In 2009 and 2010, Andrea Robertson won the Mrs. America competition wearing a sparkling gold dress and qualified for the USA Triathlon National Championships in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
For the three-part triathlon competitions, which include swimming, bicycling and running, she wore a men’s one-piece triathlon suit. (The top for such suits runs over the shoulders; the bottom is similar to bike shorts.)
That incongruity — a model wins a beauty pageant but is forced to wear an ill-fitting suit in an athletic competition because there aren’t many options available for women — bothered Robertson, who grew up in St. Charles.
With friends in the fashion world, Robertson decided to design suits for women that “would look great and perform well.”
She started a company — Triflare, based in St. Louis — that has capitalized on the increase in the number of female triathletes. It also sells suits to more than 125 clubs affiliated with U.S. Synchronized Swimming and about 50 triathlon teams.
“Whereas a lot of triathletes wear solid colors — saturated blacks and blues — [Robertson] has so much more personality and feminization in color and print and shape, and I think that’s what unique about her,” said Paulie Gibson, a St. Louis fashion designer who has worked with Triflare.
Robertson played soccer at the University of Missouri, but most of her friends were swimmers. After she graduated in 1999, she played in recreational leagues, but her friends persuaded her to try a triathlon.
“With soccer, it’s so much pounding on your body every day — you wake up just beat up — but with triathlon, only one third of it is impact, which is running, so I love the physical aspect of it,” she said. “There is so much athletic and cardiovascular training, but it’s not as painful” as playing soccer.
Robertson mixed races with working as a research biologist, modeling and competing in pageants. She liked the challenge of both trying to win a triathlon and become Mrs. America.
“Pageants are very, very hard, and they are very competitive, and I think it challenges you to be at your best,” Robertson said.
“On TV, when you get to watch the pageants, you only see the two hours [of it], but there is so much that goes into it beforehand — the interview portion[s] of most of the beauty pageants are the majority of it, so you learn some life skills from that.”
And then when she puts on a triathlon suit, “You go through a range of emotions while you’re racing. ‘OK, I’m the worst swimmer. Am I going to finish?’ And then, ‘OK, finally I’m out of the water, now I have to bike’… And you’re like, ‘Why am I so terrible?’ and on and on, and when you finish, it’s just a very rewarding feeling,” she said.
Robertson was not alone in becoming a triathlete in the early aughts. After the sport debuted in the Olympic Games in 2000, the membership of USA Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body, grew from 21,341 in 2001 to 174,787 in 2013, according to The New York Times. And the number of women also increased from 27 percent of members in 2000 to 37 percent at the end of 2014, according to the organization.
Still, when Robertson competed in the national championships, she wore a men’s suit rather than a women’s suit because she is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and has an athletic figure, she said.
She enjoys modeling because it has provided her flexibility to earn money and raise her three children — and because she loves fashion. But the women’s suits “didn’t quite fit right and I didn’t feel as fast in them,” she said. She also wanted to dye the suits and put patterns on them so that she “could bring the fashion edge of things, the style edge to the suits.”
In talking with other women involved with the sport, Robertson learned that they wanted suits with more coverage. There “were weekend warriors who also wanted to race and maybe weren’t as competitive as me, and they were concerned with other things, like a thicker pad or a wider-cut pad [in the legs] or more coverage in the shoulders,” she said.
Robertson reached out to Laura Kathleen, a St. Louis fashion designer she met through modeling, and told Kathleen about her idea: stylish women’s triathlon apparel. Kathleen, who competed on the reality show “Project Runway,” told Robertson to dive in.
Robertson contacted a seamstress and started creating suits. A friend from her swim group suggested that she apply for funding through Arch Grants, a startup competition that awards $50,000 grants and support services to entrepreneurs who locate their businesses in St. Louis. Triflare was among the grant recipients in 2013.
“She was one of the promising start-ups in St. Louis, and she just has a great product and a great personality. She’s lots of fun to work with,” said Kathryn Elliott Love, who met Robertson through her volunteer work with Arch Grants and now serves as her attorney.
Robertson used the money to pay professional triathletes such as Alicia Kaye to wear Triflare apparel. Those sponsorships caught the attention of Kevin Warner, then the chief operating officer of USA Synchro, the national synchronized swimming team. USA Synchro members wore Robertson’s suits at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The company doubled its sales in each of its first three years and now has four full-time employees, Robertson said. It has continued to grow by branching out from triathlon suits to also create swim, cycle and running apparel and custom suits for a variety of teams.
“I think she is doing something unique; she has found a market niche and then grown into one or two niches, including her connection with the USA Synchro swimming, and she has awesome designs that you don’t see elsewhere,” said Elliott Love.
Dan Engelhard, the founder of High School Triathlon Club, a St. Louis nonprofit group, invited Robertson to speak with his student athletes about “living a healthy lifestyle and doing this into your older ages,” he said.
The two also started training together, and Engelhard, who volunteers his time for the club, now purchases Triflare suits from Robertson at a discounted rate.
“The gear is good. With tri-gear, you want something that is very tight-fitting but stretchy,” said Engelhard, who is also a competitive triathlete. Triflare suits “have four-way stretch, so it hugs close to your body but also you’re not suffocating yourself, and it’s very breathable, so it dries extremely quick.”
Cycling Weekly explains: “Wearing a triathlon suit speeds up your transition time substantially. Often considered a fourth discipline of triathlon (swim, bike, run, transition), anything saved here is effectively free time. For most beginners, it’s a lot easier to cut off one minute in T1 and T2 than on their 5km run time.”
The other key to a quality suit is dye-sublimation, a heated process in which a white piece of fabric is inserted into a printer and the dye is injected into the fabric. The process is more effective than screen-printing at preventing the logo or patterns from bleeding or becoming discolored, Engelhard said.
Gibson, the fashion designer who has created suits for the brand, met Robertson about five years ago when he was working for a local manufacturer and Robertson was interested in having some of the suits produced locally.
Since then, he has traveled with her to Los Angeles to meet with a manufacturer that produces about half of the Triflare suits. Other Triflare suits are made in factories in China, Vietnam and Europe.
Robertson said she eventually would like to have two-thirds of her suits manufactured in St. Louis. But the city at present doesn’t have “the sewing power, and if we had that, everything could be done here — no doubt,” she said.
When she travels to Los Angeles, she visits factories and fabric manufacturers and is able to accomplish ”in three or four days what takes me three or four months here,” she said.
Still, she has contracted with the Collective Thread, a St. Louis-based company that teaches African refugees how to sew, to produce three Triflare projects.
“Hopefully over time, we will be able to fulfill more production here; anything that is close to home is a major benefit,” Robertson said.
She does not move closer to the manufacturers in Los Angeles or elsewhere because of her hometown pride, and “the cost of living in St. Louis is phenomenal,” she said.
Within the next two years, once more of the refugees are trained, Robertson would like to move a quarter of her production to St. Louis and then continually increase local manufacturing.
If other clothing companies were to follow a similar trajectory, “that would be so great for St. Louis,” Robertson said. Plus, she said her favorite fashion designers, such as Gibson and Kathleen, are based in St. Louis.
While the company has grown at a steady clip, Robertson said she would have done at least one thing differently.
“I might raise money from the get-go — bring in outside investors so we can hire more talent to help run it — but we are sort of at this spot where we are growing so much in terms of our production, we don’t have time to stop,” she said.
As to the future, Robertson is working on plus-size apparel for women “because we just always want to make sure that we are providing things for women that they are missing in the market.”
And more generally, she said she continues to encourage women “to get fit and do racing because some people might be a little afraid, but I think always one of our goals is to encourage women to challenge themselves.”