Sweated & Vetted: ISAORA

Founded in NYC in 2009 by Ricky Hendry and Marc Daniels, ISAORA was one of a handful of makers that helped to established the then nascent techwear market (clothing with high-performance fabrics and technical details that can be worn on the runway and the finish line). As techwear has since found its way into the mainstream, ISAORA has evolved into a leading consumer-direct label, pulling their line from Barneys and other retailers in order to sell exclusively via their own website without a middleman markup. They sent me four pieces to review from their recently released Sportswear collection, and they’ve quickly become some of my top go-tos. I even seriously think about doing laundry when they’re dirty rather than run in other stuff – they’re just that good.

The Welded Shorts come in a knee-length 8.5” inseam version and a mid-thigh 5” inseam version. But it’s more than just the length that distinguishes the two. Both models are trouser-cut with a non-elastic flat waistband, bonded seams (not sewn), laser-cut ventilation holes, mesh brief liner, and 4-way stretch material. However, the 5” shorts are made with 86/14 polyester/elastane fabric, and have an interior waistband key pocket, rear flap pocket, and breathable mesh gusset between the thighs.

The 8.5” shorts, on the other hand, are made from a 86/14 nylon/polyester fabric and only have a zippered rear pocket, with no interior pocket or thigh gusset. Post-wash measurements are relatively similar – both pairs (size medium) measure 33” around the waist with a 12” front rise. However, the leg opening on the 5” inseam pair is 12”, while the 8.5” inseam version measures 11”.

Performance-wise, I’d give a slight edge to the 5” shorts, but both pairs are among my favorites to run in. I’ve put 120+ miles into them over the last few weeks, including a hilly 31-mile trail race, and they’re lightweight, quick-drying, and virtually friction-free. For the most part, the shorts disappear when I’m wearing them, which is just about the finest compliment I can give. I was curious to see how the welded seams would hold up to hard use, and after lots of sweat, rain, mud, multiple trips through the washer, and more stumbles than I care to admit, I’m very impressed with their durability.

My only quibble with the Welded Shorts is the fit around the waist. Without an elastic band, the only thing securing the shorts tight is the drawstring. To their credit, it’s a sturdy drawstring and the embossed rubber “TRAINBETTER” text on the string helps keep knots tight. But, I still find myself cinching up more waistband material than I’d like. A solution might be producing the shorts in traditional sizes rather than alpha XS/S/M/L/XL.

Moving north of the waist, I also put 120+ miles into an Engineered Mesh-Knit T-Shirt and a Micro-Knit No-Sew T-Shirt. The Engineered Mesh-Knit tee is a thin 60/40 nylon/polyester blend with no side seams (similar to a tubular-knit sweatshirt). The most prominent visual feature is the thinner, lighter knit through the chest and under the arms, which opens up the body for better airflow. Measurements for my size medium after multiple washes (always hung to dry) are 19.5” across the chest, 28.5” body length, 6” sleeve width at the cuff, and 4” sleeve length under the arms, and the body has a very slight taper, coming down to 19” across the hips.

I found it extraordinarily comfortable and cool to run in, even on humid, swampy afternoons. The knit material dried quickly and wicked sweat well, and like the Welded shorts, it’s a shirt that just disappears when you’re using it. I did notice some minor thread breakage around the collar after a few runs. I’m not sure if this is an issue of thread material or the sewing tension, but as far as I can tell, it seems to only be an aesthetic problem.

The Micro-Knit No-Sew shirt is different enough from the Engineered Mesh-Knit tee that I’m really glad I got to try out both. It’s a super-stretchy 93/7 poly/spandex blend that’s noticeably lighter than the Engineered Mesh-Knit, and like the shorts, it’s welded together so there are no sewn-in seams (except the collar). Laser-cut ventilation holes at the sides provide some airflow, and my favorite small detail is the 2.5” of extra length in the rear from the curved hem. A medium measures slightly broader through the body and longer overall than the Engineered Mesh-Knit tee – 20.5” across the chest, 30” body length, 6.5” sleeve width at the cuff, and 5” sleeve length under the arms. The body is also slightly curved, measuring 20” across the narrowest point of the waist, and 21” at the hips.

While I strongly prefer the fit of the Micro-Knit No-Sew shirt, the fabric didn’t perform as well as the Engineered Mesh-Knit on the warmest days. The poly/spandex blend wicked sweat away from my body, but it didn’t seem to evaporate the moisture as quickly in temps higher than 80 degrees. I’d be curious to see how the other two training tees in the collection – the Torque Performance tee and the Nano-Mesh No-Sew tee – compare.

Overall, this is remarkable running gear from a company that’s attentive to the challenges of fusing technical performance and aesthetics. The details and fabrics show deliberate thoughtfulness about what running clothes ought to be and how they should work. It would have been easy to cut two lengths of shorts out of the same pattern, but instead, there are details that clearly distinguish the two. Likewise, I’m impressed that the shirts are not just generic tees sewn from two different fabrics, but fundamentally different designs. Runners are often creatures of habit, and Isaora’s put together some gear I’ll happily go back to over and over again.

Jason Brozek is an ultramarathon runner, lapsed Ironman triathlete, and professor at a small liberal arts college, where he teaches courses on sustainability and international politics.

  • walknseason

    How does this fit with your supposed “responsibly made” ethics at WS? Looking at the site, seems like its offshore standard China production with no chain of supply details. You’ve been seduced by fancy words for fabrics…

    • Jason Brozek

      My understanding is that Isaora produces in NYC, Portugal, Turkey and China, depending on the specific products, but their factory oversight is much closer than a larger sportswear company that blindly off-shores. I agree that I’d like to see more transparency and disclosure on their website though. The shorts and shirts I tested were made in Portugal, which is an EU member and must comply with the organization’s strict laws regarding working conditions – http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=706

      • walknseason

        Thank you for your response. I went through various products on the site and all were “made in China” (I guess I didn’t look at the ones you did) and was very dismayed. They have this rep as a green, folksy outdoorsy kind of company (say, like Outlier or Topo or Cadence, etc) but they are corporate much unlike the others.

        If that’s your thing, cool, but they are avoiding a lot of the same optics we would cast at North Face, ArcTeryx and so on – companies that use disgusting quasi-slave labor.

        • Watcho

          Here’s the Nike Supply Chain statement from their website:

          So really, anybody can claim these standards. In my estimation, a company that doesn’t shout from the rooftops about their ethics is really only meeting the same standards as the worst offenders. Am I to believe that a relatively tiny and obscure label with limited resources somehow has diligent oversight of their revolutionary factory conditions in China, etc?

          • walknseason

            Are you replying to me or to the reviewer? I agree with you! Unless otherwise specified, you can bet ISAORA is using the worst factories they can find.

          • Watcho

            Just jumping into the coversation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re proactively looking for the worst factories, in fact I’m sure it’s the opposite. But I also suspect there’s no oversight of consequence and nothing for them to be proud of.

        • I’ve spoken with the ISAORA founders about their supply chain before. Their top priority is producing the best product possible – not using the cheapest factory. In fact, the reason they decided to go consumer direct was so that they could continue to use top of the line factories / fabrics, without becoming prohibitively expensive.

          Only a small fraction of their goods are produced in China, and the reason they’re made there is because the machinery that’s required to make those pieces doesn’t exist anywhere else.

          Years of neglect have left the American garment industry woefully unequipped to make contemporary performance-wear (there isn’t a single factory in the country that can do a taped or welded seam). Europe is in slightly better shape, especially now that Portugal has become a manufacturing mecca, but there are still a lot of things that can’t be made there either (BTW, the manufacturing conditions in Portugal are actually very good. You can read more about that here: http://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/made-portugal-rise).

          Calling ISAORA corporate, and equating them with a company like Nike, who has one of the worst human rights track records of all time, is not only a big leap, but a totally unjustified one as well.

          • walknseason

            No one is disputing the long deterioration of American manufacturing, nor saying that Chinese-made goods are inherently of poor quality. The Chinese are a nation of over a billion and there are many, many talented people there, as there are anywhere in the world.

            We’re talking about your professed attention to “Responsibly Made,” which, if you are genuinely committed to it and not just as a buzzword, seems to not apply here.

            While the US lags far behind Europe in labor laws, it has a lot of leftover laws that ensure some kind of fair life for the worker, which is the appeal of US-based clothing to a lot of menswear folks. China (and other SE countries) have zero such protections, so its a crapshoot of where the factory lies on the scale. Patagonia actually sends people to the factories and reports on their conditions.

            ISAORA not only has zero transaparency on their site, but your answer (or theirs, I do not want to put words in your mouth) actually addressed none of the concerns me or Watcho bring up, that is, the labor conditions of the workers.

  • Cory

    Given the price points, you’d think their stuff was made in the U.S.

  • Peter Naylon

    walknseason, read this…and stop coming off like you f’in know everything; self-righteousness is not attractive.