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How One DTC Brand is Going up Against Lululemon in Men’s

The men’s apparel space is full of luxury options, from suiting to casual wear, but high-end activewear is still, in many ways, a women’s game. Beyond sportswear brands like Nike and Adidas that have long made their bread and butter in performance wear and occasional capsules from basics mainstays like Uniqlo, there have been relatively few specialty options for men.

Lululemon continues to push into the men’s category, through a recent collaboration with Mr. Porter as well as messaging designed just for the guys. The moves are helping catapult the brand toward its goal of reaching $1 billion in sales in men’s by 2020, positioning it “ahead of schedule,”  COO Stuart Haselden told investors in December.

Meanwhile, Gap moved into the market with Hill City, the masculine answer to Athleta, in October. Nike is set to introduce men’s yoga styles for the first time this year, according to CEO Mark Parker.

But the big players aren’t the only ones recognizing an opportunity. Direct to consumer brands are also attempting to woo performance-focused men, who are willing to spend on styles that look great and work well.

Among them is EYSOM (Exercise Your State of Mind), which keeps the “mindful,” fit man in mind, pairing the performance tech and comfort of activewear with sleek silhouettes, unique fabric blends and precise designs. Stan Cheung, EYSOM’s founder, created the brand out of a passion for wellness, but his leg up on the competition comes from his background in retail and brand development.

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Cheung started out as a buyer, graduating from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business in the Robinsons-May executive buying program and later working in the Macy’s Merchandising Group, which enabled him to merge his business acumen with his fashion instincts.

“It allowed me to see from the lens of what the end consumer of the brand really wanted,” Cheung said. Working on struggling labels and turning them around taught him how to take advantage of white space and capitalize on trends. Cheung left New York, and Macy’s, to become creative director of a division of a fast-fashion design house in Los Angeles.

Working with several brands, and within several seasons, at one time was formative for Cheung. He credits this period, and how it developed his deep understanding of “brand DNA,” with the distinctive profile EYSOM has today. During this time, Cheung conceptualized EYSOM, putting together the foundations of the brand and eventually launching a high-end collection in 2015 through an incubator program from AXE and Esquire magazine. The brand has won fans in the fitness and fashion communities, scoring write-ups in websites and magazines from Highsnobiety to Men’s Health.

When Cheung is ready to create a new piece, he avoids looking at similar garments for inspiration, instead conceptualizing each piece of clothing as the platonic ideal of workout wear. He looks to provide the same level of care and precision men are used to in their bespoke suiting in each piece. For the EYSOM T-shirt, for example, the design process followed finding the fabric. Cheung reached out to sourcing partners he’d networked with in his career to find the perfect T-shirt fabric, one that felt “like butter” instead of the slick, synthetic feeling that signals performance wear to some brands.

After choosing a soft, moisture-wicking and UVA-protective polyester and Tencel blend, the design process commenced. “We looked at the shape of the armholes and necklines to make sure it would function for everything active, but also look elegant enough to wear under a blazer,” Cheung said. He called the end result a “combination of subtleties” that creates a distinctive, but not overwhelming, silhouette.

You won’t see any optical-illusion prints or trendy textures on EYSOM pieces. Instead, Cheung says, the innovation and risk-taking factors in at a performance level.

EYSOM debuted when prestige activewear didn’t have many outlets besides the ubiquitous Lululemon, and certainly not for men.EYSOM’s shirts are $75 and shorts start at $155. By comparison, Lululemon’s men’s shirts and shorts both start at $58, and go up from there. Sun Choe, the company’s chief product officer, said Lululemon continues to broaden its price range for both men and women on both the high and low end. Choe said there’s really no ceiling on prices as long as there’s value in the form of performance attributes. As a result, she said, the brand plans to “continue to push prices up.”

From the beginning, Cheung has been confident in EYSOM’s price point, even when his peers questioned it. He characterizes EYSOM as a “you get it or you don’t” phenomenon.

“There’s great risk in shopping at this price point from a direct to consumer brand, and we appreciate customers taking that risk with us” Cheung said. To him, that means opening a dialogue with the consumer as soon as possible, to offer a tailored shopping experience and to head off potential conflicts or dissatisfaction.

Cheung wants to open an EYSOM experience store in the near future, and until then, he’s taking advantage of pop-up experiences where he can introduce new customers to the brand. “We want the customer to interact with the garment. That’s when they become loyal customers,” he said. “It can be tough, with digital brands, for the customer to understand that we want a dialogue and a partnership that feels authentic.”

Cheung says that EYSOM is much better at meeting demand now then they were at the company’s conception. “We love being able to say ‘made in Los Angeles,’ but there’s a [limited] range of capabilities within the L.A. market, as there is anywhere,” said Cheung. “When EYSOM started, it was hard to get shipments on time at the beginning. We found a factory with impeccable workmanship, but it just couldn’t meet capacity.”

Don’t expect EYSOM to drastically change its production practices in order to meet inventory demand, either. “It makes my stomach hurt when we can’t offer customers what they want, but sometimes we’re outpaced and unable to keep things in stock,” said Cheung. For the most part, that’s becoming less of a problem—Cheung estimates that it typically takes less than four weeks to restock fully when a design runs out. He credits this towards improvements in manufacturing that he’s seen across the entire apparel industry, but especially in L.A. “L.A. has become a design hub, and I think a lot of the factories here have elevated to a place they weren’t five years ago,” Cheung said. He theorized that the change is, in part, because of the proliferation of direct to consumer brands. “There’s a shift towards flexibility.”

Still, he expects to stay with local, specialized factories for the future, even as the brand grows. “Our production capabilities are getting better, but to maintain quality, we know we sacrifice scaling quickly,” Cheung said. Instead, Cheung says, EYSOM will scale up by releasing capsules of specific things customers have asked for, like performance underwear and trend silhouettes. “The brand was created to harbor this creativity,” said Cheung. “If it can’t be fun, then what’s the point of it?”