This week in Women in the Mountains, we sat down with Cassie Abel and Katy Hover-Smoot of Wild Rye. In 2016 the duo launched their very own women's outdoor apparel brand with hopes of creating more options for women. Bree Burnett photo.
On a week-long hut trip in the Selkirk range of British Columbia, Katy Hover-Smoot begrudgingly threw on her ill-fitted and unflattering baselayer. She didn’t really have a choice to wear anything else, because in 2013 there weren’t many options for women’s gear. The selection became even more sparse when she ventured into the world of mountain biking. Here, she only could find shorts that made her feel like a package of sausages in tight plastic wrap. It was a dilemma worth addressing, but she wasn’t sure how to approach with no formal apparel design background. Instead, she had a Ph.D. in art history from UC Berkeley and four years of experience from Specialized Bicycles. Three years later, unable to shake the idea from her head, she launched Wild Rye.
Luckily she wasn’t alone with her sentiments about women’s gear. An old friend of hers, Cassie Abel, had also taken a big leap by leaving her job at SMITH optics to create her own PR Agency. As with any big endeavor, Katy needed help but quickly realized that she couldn’t afford to hire Cassie for her PR services. Cassie, who also long believed that women deserved more options, had a better idea in mind: she suggested to become a partner of the company. In 2016, the two joined forces to launch Wild Rye.
This summer the brand celebrated its fourth birthday as a company, and what a wild journey it has been. Over the last few years, their inventory has grown to include tops, hats, and even more playful shorts. However, the brand never expected the incredible community that's blossomed from their hard work. Now, Wild Rye has a diehard following, and you'll likely see llama-adorned shorts zipping past you on the trail.
We sat down with Wild Rye CEO/co-founder Cassie Abel and Co-founder Katy Hover-Smoot to hear more about the origins of the company, and what it's like managing a small but growing apparel brand.
Hover-Smoot drew inspiration for Wild Rye from what she loved most: skiing and mountain biking. Katy Hover-Smoot Photo.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background?
KHS: My background is a bit different. Before Specialized I got a Ph.D. in Art History and always thought I would work in academia as a professor.
CA: My first job out of college was in investment banking. When I left that role I was helping Boulder’s club lacrosse team and would coach on the weekends. That ended up leading to a full-time varsity coaching position at UC Berkeley. I did that for a year and while I loved the experience, quickly realized it wouldn’t be my lifetime career. I ended up taking a job with a marketing agency in San Francisco and handled the account with VISA.
What led you to the outdoor industry?
KHS: Honestly? It was just the reality of the academic job market. I was staring down a decade of moving to towns and cities I didn't like for assistant professorships or adjunct jobs that may or may not lead to a tenured position, and none were in California. I knew that staying in the state and staying close to the mountains was important to me, so I chose geography over a job. Ralph Ellison is often credited with saying "geography is fate," and while he meant it in a very different context, I agree with the axiom.
CA: My dream my entire childhood was to work for SMITH, having partially grown up in Sun Valley. I wrote my senior thesis in college about market segmentation and branding in the ski industry and did case studies on SMITH and K2 Skis because I also grew up on Vashon Island where K2 started. It was one of those things where I always dreamed of it, but the skills I learned through all of my jobs led me to being able to make an impact at SMITH and even be considered for the job.
Creating Wild Rye and White Cloud Communications was Cassie’s way of staying in a place she loved. Jay Dash Photo.
Neither of you has a formal background in apparel design correct?
KHS: Cassie and I came from big brands [SMITH and Specialized] where the people who founded those brands were not themselves industrial or apparel designers. We really felt like we ourselves had the skills we needed to get a company off the ground, but we also knew we needed the right people to get there.
CA: Neither of us are designers by trade, however, we have spent a lot of time critiquing apparel in addition to using and abusing apparel.
What was lacking in women’s apparel?
KHS: When it came to bike shorts and base layers I always found that the fit was too tight. I spend most of my winter skiing, so by the time mountain biking season rolls around I’ve got strong thighs and shorts would never fit. As a size six I remember having to order an extra large mountain bike short and it was still too tight. Then there’s the issue of colorways. As a woman, you get three options: raspberry, teal, and black. That’s it.
CA: The biggest hole was absolutely in mountain biking, which is why we launched our bike gear first. We both operated in and around the bike industry and attended a million Interbikes and felt like there were 10 women to every 1,000 men on the show floor. We found that to be especially reflected in product and marketing throughout the industry. Buying shorts sizes would vary drastically, some days a medium would work and others an extra-large would be too small. Overall it lacked consistency.
The only thing you won't find in Wild Rye's inventory is boring baselayers. Emily Tidwell photo.
How much of a small business is problem-solving?
KHS: It was definitely problem-solving as we went, but I could not imagine trying to start a business before the internet. We’re so fortunate that we can Google practically everything now, which is incredibly helpful. It also helped that we both came out of these bigger companies so when we had questions about how these things worked we actually had people who we could call. We’ve had a lot of help along the way, and that’s really how we got ourselves off the ground. In the beginning, you really don’t know how to start, so we just went for it and hoped for the best.
What appealed to you about starting a small business?
KHS: Coming from an academic background I knew I always wanted to be my own boss, in comparison to working in the traditional corporate structure. I much prefer being my own boss and was looking for ways to control my own life and live in the Sierra Nevadas.
CA: I never thought I would be an entrepreneur, but the coolest part about it is building something and learning. In a corporate world you have one position and you do the duties for that role, and I know I’m oversimplifying it, but with Wild Rye, I feel like I’m learning something new every day. I’m one of those people who loves to learn, network, and gain more perspectives and that’s been the most exciting part of this. It’s definitely a choose your own adventure.
For me too, living in a small community I enjoy being able to give back to my local economy and create career opportunities for young professionals.
Wild Rye's motto is "play wild." It's an ethos that celebrates fresh air, fun, and most importantly not taking life too seriously. photo.Bree Burnett photo.
What really strikes me about the product is the level of thought put into it. Can you speak into that?
KHS: The actual fit process for us is actually pretty complicated and in depth. We fit on women who are active athletes and we try to fit across at least three body types. For example, we pick one size but we’ll try to get three different body types—whether it be tall, short, or pear shape—that identify as a size six to fit within our sample size. We do that because we want to make sure making a garment that fits everybody as best as we possibly can.
That actual detail and design work stemmed from the quality that we were looking for, and I think that’s reflected in our price point. A lot of what you’ll find in mountain bike apparel is polyester, which is neither durable or breathable. We use nylon instead, which is much sturdier and is also recycled. It’s a great material.
The same goes for our baselayer, we use 17.5 micron which is within reason one of the highest quality microns you could use. I guess you could go to 15.5 microns but that’s basically a Burberry turtleneck. Overall our focus was to create something ultra soft with a more modern cut.
CA: For the modern outdoorswoman I’ve seen a lot of women deterred from participating in these sports because they feel like they look ridiculous or things fit weird. They’re just not comfortable and we wanted to change that. So at times, we do look to the runway for prints and colors.
Last year Wild Rye released a new short, the Kaweah, which also makes your bum look good. Ray Gadd photo.
Let’s talk about the patterns: dinosaurs, llamas, and sloths. What was the inspiration there?
KHS: Cassie always jokes that our shorts are super “New England-ly” because of the small repeated style that we use. We were more interested in creating a sophisticated print.
CA: First off, all our prints are hand drawn and/or illustrated by female illustrators across the country. Each pattern is designed to celebrate the ways we play outside and each has its own character.
Also, congrats on celebrating your fourth birthday as a company! What have been some major highlights along the way?
CA: Reflecting back on how far we've come, I have to say, I'm most proud of the community we've built. It’s a community that’s welcomed so many new women into the outdoors. It’s a community that has given women the courage to fall and try again. It’s a community that's provided the encouragement to join a group ride and make new trail friends. And of course, a community that's supported women with the confidence to send it.
More tangible highlights for me personally include transitioning the ownership of the business and learning a lot, moving the HQ to Sun Valley, ID, becoming a Tory Burch Foundation fellow, winning the Title Nine Movers & Makers Pitchfest and continuing to improve our product line and offerings year after year!
Looking back on the last four years, do you think Wild Rye has achieved your original goal of empowering women?
CA: I do believe we’ve achieved a big piece of that goal, though we still have a lot of work to do to support ALL women. A couple things we’ve done well: we launched Women-Led Wednesday, an annual event much like Small Business Saturday, which supports and uplifts female-led businesses. We’ve shared REAL experiences of new mom’s finding their way back onto their bikes post-partum. Lastly, we’ve celebrated what real women’s summer legs look like if they lead an active lifestyle through our #WRSummerLegs campaign. Here’s to celebrating the bumps, bruises, sock tans and mud that comes from a life outside.
Something we’re actively working on doing better: Our end goal is a better representation of ALL womxn, but we want to do it the right way. Our hope is to genuinely support these womxn, the organizations they believe in, and the things that are important to them, rather than simply fill our Instagram channel with new faces.
All in all, Wild Rye hopes that women feel empowered whenever they rock their garments. Bree Burnett photo.
What's next for the brand?
CA: So many good things. We just extended an offer to our very first fulltime employee, because I used to be Wild Rye’s only employee. We’re positioning ourselves for a big growth year as we continue to welcome more women into life outside. We have a really beautiful new line planned for Spring 21 and are in the middle of wrapping up an overhaul of our winter collection for FW21/22.
Overall, we’re excited to continue growing and supporting our community of hard-charging, fun-loving, outdoor-appreciating women through new platforms and hopefully some in-person experiences. Finally, you can expect to continue to see us standing up for women, what we believe in, and sharing “real talk” about life outside and beyond!
From The Column: Women in the Mountains
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