As the CEO, owner, designer, and creator of Vander Jacket, Sarah Vander Neut may have been destined to create running apparel that doubles as art. Born in Eugene, Oregon — “Track Town, USA” — Sarah was immersed in colorful, vintage running clothing from an early age. Her dad ran for Nike’s Athletics West and got third in the Boston marathon just weeks before she was born. When he stopped running for Nike to spend more time with his family, his marathon time was among the ten fastest in the world.
“Our dog was named Nike,” Sarah says. “We had ‘swooshes’ on our Christmas tree. We were surrounded by Nike.”
On the other end of the style spectrum, Sarah’s mother taught her the ins and outs of clothing creation as a 4-H sewing leader.
“She did a great job teaching me,” Sarah remembers. “I went to Baylor for fashion design and I realized that she taught me really well, to the point that I felt like it was all review, the clothing construction we were learning.”
Sarah eventually switched her major to fine art and went on to attend Denver Seminary. After school, Sarah fell back into sewing, but it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her first child that her appreciation for vintage running gear and functional design would really collide.
“I got pregnant with my daughter and I was still running. I’m an avid runner, but not competitive like my dad. I tell people I’m a really faithful runner, like ‘I’m going to run today, but it will not be fast.’ So I was running and getting bigger and I just needed something to run in. I didn’t want to wear my husband’s sweatshirt and so I made a few running jackets.”
Sarah created two running jackets for herself on her Goodwill sewing machine. They had everything her changing body needed: a longer sleeve and waist, thumb holes, reflective stripes. At the time Sarah was selling her work at local Denver flea markets.
“We’re kind of at the golden age of the markets in Denver right now. But eight years ago, it was more scrappy. So, I was just selling one-offs that I would make, like dresses, shirts, shorts, you know, whatever.”
Sarah made a few more jackets and added them to her flea market racks. They sold out.
“Women were coming back throughout the day saying, ‘Do you have any more of those jackets I saw so-and-so wearing?’ I realized I kind of struck on something — I really honed in on making a jacket that would be really helpful for runners.”
Sarah’s attention to detail is one of the things that really makes her Denver-based label, Vander Jacket (which in Dutch literally means “Of the Jacket”) stand out. Every aspect of one of her custom jackets is designed to be beautiful and functional for runners. She’s even added a small hole in the jackets’ sleeve for a watch face, making split-tracking easier.
“I like training for marathons, so I’m always looking for extra places to put a little water flask or my phone. I don’t like the tool belt thing, that never really did it for me. I’d rather just have multiple pockets on a jacket. And the fitted hood is designed so that there isn’t a drawstring flopping around on you, but it won’t blow off if you’re running because it has some stretch to it.”
Vander Jacket’s non-jacket offering also feature thoughtful details, like the hand-painted, water-resistant neoprene commuter backpacks or her apres-run inspired, hand-embroidered sweatshirts. Consideration for comfort and practicality is paramount to Sarah’s designs. She has said her goal isn’t to be the “Running is Pain” company, but the “Running is Beautiful” company.
The other major factor in Sarah’s designs is her use of fabric. Vander Jacket utilizes 100-percent locally sourced materials, most of which is unused or “deadstock” fabric. She scours local art suppliers, Craigslist and other local athletic gear companies that may have excess fabric.
“It’s not the most tech savvy stuff,” says Sarah, who mixes eye-catching polyester with more contemporary techicanal textiles. “I focus on what is soft, what would I want to run in.”
Sarah still designs and sews each of her jackets individually, though she does now employ two local seamstresses to attach zippers and help with production.
“I approach them like art pieces,” says Sarah, who is also a painter. “Because I have a painting background, the way I look at it is that I have probably about 600 jackets that people are wearing or hopefully not just hanging in their closet — hopefully they’re running in them. And if I had 600 paintings in peoples’ homes, I would feel really great about that.”
The Vander Jacket Spring Running Jacket Line launched on May 3, 2019, at Common Threads on Old South Pearl Street in Denver. Sarah also invites you to set up home studio visits to try out her jackets through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Vander Jacket.
XX Arya Roerig is a writer and editor living on Colorado’s Front Range.