Mirror, Mirror: His sports togs make waves

John Strotbeck (left), founder, and Doug Tibbetts, CEO, at Boathouse Sports' Northeast Philly plant. Strotbeck, a former rower, started the business with a design for more comfortable, durable rowing shorts. Today, the company outfits high school and college athletes in sports played at the Olympic level.

If you hang out on the banks of the Schuylkill during the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta this weekend, you may notice a stylized "B" - rather than a swoosh - on hundreds of buff chests.

That's because Boathouse Sports outfits more than half of the teams competing in the races.

And the Northeast Philly-based company doesn't just make most of the collegiate and professional athletic world's formfitting, quick-drying unisuits. Boathouse Sports, headed by former rower John Strotbeck, is the official sponsor (and outfitter) for the men's and women's U.S. Rowing Team - a deal it practically stole from Nike three years ago.

Don't you just love it when the underdog makes a fashion splash?

"We build the team's badge of honor," Strotbeck said Monday afternoon from one of his offices overlooking the 75,000-square-foot manufacturing floor on East Hunting Park Avenue. On the rack behind him were scores of fitted softshell jackets, performance Ts, tanks, and compression shorts in a rainbow of school colors. "There is nothing that makes a team member more proud than to put their uniform or team jacket on."

In the last 22 years, Strotbeck has quietly built his company to a fashion force in the world of high school and college sports that can be played at the Olympic level. (For my unsporty stylistas out there, that includes track and field, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, and, of course, rowing.) The cuts are close to the body and sleek in an easy-to-wear, all-American kind of way. And, most important, the performance mesh fabrics are highly breathable and wick away moisture.

"It's nice when you can find American companies that are interested in doing a boutique reach into sports," said Glenn Merry, CEO of U.S. Rowing, based in Princeton.

Merry said Boathouse Sports visited Princeton to measure students' proportions, important in a sport like rowing where players have long torsos like basketball players but often shoulders as wide as football players. The team used to use Nike, Merry said, which made cookie-cutter uniforms. Boathouse has more of a fashion edge. Think Ralph Lauren.

"Athletes like it and the designs are more hip. That's not usually the case in rowing," Merry said.

This year Strotbeck expects Boathouse Sports to ship about 45,000 orders to approximately 8,000 schools - including Drexel, Temple, and the University of Delaware - to the tune of about $20 million in annual sales.

He attributes his business success not just to his six designers on staff but to sublimation, a computerized process that makes it possible for Boathouse Sports to fill a plethora of uniquely designed orders fast. Specific colors, numbers, and graphics are a cinch to put on T-shirts, compression shorts  and parts of sweatsuits.

And turnaround time is two weeks, compared with the six to eight weeks required by some of the big sportswear companies doing most of their manufacturing overseas.

Strotbeck, 53, grew up in Atlantic City, but got his start in rowing at Marietta College in Ohio. He rowed in Dad Vail four times - his team winning in 1976 and 1979 - and graduated with a degree in engineering. He went to work in the Texas oil industry.

Upon returning to Philadelphia in the early '80s, he got lost on Kelly Drive and walked into the Vesper Boat Club to get directions. He started rowing again and was a member of the 1984 and 1988 Olympic teams.

While training on the Schuylkill, Strotbeck was unimpressed with available rowing gear: The shorts he wore didn't hold up to the friction on the wooden seats, they were slow to dry, and nylon fabrics just weren't comfortable.

So Strotbeck designed maroon shorts - the color of the Vesper Boat Club - and like most local up-and-coming designers, he took his idea to a patternmaker in South Philly who cut and sewed the shorts. Compared with what most rowers were wearing, these shorts were lighter and more durable. He began selling them to team members, and before he knew it, he had built a small business selling to out-of-town rowers.

"My business was built on the banks of the Schuylkill River," said Strotbeck, who advertised with fliers and catalogs before the days of color printers and Facebook. "My first big promotion was at the Dad Vail in the late 1980s."

When Strotbeck got back from the Olympics in 1988, he knew he didn't want to go back to the oil business, but he also knew he wanted to eat.

So he opened a building on Ridge Avenue and focused on making outerwear for high school, collegiate, and professional athletes. He supplied jackets to NFL teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles.

In 2005, Strotbeck decided he wanted his to be a head-to-toe apparel company, and in 2008, he went after the U.S. Rowing Team sponsorship. That has helped him promote the brand in a swanky way - thanks to modelesque rowers - and maintain a boutiquelike status.

Currently, Boathouse Sports apparel is marketed only to competitive athletes and their affiliates. So the stylized B - which has survived four design incarnations - is an exclusive label. ("Friends" of sports teams can buy pieces through school websites and Boathouse's website - www.boathouse.com.)

Might Boathouse branch into retail for those of us wanting to don a pair of tights while running the Drive?

"Maybe sometime in the near future," Strotbeck says. "But I'm not too sure we'll ever get to the time where we are selling anything to anybody."

Spoken like a true fashion designer.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.