The runner's market has been dominated by giant sports brands like Nike, Reebok and Adidas for what feels like forever. Especially after the pandemic, when gyms were shuttered and team sports were banned, major sports brands have been posting double-digit recoveries. But recently a wave of challenger brands have been popping up all over the globe and taking lumps out of the big players.
In France, one such new breed is Distance (think: less Nike Town and more the ethically-minded clothing brand Everlane – only for performance sportswear). Founded in 2017 by Stéphane Sultana, Guillaume Pontier and Xavier Tahar, Distance blends technical performance with style. It has two specialist runner's stores in France – in Lyon and Paris.
Unlike the traditional running shoe stores of old, Distance has more in common with a boutique fashion brand; the walls are crisp white, everything is gloss or glass, and independent magazines such as Victory Journal are on display.
Lionel Jagorel is the store manager at Distance's Paris location. For three years, he's been helping to establish Distance, mainly growing the community of runners in Paris and Lyon. ‘We also want to develop in Europe. We have some countries that are ordering a lot on our website. Denmark at the moment is one of our most successful countries [online], and we have some connections there also.’
But Lionel has been pursuing another, much more unexpected goal recently. Formerly working as a press officer for outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia in Paris, he ‘grew fed up of talking with journalists’ and wanted to pursue ‘something new’.
The something new is Distance's third store – not in France, but rather in Kenya. In a small town called Iten, with a population of just more than 40,000, Distance has opened a specialty running store. The choice of location isn't as random as it might seem. First and foremost, Iten is one of the long-standing homes of long-distance running in Africa. The local school, St Patrick's High School, has produced some of the world's greatest long-distance runners, including Olympic gold medalists, world record holders and winners of the Boston and New York marathons.
There's also a rather more personal connection for Distance's co-founder Guillaume. ‘His father, Jean-François Pontier, was the national coach for the French Athletics Federation. He took the French distance athletes on training camps to Iten for many years,’ explains Lionel. ‘So, we have quite a few connections out there.’
The store in Iten, with its corrugated steel walls and roof and relatively bare interior, while not quite as polished as the Distance locations in France, retains the charm of a pop-up fashion concept store. From the hyper-graphic signage to the sparsely merchandised trainers on the walls, the Iten store shows that behind Distance's high-fashion look and feel beats a true authenticity and expertise in the world of running.
‘Nobody had ever done anything [in Iten],’ says Lionel. ‘No brand, no startup, nothing. Given the significance of the area to running, we just thought it would be really meaningful to our customers.’
The store is stocked by brands who donate secondhand running shoes, which have only been worn once or twice in a season. The shoes are then sold at a locally affordable price and the money raised is reinvested into the area. The shoes are frequently given a new lease of life by young Kenyan athletes.
The journey to opening the doors of Distance Iten wasn't without hiccups. As Lionel explains, ‘We were lucky to have connections in the area who could help us through local customs and laws. For example, our local connections came and told us that we can't open, because all the shops in the country have to have a picture of the president up and we didn't.’ The next most significant challenge is actually getting shoes to the store. Without local infrastructure in place, the employees took to bringing over new shoes on commercial flights – as many pairs at a time as they could fit into their luggage.
As different as Iten may seem in comparison to Paris and Lyon, they have more in common than you might expect. The most significant link is the community of runners who are drawn to Distance stores (wherever they are). ‘Anywhere you go, you'll find someone who's running,’ says Lionel, ‘and our customers are all about that life. They talk about racing, about technical gear and what's right for them. They're beyond passionate about it and so are we.’
It might sometimes seem counterintuitive for a brand to open a bricks-and-mortar space today, considering all the associated costs but, for Lionel and the founders of Distance, the Iten store isn't about turning a profit. The goal, they say, is to pay a good salary to the Kenyan employees there, as well as proving that Distance means what it says when it comes to offering an authentic and immersive experience to the worldwide running community. ‘I think it's a dream for a lot of our clients to want to go to Kenya to eat and to train with those guys – Distance is a little shot at that dream.’