Stepping into the De Soto Sport Triathlon Company headquarters in San Diego is like stepping into a museum collection honoring the history of triathlon apparel. From arm coolers and mesh hats to transition bags and their famous two-piece wetsuits—the De Soto brand is a hallmark of the sport, and a catalyst for nearly every piece of triathlon design innovation set forth in the past 25 years.
The Making Of An Innovator
The company’s founder, Emilio De Soto, defines himself as the “Chief Innovation Jedi,” but the story of his company proves that there is some clout to that title. De Soto was a competitive triathlete since the sport’s first rumblings in the 80s, and his love of fabric design and competition filled his head with several ideas for apparel and accessories long before De Soto the brand even existed. It was his good friend Dan Empfield (who was then at Quintana Roo) who finally convinced De Soto to get his ideas out of his head and onto paper. “At that time there wasn’t a triathlon-only apparel company,” says De Soto. “You had running apparel, cycling apparel and swim apparel to choose from. I knew right from the beginning I wanted to use fabrics and designs that would be for triathlon specifically.”
Look at any mid-to-late-80s racing photo and you’ll see a sea of men and women in bathing suits, baggy running shorts and cotton T-shirts. There was a lot of changing going on in those transition areas (and probably even more post-race nipple band-aid applications). De Soto’s first designs aimed to stop this disturbing transition scene in its tracks. He designed a tight-fitting, wicking tri-top, a run short (with pockets for gels and nutrition), and a bike jersey. The market had never seen anything like it before. The running shorts contained a small fleece pad—just enough to keep you comfortable in the saddle but not so much that you felt like you were swimming with a diaper on.
By late 1990, an emerging triathlon apparel market was forming, with De Soto right in the center of it. He was commissioned by team sponsor Speedo to design the uniforms for the U.S. National Team at the second-ever ITU World Championship in Florida. In 1993, De Soto developed the first-ever backpack specifically made for triathlon transitions. Unlike single-shoulder models which often swung off causing bike accidents, his model fit on the back like a proper backpack, but included breathable pockets for wetsuits, a sunglass pouch, and a duffle-top entry that separated dry clothes from wet gear.
The T1 Standard
The company’s most famous claim-to-fame occurred in 2000 with their development of the T1 Wetsuit. To this day the T1 remains the only two-piece wetsuit on the market. The two-piece model offered a supremely customizable fit for triathletes of every size and shape (the model offers a total of 49 different fit combinations), while also offering great warmth, buoyancy, and ease of entry/removal.
Looking at the original model, the number of industry firsts hailed in the T1 is remarkable. From the first low-neckline to the first wetsuit to be designed for optimal shoulder rotation, every inch of the T1 was made with swimmers in mind. “We listened to college swim coaches in the design,” said De Soto. By placing the thicker neoprene in the hips and arms, the wetsuit optimized rotation while keeping the shoulders moving freely.
While wetsuit shorts are all the rage today, De Soto has been offering them since 2004 with his “Speedtube” Capri-style wetsuit pants. De Soto is content to remain the lone ranger in the two-piece wetsuit department for as long as possible. “Once people try our wetsuits, they never buy another one piece suit,” he says. “I’m happy to let the other one piece wetsuits compete against each other.”
The Next 25 Years
Today, De Soto happily runs his business along with his wife, Traci. And while one might suppose he feels as if his product innovations have been snagged by other companies time and again—he doesn’t view it that way at all. “I have a realistic approach about design. I know that people might have built off of what I started, but that’s part of being an innovator. To this day I’ve only patented two of my creations, so I really can’t complain about it.”
What De Soto plans on doing is continuing to be an innovation Jedi and an environmentally responsible business owner. Since the company’s beginnings, he’s worked hard to be environmentally conscious, and the next 25 years of De Soto Sport will be no different. After learning about the environmental waste and harm caused by the wetsuit industry’s global use of petroleum-based rubbers, De Soto knew he needed to move away from it, so he began researching new manufacturing practices. In 2011, along with help from Patagonia, De Soto began incorporating a limestone-based rubber into all of their wetsuits. Called GreenGoma, De Soto’s exclusive neoprene is more durable and buoyant than petroleum-based rubbers but with far less detriment to the environment (Ed note: It’s important to note that limestone still must be mined which is not 100-percent environmentally sustainable, while petroleum-based rubbers come from oil drilling). “GreenGoma rubber offers better stretch, buoyancy, durability, and insulation with a more closed-cell injected construction thus making it 98.9-percent water impermeable. So it is lighter, it dries quicker, and lasts longer. The only part of the rubber that gets wet is the new stretch liner that is now made of recycled post-consumer products,” says De Soto.
This is one of several steps the De Soto headquarters have made toward environmental responsibility. They have implemented strict recycle, reuse and repair guidelines throughout the company’s manufacturing and shipping practices (from donating all unused materials to repairing all wetsuits in-house), and they plan on becoming 100-percent paperless by 2016.
De Soto Sport has come a long way in 25 years from some tiny sketches on Emilio De Soto’s notepad, and this small company with a world-wide reach plans on staying at the forefront of innovation for years to come.