Several things made Maggie Vessey stand out on the start line of the 800-meter final at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championship. The Chanel earrings. The creatively cut yellow-and-blue speed suit. The aviator sunglasses.
"My coach was telling me about a glare on the track that might cause a headache, so if I have sunglasses I should think about wearing them," Vessey said. "I had Juicy Couture aviators and big black Louis Vuitton sunglasses. I thought the aviators suited the outfit better."
Fashion and function were a good marriage; Vessey crossed the line in 2:00.17 for fourth place.
A two-time participant at the World Championships , Vessey is back in the spotlight and inspiring runners with her fast times and outfit selections on the track. But who inspires her singular fashion sense?
"Chanel is such a great aspirational brand. The ones I probably also wear the most [off the track] are Alice + Olivia, Ralph Lauren," Vessey said. "You look at what everyone is doing. Anything that makes your mind think differently -- like 'Wow. I've never seen that' -- interest me."
A lot of track and field fans are thinking that way about Vessey in 2014.
After her contract with New Balance expired at the end of December 2013, Vessey decided to get creative. A stylist put her in contact with designer Merlin Castell, who is based in Los Angeles not far from Vessey's home in Beverly Hills. He quickly became her apparel designer for the upcoming season.
The process of creating an outfit begins with Vessey presenting Castell with a sketch of her design. Castell provides his opinion on what can be done before creating a sample. Vessey tries on the sample as Castell makes cuts and makes marks to decide what needs to go.
Once Castell is finished, Vessey gets the final product and does not try it on before her race.
"I haven't tried them on before and that's actually something that's an important part just to make small corrections if need be," Vessey said.
Whether it is a long-sleeved Navajo-patterned top or a strappy one-piece speed suit, Vessey hasn't been slowed down by discomfort.
"Generally they're really comfortable," Vessey said. "When you're out there racing, you don't really think about it anyways. I wouldn't run in anything that wasn't comfortable."
Vessey tries to keep her race kit a secret until the moment she steps on the track, which can be a challenge. Like when she has a big bow on her left shoulder, as she did in the semifinals of the U.S. Championships on June 27 .
When it comes to footwear, Vessey isn't tied to one sponsor, so she's free to try out different spikes in races. "More and more, I'm just trying to find shoes that match what outfit I'm going to wear." Vessey said.
Contracts are hard to come by in a year without a World Championship or an Olympics, but Vessey is in talks with sponsors about potential opportunities.
Track and field athletes usually comply with strict rules and policies about logos and coloring with their respective companies and their governing bodies, such as U.S.A. Track and Field and the International Association of Athletics Federation. So it may be tough for Vessey to find a sponsor that allows her to control what she wears.
"The goal would be to find a partner that's ready to do something like that," Vessey said. "I would like to partner with someone that has a shared vision."
At the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, Vessey walked off the track disappointed after an eighth-place finish in the 800-meter final. She watched some of the Olympics from her home in Los Angeles before getting back on the track for the 2013 season.
"I watched just a little bit of (the Olympics). I was supporting Team USA all the way," Vessey said. "It was pretty painful to watch."
Injuries sidelined her for most of the 2013 season and New Balance, whom she'd been with for four years, did not renew her contract.
"It was a really painful experience for me. I was disappointed and like any ending there's a mourning process that you go through," Vessey said. "I got over that pretty quickly because I still really feel that I have so much to give to the sport. I had to pull myself together and realize I have the opportunity to learn from everything that's happened to me and be grateful for all those experiences."
Vessey is healthy again and running fast times under the watchful eye of coach Greg Brock, who oversaw her success from 2008-2010.
"I'm still running personal bests and I'm still improving and that's what motivates me to keep going forward."
Brock has welcomed her back with open arms in what he believes may be the last coaching change of her career.
"Running fast is her passion," Brock told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in July. "When she runs short distances very fast, that's when she flies. That's when she soars. That's when it's just really fun."
She will return to Europe for the second half of the 2014 track and field circuit -- with more outfits in the works.
"It's not necessarily about individualism. It's more about everyone finding their gift and their voice," Vessey said. "Everything that I've gone through has helped me find mine. I just really hope that I can be an inspiration for everyone else."