Does anyone design activewear just for the sweat life anymore?
When you talk to enough startups in the active and athletic space, a few themes emerge: they make with the best fabrics, focus on quality over cost, and design products that move seamlessly from studio to street, as CPA and model-turned-Vuori CEO Joe Kudla told Sourcing Journal.
That “studio to street” aesthetic was missing in the men’s active market, Ludla said, and a major impetus for founding performance wear brand Vuori in 2015 after working as an accountant, traveling the world as a model and dabbling in a few apparel startups that never really got off the ground. A Washington-native college athlete who played football and lacrosse at University of California, San Diego, Kudla turned to yoga to try to heal a back thrown out of whack after years spent excelling at hard-hitting sports.
Lululemon was “changing everything” at the time by investing in product quality and innovation versus major athlete endorsements like the big brands were, but even then “we always felt it was our wives’ brand,” Kudla explained, likening the presentation of men’s product in the chain’s stores to “a castaway in the corner.”
Kudla told a familiar founder’s tale of seeing an opportunity in the market to create product that just wasn’t there, in his opinion, and given the brand’s growth over the past three-plus years, consumers chasing the active lifestyle and Southern California beach-life aesthetic seem to agree.
“We aspired to what surf brands had built,” Kudla shared, explaining that seeing guys showing up to yoga class in board shorts and conventional athletic attire not purpose built for downward dogging just didn’t resonate with him. With their shiny synthetics, in-your-face logos and bold primary colors, “gym clothes were almost costume-y,” he added. That’s why Vuori designs workout wear that feels casual and easy while still offering performance qualities like moisture-wicking needed to survive a good sweat session.
Vuori’s tops, bottoms, jackets and more heavily rely on polyester fabrics developed to have the “tactile hand, and look and feel like a natural,” Kudla explained. The company sources much of its fabrics from Taiwanese mills including Everest Textile Mill, ECLAT Textile, DeLicacy Industrial Co., and Witfit. Enterprise.Co. Ltd., and Carvico, an Italian mill. Vuori spends a lot of time developing fabrics and incorporates some proprietary textiles into its collections. Though it manufactures about 90 percent of product in China today, Vuori is starting to “even out” the 10 percent of production conducted in Vietnam given all of the uncertainty with the trade upheaval, Kudla noted.
Challenging itself to produce 80 percent of its products with recycled materials by 2021, Vuori is “developing the roadmap and game plan to get there,” Kudla said. “Sometimes you might need to work with a conventional polyester and nylon in order to meet the more tactile or aesthetic needs that you’re going for,” he explained, adding that 50 percent of its men’s bottoms are made with recycled polyester.
However, moving volume-heavy core products from conventional to eco-friendly fabrications will take real work, though Kudla noted that recycled yarns are becoming more readily available. Mills are improving their output too, he said, spinning recycled yarns that capture much of the softness and performance of traditional fibers. According to Kudla, “It’s a really fun time to be focused on sustainability.”
Vuori is looking for other ways to reduce its impact, like getting rid of the myriad individually wrapped poly bags Kudla described as “literally the bane of my existence” and investigating whether biodegradable packaging has potential.
“That’s something that we’re looking into currently as we evaluate more sophisticated distribution that we might in the future control more in house,” he said. “It gives you more flexibility to look at packaging, but when you’re working with a 3PL that’s handling 50 different brands it can be scary to bring production in that’s not wrapped and packaged properly because you can experience damage.”
Like most emerging brands, Vuori’s e-commerce business outpaces growth in wholesale, and Kudla said he knew from the beginning that the brand would never be online only. E-commerce represents 55 percent of the company’s business, vertical retail constitutes 10 percent and wholesale accounts with businesses like REI, Nordstrom, Equinox, premium fitness studios, specialty outdoors retailers and resorts make up the difference. In addition to a flagship store in its hometown of Encinitas, Calif., Vuori opened in-state stores in Manhattan Beach and San Francisco last summer and plans to unveil a new location in Del Mar in a few months.
While Vuori forecasts 121 percent growth in its overall business this year, e-commerce is expected to expand 150 percent, faster than the 130 percent rise it posted in 2018 versus the prior year. Kudla said the company is “very profitable” with no outside funding beyond family and friends and employs 65 people when it had just three at launch. Based on sales histories, one of Vuori’s best-selling men’s shorts is on track to move 50,000 pairs through e-commerce only or about 75,000 when including wholesale.
Kudla said he heard “no” a lot when back in the spring of 2015 he lugged a suitcase full of samples to any store in New York City that would give him the time of day.
“In those days wholesale accounts were really trying to figure out their female consumer and why all of a sudden she was wearing Lululemon head to toe,” he explained. “They were trying to address that on their floor—how do you merchandise a section for women’s activewear but men’s was a little bit ahead of their time.”
For many of these stores, Vuori was the first men’s active apparel they ever carried, Kudla said. “We personally believe in an omni experience,” he added. “It does put a little bit more complication and challenge on design and development because we’re almost having to manage two commercial calendars.”
Kudla credits a strong team of experienced industry veterans with executing a product cadence that meets demand in e-commerce as well as at wholesale. In mid-January Vuori hired Sarah Carlson—who previously worked for Athleta, Gap, Banana Republic, Levi Strauss, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne and Harve Bernard—to oversee design in the women’s business, a line it added after launching exclusively with men’s wear.
“She’s already been incredibly instrumental in helping us to build out a more evolved commercial calendar that gets us a little bit closer to delivery so that we’re introducing more newness and freshness to keep that direct model more dynamic,” Kudla said.
Though many digitally native brands once thought they could survive with an e-commerce-only model, the CEO said many are starting to take the omnichannel route. “A lot of these consumer brands are looking towards wholesale partnerships kind of secondarily because they recognize the importance of showing up where your consumer is shopping,” Kudla added.
Swim has been so successful on the men’s side that Vuori is dropping a women’s swim capsule next spring. It’s part of Vuori’s expansion beyond a core training and fitness focus to more fully include outdoor, commute and travel-oriented product, clothing that Kudla said can take consumers from the office to a hike on the trail. “That sweet spot for us is where Vuori is getting a name for itself,” he concluded.