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Can running shorts change the world? This brand hopes so

Two idealistic twentysomethings are on a mission to build human connection through the act of running, an activity that people all over the world can relate to.

When David Spandorfer, cofounder of activewear brand Janji, runs trails through Boston in the morning, it often occurs to him that there are people all around the world doing exactly the same thing. Someone in Nepal is running to get water from a well; someone in Uganda is running to catch the bus to the market. Perhaps a Bolivian cross country team is preparing for a race by running through the mountains. “When you run, you participate in an experience that is shared across humanity,” says Spandorfer. “When you go to the Boston or New York marathon, you see runners from every corner of the globe.”

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[Photo: courtesy Janji]
People around the world are exercising more than ever, driving the growth of the sportswear market, which is expected to reach $231.7 billion by 2024. And while there are hundreds of brands on the market, Janji is seeking to distinguish itself by doing more than selling running shorts and singlets. Spandorfer wants his brand to build bridges between his customers–who are largely based in the U.S.–and artists and designers from other parts of the world. Every year, a team from Janji visits foreign countries to connect with local artists and cultures, and then create a line based on their research. Over the last few years, they have visited Haiti, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Tanzania, and India.

Last year, Janji’s team headed to Nepal, where it collaborated with the Association of Craft Producers, a Kathmandu-based organization that helps market and distribute the products of more than a thousand local artisans, most of whom are women. The company worked closely with one craftswoman, Raksha Adhikari, and her team, to create many colorful fabrics that were used throughout Janji’s collection, as well as a bag made from traditional hand-loomed Nepali fabric.

To create its Uganda collection, which debuted earlier this year, they worked with local artist Ruganzu Brunoto to create a trio of shirts inspired by traditional East African textiles hand-drawn with brightly colored patterns. The Janji team discovered that Uganda has an open-borders policy, providing safe haven for refugees who want to work in the country. This means that the local stores are full of fabrics from neighboring countries, including Congo, Rwanda, and South Sudan. Many traditional patterns from these countries appear in the final collection.

Last week, the brand launched its newest collection, which is inspired by Bolivia. Janji commissioned a print from Bolivian graphic artist Claudia Gorena that features fun, colorful, cartoonish faces. Gorena calls this design “las caras de carrera,” which means “faces of the race.” It’s supposed to reflect the many emotions humans experience through life, from joy to suffering to exhaustion to silliness.

“We wanted to make running apparel inspired by people in other countries who are also runners,” Spandorfer says. “A lot of the activewear apparel on the market looks very similar. But when you step outside the Western world, you see a lot of really cool designs and patterns, which we wanted to integrate in each line.”

In addition to telling these stories through the clothes themselves, Janji brings a camera crew and photographers to these countries, so they can profile the local artists and artisans in videos and photo essays on its website and blog.”I believe that the world is best seen on foot, going through back alleys, off the beaten track,” Spandorfer says. “We’re trying to capture this aspect of running in our artwork.”

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[Photo: courtesy Janji]

Running with a conscience

While the brand has been around for six years, it seems to have just come into its stride, scaling from a niche startup to a larger player in the market. Over the last year, Janji’s website sales have more than doubled, and the brand has been picked up by retailers like Marathon Sports and Running Warehouse, growing its wholesale revenues by more than 130%, according to Spandorfer. Janji outfits are at a premium price point, with singlets that cost $40 and running tights that cost $80. The clothes are more expensive than entry-level Nike or Adidas gear, but slightly cheaper than, say, Lululemon.

Spandorfer came up with the idea for Janji in 2010, on the back of a bus that was en route to a track and field meet. At the time he was about to be a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. As he chatted with Mike Burnstein, the captain of the cross country team, the pair sketched out a plan for a sportswear brand that brought people together. “I’m a decent athlete, but, for me, running has been about much more than just competing,” he says. “It’s given me the opportunity to explore parts of Missouri that I never would have if I hadn’t gone on long runs; some of my best friends are people that I have run with. I thought, What if we took this concept on a global scale, and used running to bridge cultures?”

[Photo: courtesy Janji]
Spandorfer, now 29, and Burnstein, now 27, took a couple of college business classes, then wrote a business plan, which their professor praised. They thought they might actually be on to something. So after college, they moved to Boston, where they began working on Janji in earnest. They picked Boston because it seemed like a town designed for runners, from the many footpaths throughout the city to the Boston Marathon. It also happened to be home to other activewear brands, like New Balance, Saucony, and Reebok, and even smaller startups like Top, Tracksmith, and Karhu. This means that there is a concentration of talent in the city that the brand could eventually tap into as it grew and employed more people. From the start, the company was bootstrapped with the help of money from family and friends, and it has still not taken any institutional funding.

Spandorfer says that Janji appeals to a particular kind of runner, one who is not just interested in performance and competition, but who sees running as a social activity. The company is already hosting running trips, including one earlier this year to Mexico City. “We know that Janji is not for everybody,” says Spandorfer. “We attract people who are younger, generally located in urban areas, and care about travel and exploring the world.”

[Photo: courtesy Janji]
The brand is also committed to helping the people in the countries in which it works in tangible ways. It finds local NGOs that are helping provide access to clean water in each country where it works, then donates 5% of proceeds from that particular collection to those organizations.

Janji manufactures the vast majority of its clothing in a Chinese factory that is owned by a Swedish company and pays employees 50% more than the living wage. The company also sources fabrics from Oeko-Tex-certified companies, which guarantees that the materials are made sustainably, with minimal environmental impact when it comes things like fabric dying. All of this helps the brand to uphold its values, as far as being socially responsible. But it also means that the clothes are at an elevated price point. This means that Janji is targeting Americans with high disposable incomes who can afford $50 on running shorts and $110 windbreakers. And by extension, it is not directly engaging as consumers the runners in the developing countries that it features in its marketing. So, in many ways, Janji’s rubric of cultural exploration is a one-way street, at least for right now: Western runners are encouraged to get out and see the non-Western world, but not vice versa.

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For the time being, Spandorfer is focused on growing the brand in the U.S. He and Burnstein are working to make products available through more retailers. In September, the brand is launching a new program called Janji Collective that he hopes will create deeper loyalty with customers. The program invites customers to donate $50 to Janji’s clean water partners, and in return receive a signature T-shirt, early access to Janji collections, and a lifetime discount of 15% at the brand. The company hopes to use this program to identify some of the most ardent supporters of the brand, then reach out to these individuals to build a real-world community. The brand is also planning to organize running meet-ups and plan new trails that will allow runners to explore new parts of their cities.

“I realize we sound a little idealistic when we talk about our company,” Spandorfer says. “But we really wanted to create new ways to explore the world, connect with other people, and fundamentally change the world through running.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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