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Alumna creates custom running apparel with an artistic approach

A woman wears a homemade running jacket in the woods
Sarah Vander Neut wearing one of her original creations, photo Matt Vander Neut.

Sarah Vander Neut, née Lodwick (BFA, drawing and painting, ‘05), owner of the custom athletic apparel business Vander Jacket in Colorado, first visited Boise State simply to appease her parents.

“I was sure I was going to the University of Oregon, but I grew up in Eugene and my parents begged me to look at other schools,” she recalled. “I met with Gary Rosine, the chair of the art department at the time, and he was so warm and friendly. Right away, I just felt so cared for, even as a visitor. And of course, Boise was just so lovely, easy to get around, not intimidating, just a wonderful place to be that it changed my mind. I gave up on Oregon and transferred to Boise State the next week.”

Vander Neut had spent two years in Texas studying first fashion design, then art, before deciding she needed a change and moved to Boise State.

“At that point I had taken all my core classes so the last two years of college for me were in the fine arts department almost exclusively. I had an amazing education there,” she said.

The diverse skills and perspectives of the art faculty created a solid foundation for Vander Neut’s studies.

“The technical experience they brought to their craft, the knowledge of materials and the knowledge of technique, it was so traditional and taught me the fundamentals of art. But then at the same time, the philosophy of the art department was very current with what is happening in art now. It was the best of both worlds for me.”

Another aspect that appealed to Vander Neut was the contrast in attitudes between Boise State art faculty and her experiences living and studying art in other states.

“My ceramics classes with Jim Budde were such a crazy contrast,” she recalled. “His classroom was his mobile home, so we are in his home, doing our ceramics and it was so it was so weird but I loved it. Very casual, very scrappy, very innovative. It was what I longed for as someone from the Pacific Northwest coming back from Texas. It was what my heart needed.”

Much of the coursework Vander Neut completed at Boise State continues to serve her today in her apparel business. An avid runner, the Vander Jacket business came about as Vander Neut needed a jacket to wear on workouts while pregnant in 2011. Unable to find a sporty jacket that fit her, Vander Neut designed her own. After her daughter was born and she no longer needed the pieces she’d created for herself, she sold her creations at a local flea market. There was an immediate demand from fellow athletes looking for functional gear that also stood out from the typical technical pieces seen bobbing along the trails.

Nearly 10 years later, she has produced more than 1,000 custom jackets and vests for men and women, all sold through her website. Vander Neut also has designed an in-line collection she hopes to place for sale in running and outdoor stores in the Rocky Mountain area. These pieces are produced by a small team in Colorado using as many materials sourced in the U.S. as possible.

“James Blankenship’s figure drawing classes were huge for me in terms of learning how to approach the human body and thinking about movement and how muscles are laid onto bones,” she said. “Also Francis Fox in sculpture, his techniques were really helpful because my clothing design takes a very sculptural approach.”

Most materials for the custom jackets are sourced locally in the Denver area where Vander Neut lives. Often it is excess material from other outdoor gear companies or vintage material that she find and buys from individuals who have been collecting it for years.

Then, the cutting begins.

“With a degree in painting, I wish I could say I have these beautiful sketches for each piece ahead of time,” she said. “But really, I just start cutting up the fabrics and approach the construction like a sculpture.”

Each of her custom jackets have specific features that cater to the needs of runners and cyclists. The jackets have thumb loops, a cut out for a wrist watch, longer tails, large pockets for essentials and reflective elements for workouts in low light.

“I want to give athletes everything they need in one package,” Vander Neut said. “These are modular, functional pieces that adapt to changing conditions and allow you to bring along your phone or wallet without an extra hip belt or pack.”

Athletics have been a cornerstone for Vander Neut’s family. Her father ran professionally in the 1980s, her sister competed in college track and her brother played basketball in Europe. Vander Neut sees the parallels of art and athletics in each’s competitive nature, the vulnerability of athletes and artists, and the range of emotions experienced.

“There is that quality in both the arts and athletics where you perform something, you put something out there, whether it’s a physical performance or it’s a product,” she said. “It’s very personal to have people respond to you, critique you, and maybe they think you’re the greatest in the world or you stink. It’s really full of highs and lows, both of those things. What is great about artists and athletes is they’re used to being rejected, they’re used to being criticized but they still have a drive that keeps them going.”

One area where she sees the two disciples diverging is in the ability of artists to continue improving their craft with age.

“The cool thing is art is a discipline that, if you keep doing it, your trajectory keeps going up and up,” she said. “If you make art your whole life, you’re going to be a master. But with athletics, physically, there is a peak, and then a downward trajectory.”

Though her main creative outlet is through her clothing business, Vander Neut still turns to visual arts as a restorative practice to avoid burnout.

“I’ll get to a point where I’ve been sewing and designing like crazy and the way, for me, to heal from that is to draw or paint again,” she said. “Again, just like athletes have to have an offseason, it’s a good balance to go between the two. It’s a very healing and meditative thing for me to create art.”

– By George Thoma