Allyson Felix is the most decorated Olympian in track and field history. But a few years ago, she had a problem: She had no shoes to wear.
In 2019, she publicly cut ties with Nike, her main sponsor, when she asked the company for maternity protections and was stonewalled. A few months later, she signed a new sponsorship contract with women’s activewear label Athleta, which vowed to support her as both an athlete and a mother. But Athleta didn’t make sneakers. So what would she wear to her next race? “We hated the idea that she would go and offer free advertising for a brand that didn’t want to sign her,” says Wes Felix, Allyson’s manager and brother. “One day, I looked at her, and said: ‘What if we built our own shoe company?'”
So that’s what they did. In 2020, Allyson and Wes cofounded Saysh, which is designed to be an alternative to the male-oriented sneaker companies that drive the sports world. As she heads to the Tokyo Olympics, she will proudly wear spikes custom built for her by Saysh’s designers. And this September, the brand will release its first product, a $150 sneaker tailored to the distinct anatomy of a woman’s foot. It will also launch an online community that will give subscribers access to workouts, digital content, and chances to interact with other members, including Allyson herself.
A family business
At 35, Allyson is one of the top track and field athletes in the world, with six Olympic gold medals and 11 world championship titles to her name. For most of her career, she’s kept her head down and focused on her sport, but over the past two years she’s emerged as an outspoken advocate for women. She shared the story of her difficult pregnancy to draw attention to the struggles that Black mothers face in the health system, and just last week she partnered with Athleta to launch a $200,000 childcare grant for mothers who are athletes. In many ways, Saysh is the next step in this advocacy.
Wes believes it was Allyson’s experience with Nike that drove her to the brink. “We started this company from a place of pain, hardship, and sadness,” he says. “It all comes back to her feeling like she was thrown away, undervalued, and an afterthought, which broke her in a lot of ways. I’m so glad that we’re bringing Saysh to the world, but I would never want Allyson to go through that again.”
Wes and Allyson have always been close. As children, they were both athletic, so they often spent hours on the track running together. In college, Wes served as captain of the track and field team at the University of Southern California, and for three and a half years after he graduated, he was an athlete sponsored by Nike. But he was always interested in becoming a sports agent or a manager. As Allyson’s star continued to rise, Wes believed he could help her negotiate better deals with corporate sponsors. So, when she was 22 and he was 25, he pitched the idea of becoming her agent for a year, to see how they got along. “We come from a close-knit family with a dad who is a protector,” Wes says. “He said, you need to protect your sister. You guys need to work together in such a way where you can look out for one another.”
More than a decade later, the two are still working together. And while other agents may have cautioned Allyson against cutting ties with a giant like Nike, Wes says he was far more concerned with her happiness and well-being than with her financial success. “As an agent, I was told that I would never again do another deal in the sport for helping Allyson take this stand [against Nike],” he says. “But it was the right thing to do.”
Designing a sneaker for women
Most sneakers on the market aren’t specifically designed for women’s feet, say Saysh designers Tiffany Beers and Natalie Candrian, who left their jobs at Nike to work for Allyson. For much of the 20th century, women weren’t allowed to participate in professional sports, so shoe companies designed basketball and running shoes based on men’s feet. These became the prototypes for the modern athletic shoe. “Sports was a man’s world, and the sports shoes were built for men,” Candrian says. “But it’s a bigger problem that persists today. The attention, money, and sponsorships still tend to go towards men.”
Even now, when scores of women wear sneakers every day, Beers and Candrian have observed that many shoe brands create a single shoe model designed for a man’s foot, then simply make smaller sizes for women. Yet, women’s feet are different from men’s. For one, the fat content in women’s bodies is distributed differently than it is in men’s bodies, so their feet must carry this weight differently. And anatomically, a woman’s heel tends to be narrower and her forefoot tends to be wider proportionally than the heel.
As they developed their introductory product, the Saysh One, the designers built it around women’s proportions. They also created a higher heel, which many women find more comfortable. The end result is designed to feel like pulling on a comfortable pair of jeans that fit snugly and provide support in the right places. “When we started this project, we said, ‘Let’s pretend men’s shoes don’t exist. Let’s pretend shoe’s don’t exist,'” Beers says. “If a woman was going to build a shoe for herself, what would she create?”
Aesthetically, they were focused on creating an instantly recognizable look that could one day be iconic. There are lines that traverse the length of the shoe and crisscross each other on the front. Candrian says the wrap dress was one of her inspirations. “The ideas of the lines crossing diagonally is a flattering visual,” she says. “The lines remind me of a track.”
The shoe is available for preorder in three colors and will ship in September. It will also be available for sale in Athleta stores. And the team already has a pipeline of other products to roll out in the fall and winter, which includes other shoes and apparel. But the goal for everything Saysh does is to create a space that’s entirely focused on women’s needs. “The real vision is to create a community by women for women,” Wes says. “We will keep going back to our community and asking them what they want to see in the world.”