday use and to fit women’s soles, which, according to Felix, differ in proportion and width, with women, statistically, having skinnier Achilles heels. Among professional athletes, getting your own shoe deal is a lucrative career-defining milestone, and most star athletes end up collaborating with big companies, such as Nike or Adidas. For Felix to found her own sportswear brand is not only uncommon, it’s nearly unprecedented for athletes of her caliber and fame, a statement for women everywhere who see themselves reflected in her fight for equality — on and off the track.
“This Olympics for me is a lot bigger than trying to run fast,” she says. “There’s been so much adversity to overcome.”
Back in 2019, Felix shocked the sports world when she accused Nike — her official sponsor at the time — of discrimination. In a New York Times op-ed, Felix narrated how the company offered her 70% less money when she re-negotiated her contract after becoming a mother. “I felt pressure to return to form as soon as possible after the birth of my daughter,” she wrote, explaining how after she underwent an emergency C-section at 32 weeks because of life-threatening pre-eclampsia, she was expected to prove to Nike that she was more committed to the track than her own health. At the time, two former Nike athletes, runners Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher, shared similar stories in a New York Times investigation. (Nike has since updated its policies so as to not penalize sponsored athletes who “decide to have a baby.”)
Felix went on to sign with Athleta, which she says showed her that “things could be done differently.” Now, she’s on her way to the Olympics sponsored by both Athleta and her own company, donning both brands throughout the event. “I’m so, so proud,” the entrepreneur says. “This is something that I never thought I’d do.”
To launch Saysh — named after the term “seiche” that describes a standing wave which forms in enclosed bodies of water such as lakes — Felix knew she needed more than her athletic experience. Although she’s one of the most decorated athletes of all time, designing sneakers required the help of fabrication and engineering experts. But Felix didn’t want any experts; she wanted women. With the help of sportswear veteran Tiffany Beers, Felix enlisted Natalie Candrian, a Swiss designer with over 20 years of experience working in sportswear, who had left Nike to work independently in 2013. “I got to design and build something for women,” says Candrian. “I don't think I've got to do that before.”
After the first meeting, she had two feelings she wanted to evoke through the shoe: flow and grace. “I thought, ‘What is an equivalent in a fashion piece that gives you the feeling that it's an easy piece to wear?’,” says Candrian. “To me, it’s the wrap dress from Diane von Furstenberg.” The wrap dress, a fashion staple of the the 1970s, revolutionized the way women dressed, offering a practical but glamorous look that allowed women, who were moving into the workforce en masse, to move freely and to dress chicly without too much fuss. Candrian says that the DVF wrap dress is “something we can all wear, no matter your age, no matter who you are, no matter what you're up to and where you live.” That’s what the Saysh One was created to do for women.
Candrian says that women-centric design is not yet a reality inside the sneaker world. Even when sneaker brands like Nike, Rebook, and Adidas market their shoes for women, Candrian says they are almost never designed with a woman’s foot in mind. Instead, they are sized-down versions of men’s shoes.
But the Saysh One was created around a woman’s foot, designed for both performance and everyday wear. They are also fashionable: a textured toe box with matching laces with a hugging heel, sleek white soles, and the Saysh logo on its back. The toe box is shaped with flowing lines in a darker shade that reminded Candrian of track lines from the first time she designed them on paper. She says it’s an homage to “Allyson’s turf and office.”
Back in June, Felix had a chance to test them on the track at the Olympic Trials, after Candrian and a team of two former Nike engineers helped Saysh build a spiked version of their namesake model. It’s 3.7 ounces, the lightest shoe Felix says she’s ever run in. Now, she could break the record as the most decorated Olympian in history wearing a brilliant decoration of her own design.
Felix is set to debut her Saysh One spikes at the 2021 Olympic Games on July 30.