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Much Ado About Running Socks

Colorfully designed crew socks are all the rage in running right now.

An explosion of color is about to hit your sock drawer. Just as running shoes and running apparel have gone through a brightly colored evolution in recent years, colorful and artistically designed running socks are all the rage right now.

Upstart brand Stance, which has famously made inroads into the NBA and urban fashion recently, is leading the revolution with its avant-garde designs, but Nike has also tinkered with new fashion-forward models and Brooks is about to jump into the fray too. Designs range from bright colors and unique patterns to themed designs focused on holidays, southwestern landscapes or beach scenes.

In addition to new designs—or perhaps because of them—running socks are getting taller. Perhaps as somewhat of a cultural revolt against standard no-show or quarter socks typically available in white, black and gray, expect to see more knee-high running socks and crew socks that go well above the ankle.

The bottom line is that running socks—once hidden, nondescript or even an irrelevant afterthought—are suddenly hip, cool and a vehicle for self-expression for a growing number of runners.

“Runners love to express who they are,” says Bennett Grimes, apparel merchandising and design manager at Brooks. “Running socks are on fire right now as a category because it’s another fun way to put a little excitement into your run.”

In October, Brooks launched its new Pacesetter sock line with a Halloween-themed sock available in crew ($17) and tab ($15) styles. From there, it plans to release new themes every month, including socks to highlight Thanksgiving turkey trots, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, plus an array of stylish and hipster patterns.

Nike has been showing a wider array of non-traditional designs in its running sock lines online, while CEP is coming out with colorful new designs too. Injinji’s new Trail Crew Midweight Sock ($17) is offered in a variety of prints, including its Coastal socks (pictured above) made via a new direct-to-garment printing process that eliminates blank spaces in the design as the socks expand when they are worn.

“I think new runners are paying more attention to socks,” says Claire Kooperman, digital marketing coordinator for Injinji. “It’s another fashion piece with function.”

You might know Stance as the company that makes socks with photos of NBA players on them. Those products helped Stance gain publicity after it launched six years ago, but Stance executives have a much larger vision for the company. This fall, Stance will become the official sock of the NBA. And they have $86 million in funding to make that come to life.

The company was founded by a team of executives with backgrounds in technology and action sports who believe the marketplace is ready for a dominant hosiery brand that fuses fashion with performance and a modern marketing approach.

Stance is putting that strategy into practice in the running category with its Peformance line. The company recently signed mountain runner Anton Krupicka to an endorsement deal to promote its running socks. The two-time Leadville 100 champion joins Lauren Fleshman and Rickey Gates as a member of the brand’s Punk & Poets diverse roster of athletes.

“We believe there is an opportunity to offer performance run with interesting styles and constructions,” says Russell Nadel, director of the run category for Stance. The company will begin shipping lighter styles for Spring 2016 and now has a total of seven SKUs on the market—four for men and three for women. Prices for crews begin at $15 retail and extend to $36 for over-the-calf compression models.

All running styles are 200-needle construction comprised of moisture-wicking performance fibers, a lightly cushioned foot bed with reinforced toe and heel, air channel cushioning and anatomical venting with breathable performance mesh. The crew and OTC styles also feature graduated compression.

Stance has recently hired several Nike hosiery execs to help develop the performance running category, according to Nadel. “You only get one chance to get it right,” he says. “We believe there is a huge opportunity for retailers to expand the category by merchandising socks with apparel as well as shoes.”

Two of the company’s five founders are longtime tech entrepreneur and investor Jeff Kearl, who was involved in the start-ups of Logoworks, and and John Wilson, a former top executive at Reef and Oakley. The pair saw hosiery as a commodity category without a dominant player. They observed that many major brands licensed out their sock business, rather than produce it themselves.

Stance takes its product development seriously. The company has created what it believes is a state-of-the-art innovation lab at its California headquarters known as the SHRED Lab (Sock, Hosiery, Research, Engineering, and Development). It houses Lonati knitting machines and focuses on other performance features across a range of sports. The R&D focuses on aesthetics as well as technology. Stance’s proprietary process called INprint sublimates images directly on the yarn, allowing it to manufacture socks with photographs of former NBA players. This led many NBA players to become devotees of the brand, and helped the company secure a major licensing deal with the league.

Nadel says golf socks and motocross are next for Stance. “We’re going to keep innovating and telling our story,” he says.

Running Insight magazine contributed to this report.