Cassie Abel had to make a decision: keep her dream job or stay in the town she loved.
It was 2015, and Smith Optics was relocating many of its positions from its birthplace of Ketchum, Idaho, to Portland, Ore. Abel was working as a global communications manager for Smith. It was a hugely difficult decision, but ultimately her desire to stay near the mountains she loved to play in won out.
“It was really scary, but I’m so glad I stayed,” remembers Abel. “I still love Smith, but them leaving was the kick in the pants that I needed.”
During her career working with outdoor brands, Abel observed the inequity in gear made for women. There was a lack of investment and storytelling about recreating in the outdoors from the perspective of women-identifying individuals and their unique needs from their gear.
Often sport-specific clothing is initially made for men, slightly altered and then sold to women, and it doesn’t really work. Abel wanted to make a technical outdoor clothing brand exclusively for women; clothes made for women first, from the ground up, addressed to fit for function, with valuable features and fabric that stretches and moves in accordance with women’s bodies.
Today, Abel is the CEO and co-founder of Wild Rye, a women’s outdoor clothing apparel company based in Sun Valley that caters to women at all levels of recreation and life. Moreover, Wild Rye is at the head of the pack in setting standards for community outreach, environmental sustainability and social responsibility. It took a specific vision from Abel to achieve such a multifaceted company, and it took years to come to fruition.
The early days of starting Wild Rye were all “hustle and grit,” as Abel puts it. During the first five years of promoting and creating her bold new company, she consulted for other outdoor brands, became a mom to her son Sawyer, and navigated a global pandemic.
“We were so panicked,” Abel states regarding the Covid 19 pandemic, “but we doubled our growth in 2020.”
Wild Rye production has continued to double every year since, and in 2021 the company hired its first full-time employee. In the spring of the same year, Abel could pay herself for the first time. Currently, the company has eight, soon-to-be nine, full-time employees.
“I wanted to create job opportunities and keep smart, talented people living and working here,” says Cassie.
Being a transparent and community-involved company has allowed Wild Rye to hire and attract people who are aligned with its values, starting with protecting the environment. As stated on Wild Rye’s website, they make clothes that are “built to last a lifetime, not for the landfills.”
Although nothing that produces products is 100 percent sustainable, Wild Rye makes an effort to offset their impacts. Their dedication to adhering to high industry standards for sourcing sustainable and recycled materials, using rigorous sustainable production practices, shipping in recyclable packaging, and ensuring fair, safe manufacturing, along with other quantified methods detailed on their website, has qualified Wild Rye as a certified Climate Neutral and B-Corporation company.
B-Corporation certifications are earned by “for-profit, mission-driven businesses that meet the highest environmental and social performance standards, legal accountability, and public transparency.”
Adhering to these standards makes production more difficult. Materials are harder to source, but making these concerted efforts are important to Abel and her team, as is supporting women’s rights to reproductive health care in Idaho.
In 2021 Texas lawmakers passed a bill that effectively banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, and Idaho became the second state to adopt the ban. Abel felt a responsibility to support the organizations left in Idaho that were still dedicated to helping women access reproductive health care. So, Wild Rye launched their limited edition BBBB crop tops, with 100 percent of the net profits going to state-level abortion access funds. The shirt stated in bold letters Bikes & Baddies & Brews & (x’ed out) Bans.
“I was panicked about the response,” admits Cassie. “But by and large, it was positive. We are passionate about supporting our community and showing our values on our sleeves. It’s served our company well.”
By intelligently using her company as a platform, Abel and her team are on the right track to achieving their goal of Wild Rye becoming the women’s outdoor brand of choice and a source of supporting women’s stories and strides.
Nicole Jorgenson is a Sun Valley resident athlete and one of 18 women who make up Wild Rye’s pro team, a group that supports their local communities and promotes and enjoys a reciprocal relationship of mutual respect with the clothing company.
Jorgenson has lived many lives as a competitive mountain biker, Sun Valley ski patroller and an EMT (emergency medical technician) and was an early adopter of Wild Rye apparel.
“Wild Rye entered the market at a time when there was nearly no mountain bike clothing specifically for women,” says Jorgenson. “They have gone above and beyond at succeeding in their endeavor. They’re a creative, inclusive brand focused on community, and they make people feel like they can do whatever they want.”
Wild Rye’s namesake is a hardy grass that grows at elevation. It’s durable and enduring, just like the clothes and just like this company is sure to be.