In the two decades during which alumna Natalie Candrian (BS 98 Product Design) has designed athletic footwear, apparel and accessories, she’s kept her cool while watching basketball stars, tennis champs and other athletes wear her designs during big games, meets and matches.
That changed in summer 2021, when Candrian—having just moved from footwear design hub Portland, Oregon, back to her native Switzerland—sat glued to her brother’s television as sprinter Allyson Felix ran at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. “I was a nervous wreck,” says Candrian, via Zoom.
Felix was on the verge of becoming the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history. And she was about to do so while wearing the 0.07 Spike racing shoe from Saysh, her newly launched lifestyle brand of athletic apparel and sneakers designed for and by women. Candrian is the start-up company’s head of product design.
She was watching that day with her husband, footwear designer Thomas G. Bell (BS 98 Product Design), and their three children. The family cheered as Felix flew down the track wearing the custom 3.9-ounce blend of woven jacquard Candrian had co-designed with industry veteran Michael Friton. “It’s such a beautiful thing to watch,” says Candrian. “Athletes have this ability to tune everything else out and do what they do best, no matter how many people are watching.”
I love the world of sports, and creating something in perfect motion with the human body.Natalie CandrianHead of product design for Saysh
Two years before winning her 10th and 11th Olympic medals and cementing her place in history, Felix had split from Nike, her longtime sponsor. In a 2019 New York Times op-ed piece, she called out the company for its lack of athlete maternity protections—and for trying to cut her pay by 70 percent—during and after her pregnancy with her daughter, who was born in 2018 by emergency C-section. Her outcry led to Nike’s implementing a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes. And it led to Felix’s co-founding Saysh with a woman-centric focus and team.
Tiffany Beers, a former Nike product engineer, was brought on as engineer of the brand’s debut lifestyle sneaker, Saysh One. Beers brought on Candrian, known for her work for Nike and Adidas—including designing tennis player Maria Sharapova’s head-to-toe court looks for Nike, and the first three signature Adidas shoes for NBA player Tracy McGrady.
“Instead of us being given a design brief, Allyson shared her story,” says Candrian of Felix, who participated in most of the design meetings. “She would give us feedback and answer any questions. I related to her—it took me a while to balance being a mother and a designer, to feel strong and comfortable in both roles.”
Candrian’s Saysh One design, a mix of accessible function and elegance, features a streamlined color palette of signature Saysh Blue (a powder blue), natural (off-white) and black. With breathable soft microsuede and an engineered jacquard woven panel, the sneaker is sculpted to fit the form of the female foot, with a single heelpiece and a snug lacing system.
“We thought about the shoe as being a hug, and we were also inspired by the graphic lines of a running track,” says Candrian. “The idea of a wrap dress was also a great point of reference. It’s flattering on everybody, and welcoming and inclusive.” The sneaker was prototyped in size 9, which Felix and Candrian both wear. The pair would go on test runs—Felix in Los Angeles, and Candrian in Portland—and compare notes.
“Natalie is not only a brilliant designer, but she has an ability to see and understand people on a human level,” says Felix, by email. “That’s the most important aspect of design, from my view: truly understanding who you’re designing for. Natalie knows and understands the women we are designing for.”
Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman—founder of Brooklyn-based Interwoven Design, and the 2022–2023 Northeast representative for the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) Women in Design Committee—says that Saysh, as a female-focused athletic brand, is inspiring. “It’s exciting to see a woman designer, like Natalie, use their skill to create innovative products designed for women, from a woman’s perspective,” she says.
Candrian started sketching her initial design ideas for the Saysh One in August 2020, using a mood board. She says, “Saysh is the first time I’ve been able to create the design language of a brand instead of feeding into the language of an existing, massive, corporate one.” The shoe went into production in spring 2021; when the line launched in June, it sold out immediately. The brand’s success reflects a high demand for woman-centric athletic gear.
“This is the age of the inclusive consumer,” says Lindsey Maxwell, chair-elect of IDSA and vice president of Seattle-based design consultancy Teague. She notes that the consideration of inclusion in design is a more recent development than the industry’s long-standing embrace of empathy. “Buyers today are more vocal about what they want from brands—and they're willing to buy the change they want to see."
Women’s sneakers are often not designed for the narrow-heeled shape of a woman’s foot, so Beers and Candrian designed a narrower heel and a wider forefoot for the Saysh One, creating the shoe’s beautifully fitted silhouette, Candrian says. She included the Saysh Blue logo on the sneaker’s tongue, as well as a blue-and-white insert (known as a jewel piece), on the bottom of the shoe. Candrian wanted the Saysh One to feel both casual and dressy—“I can wear it with a dress and feel like I'm not wearing a running shoe,” she says—and to be appealing to women of all ages.
Candrian brought on Bernise Wong, now Saysh’s head of brand, to create the company’s logo, brand identity and marketing strategy. Wong and her design partner created Saysh’s “I Know My Place” campaign, with advertising that features a striking black-and-white photograph of Felix wearing her medals draped around her neck, with her C-section scar showing. “I have a C-section scar, too, and it’s obviously very personal,” Candrian says. “It was powerful for her to show her scar. She’s created Saysh for other female athletes, but also for her daughter, and for all of our daughters.”
In addition to heading up design at Saysh, Candrian is also the lead designer at Omorpho, a fitness apparel brand that launched in November 2021. The first collection features clothing that incorporates small weights spread across the body to provide resistance while training.
“I love the world of sports, and creating something in perfect motion with the human body,” says Candrian. “When I started, it was a boys’ club. But instead of trying to be one of them, I was just myself. That gives you respect.”