The activewear space is rife with lofty performance promises and trends in color palettes and new silhouettes—with no shortage of brands racing to offer them.
Lululemon is the household name in high-tech performance wear with others like Athleta and Fabletics boasting a lower price point. Established brands keep up with trendy newcomers by debuting one must-have collaboration after another, from Stella McCartney to Sega. In a market that’s seen astronomical growth in the last half-decade, it’s a challenge to find white space, and even trickier to stake a claim that consumers will take notice of.
Increasingly, direct-to-consumer brands are emerging to cater to specific needs, be it performance wear for the casual athlete or mix-and-match separates that make streamlined looks easy.
For EYSOM and Ripple Yoga, two activewear brands that got their start three years ago, the key has been a focus on materials—and a commitment to the type of customers that have stuck with them since they launched. Both brands use a direct-to-consumer model, to maintain control of their very specific quality standards, and to establish a close relationship with customers.
At Ripple Yoga, natural fabrics like organic cotton has set the company apart from the synthetics crowd. As an avid yoga enthusiast, owner and designer Adva Bruner knew what she liked but she had trouble finding it in stores. “Everything I saw in the shops was wholly synthetic, and I didn’t feel like I could get anything for myself,” Bruner said.
At the time, Bruner had a casualwear line, and the fans of that business proved to be a great resource for learning what shoppers might want in a yoga line. In 2015, she called two yogi friends, developed a list of must-have items, and started production.
The launch of EYSOM, which stands for Exercise Your State of Mind, was prompted by need. Owner Stan Cheung finally realized one day he was wearing the wrong activewear. “One day I realized I was standing next to a guy wearing the exact same shorts as me, but he wasn’t using them as activewear,” said Cheung. “It was the same product, but not the same customer.”
His chief complaint was that fabrics in mainstream sportswear were uncomfortable and not durable enough for daily use. Cheung also found that he was altering all his store-bought sportswear, changing the fit for better performance as well as comfort and aesthetics.
To nail the fit and comfort aspects, he launched a high-end collection in 2015 through an incubator program from AXE and Esquire magazine.
Cheung said he grappled with his idea of a luxury activewear brand for a long time but found clarity by looking at the automotive industry. “When I started the brand, it was before anyone even talked about luxury activewear,” Cheung said. “I always said ‘If Porsche can create a sports car, and fill a niche, and stay in their lane, but still be the world’s most profitable car company, so can EYSOM.’”
Making a name in materials
Bruner and Cheung both keep their new lines small, only releasing a few new designs or colorways every year. That level of restraint, Cheung says, keeps the focus on the quality of the garments instead of struggling to keep up with trends, while still giving customers something new.
Small runs coupled with the willingness to charge a bit more have had their benefits. “One of the things that really worked out in our favor was that we were able to use a lot of innovative fabrics that other people had developed, but wouldn’t use because of the price point,” Cheung said.
Now that the brand has dedicated materials partners, they hope to develop their own fabrics for future collections. EYSOM’s frequent repeat customers are willing to pay for the elevated fabrics.
“The materials we are using start first and foremost with handfeel,” Cheung said. “We have learned that our customer doesn’t like fabrications that are too light. There has to be some weight to it.” Cheung also tries to source sustainably, swapping Tencel for rayon or modal and using recycled plastics for core performance fabrics in order to maintain performance while cutting down on waste.
“Across our line of tops, moisture-wicking fabric and UV-Cut fibers are attributes we look for. For bottoms, we include compression factors, four-way stretch, and cool-touch technology,” Cheung said, pointing out that these are the qualities customers request. “We really let feedback and the direct-to-consumer model drive our decision-making.”
Bruner finds that fabric makes the difference for her customers, too. When Bruner started Ripple Yoga, it took her six months to find a factory that made organic cotton with the qualities she wanted. Now, she has an agent who goes to Turkey to find the fabrics she’s looking for. “Most of my fabric is from Turkey, and most of it is cotton,” Bruner said.
Bruner said her designs resonate with customers because they focus on the feel and fit of the fabric rather than the aesthetic. “If you wear synthetic tights, you’ll look fabulous, because it holds your body. With cotton and other natural fabrics, it can’t be the same, but you feel a lot different,” she explained.
Rather than being conscious of the fabric, her customers want to focus on their breathing and move uninhibited.
Bruner has held these brand standards since Ripple’s launch, but holding onto them while meeting demand has been a challenge. Originally, Bruner worked in her studio by herself most of the time, bringing in two employees twice a week.
But around 18 months ago, the company began hiring more employees to meet demand. Now, Ripple has ten full-time employees and a much larger studio. Bruner said even she was surprised by how quickly the brand grew. “I had set myself goals, about where I wanted to have the brand in six months, a year,” Bruner said, “and I think it took three or four months to achieve everything.”
Customer feedback guides growth
Part of the reason behind Ripple’s rapid growth was the introduction of its signature product, the Criss-Cross Jumpsuit, which received lots of attention in the yoga world and the mainstream media. Bruner credits Ripple’s bestseller to a customer’s feedback. “I was at a yoga festival, and a customer of mine came to me three times a day, every day, to tell me I needed to make a jumpsuit,” Bruner said.
Bruner noted the jumpsuit became so popular because it stopped a common problem in activewear, a tight top and bottom rolling away from each other and exposing the skin, while still fitting comfortably and enabling movement. She continues to source feedback from customers and a set of dedicated ambassadors, all yoga teachers, who she reaches out to for insight on specific styles and designs.
Cheung has a similar pool of experts he consults, a group of industry leaders in different fitness specialties from boot camps to spinning, but he also hopes to solicit more feedback from customers with in-person experiences. He plans to bring EYSOM to pop-up events, and eventually a brick-and-mortar store, in the coming years, to extend the sophisticated customer service experience to the physical world.
That in-store experience, he believes, will help potential customers understand why EYSOM is so dedicated to its status as a luxury brand. “It’s truly a matter of ‘you get it or you don’t,’” he said. “Whatever they believe in, and what they think the price should be, that’s their perception. There’s a brand out there for them, and we may not be the brand.”