The day Joel Wiens used his grandfather’s compression socks as arm warmers wasn’t even his weirdest. Weighing in at 160 pounds soaking wet, the aspiring collegiate athlete wore anything and everything to stay warm and beef up (or at least look it) during his high school football days in Windom, Minnesota. “You know the ones they wear for circulation purposes?” Wiens says of the socks. “I'm putting those on my arms [with padding] and it's like, 'Oh, this guy looks like he's 200 pounds.'” His unique style choices followed him to Bethel University where, while playing defensive back, he developed the "HockeyJoc" compression shorts—with jock strap, cup pouch, and padding built in.
That was the start of WSI Sportswear, and is still one of its best sellers.
“I had 3,000 bucks and grew up in a little farm town,” Wiens says. “Mom and grandma said, ‘Don't go spending that $3,000 on a four-wheeler for working on the farm.' I said, 'Well, you guys start sewing. I've got some ideas.'"
Though Wiens’ living room seamstress days are over. WSI has grown into a nationally respected brand in the cold-weather apparel market, thanks to gear that keeps wearers warm in all the elements—from the icy chill of a winter hunting trip in northern Minnesota, to the coldest of pro football games.
No, seriously. It's been tested. His clientele now includes teams in the NBA, NHL, MLB and NCAA, as well as other NFL notables like Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald, and the #GOAT himself, Tom Brady, who has worn WSI’s Arctic shirt in the last two Super Bowls.
Although the company got its start in Minnesota, WSI caught its first big break across enemy lines. The Green Bay Packers became Wiens’ first pro sport customers when they ordered a haul from WSI to wear up there in Wisconsin’s frozen tundra. Wiens says a lot of athletes used to go without any extra protective gear because everything the marketplace had to offer was clunky—he knew that firsthand from his playing days.
The Packers liked the light-weight, durable nature of WSI’s line, and they’ve been customers ever since. Before the playoffs last year, GB challenged Wiens to create something special. He delivered in a big way (you’re welcome, Cheeseheads). “We kind of came up with a new idea for a product," he says. "Within a week, developed that product, got it to the team, and they won their playoff game."
But you'd never know WSI had anything to do with it. Most teams have deals with one of the Big Three (Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour), so Wiens has to make them logo-free merch. Interviews like this one are some of the only opportunities he has to do a little humble bragging, and the occasional “hey, you gotta try this” recommendations from Fitzgerald are really the only professional endorsements he gets. But that’s just fine by him. “We don’t need to be the biggest, we just want to be the best,” Wiens says. “We’d rather have that much more solid foundation, with people that love us because we have a great product.”
Plus, he’s got plenty of other accolades he can tout right there on his sleeve. It's clear he's smiling on the phone when he talks about all the jobs he’s created by keeping WSI’s manufacturing process right here in Minnesota. He beams through stories of how his gear shielded Crew 52 volunteers and some 3,500 out-of-town security officers from freezing temps during the Super Bowl. Keeping people warm—both the guy walking his dog in sub-zero temps, and the one making tackles in the snow—is truly his passion project.
He gets it done using the same Humpty-Dumpty design process he started with in college. Wiens and his Eagan-based team thoughtfully tile together panels of trademarked HEATR fabric, HYPRTECH Bamboo fibers, and plenty of spandex to create their line of thermal threads. WSI has also become one of the leading innovators of body-mapping, which involves aligning the adaptive fabrics over the hardest-working muscles to keep them warm and loose all game long.
And even after 18 years in the business, Wiens feels he’s just getting started. Though WSI already offers hundreds of versions of shirts, pants, shorts, hats, mittens, and socks for men and women online—and in specialty stores such as Sun & Slope, General Sports, and Play It Again Sports—Wiens is constantly inventing more. Right now, he’s working on new ways to incorporate bamboo into his fabrics to produce breathable, antimicrobial pieces that can adapt to the body’s temperature as it changes. He’s also employed more fashion-minded folks to help bring the design of his clothes up to the high level of technology he uses. His mantra: look good, feel good, play good.
“I've always just enjoyed making things local,” Wiens says. “I'm not really into the big numbers game and dollars—I've always just been focused on making the best product that I can.”