In a world where seemingly every startup lives for venture funding, unicorn valuations and sky’s-the-limit growth, Kristin Hildebrand wants her new luxury athleticwear label Wone to be the antithesis of, in a sense, DTC brands gone wild.
Wone—pronounced “won”—is nothing if not mindfulness in product form, though the $320 pricetag for its classic black leggings might have you wondering whether the Nike alum has lost her mind. Hildebrand, who opened a meditation center in her home base of Portland before such practices had fully caught on in the mainstream, justifies Wone’s steep prices by sourcing world-class fabrics typically only seen on Olympians and Tour de France competitors from the best European mills. Instead of the $2 to $4 that most activewear brands pay per yard for material, Wone’s fabrics cost between $20 and $30, all thanks to Hildebrand’s obsessive focus on creating the best possible athletic wear product for uncompromising, well-heeled women.
Depending on how you look at it, Wone just might be a brand whose time has come. Hildebrand is seizing upon an “absolute cultural shift in priorities” that’s putting health and wellness on a pedestal once occupied by the It bag that symbolized your status atop the crème de la crème.
Just look around, she said, and see what’s really going on with the retail apocalypse; as chain stores fold by the hundreds, juice joints, fitness studios and locavore farm-to-table eateries spring up in their wake, claiming a mounting share of the consumer wallet. Spending on athleisure totaled 24 percent of all U.S. apparel sales in 2018, according to data from The NPD Group, signaling the growing role that workout-ready clothing plays in the modern consumer wardrobe as people today are just as likely to frequent the barre as they are its watering-hole homonym.
Lululemon long has symbolized the lengths to which people will go to display just how (financially) committed they are to living the uber-fit downward-dogging life. But if a devotee of the Vancouver-based brand finds hers way to Wone, “she wasn’t Lululemon’s customer to begin with,” Hildebrand explained. Wone customers aren’t content to settle for a “mainstream” activewear label that “doesn’t fit their identity and values,” she added.
“If there’s a woman wearing Lululemon, it’s out of necessity because she doesn’t have what she needs,” Hildebrand said, adding that the customer is “looking for a level of product that doesn’t exist.”
Finding the right fabric manufacturers has been key to bringing the Wone promise to life, though Hildebrand notes that some of the suppliers she’s approached decried the brand’s requests as “crazy.” Out of the gate Wone has seemingly set a new standard for quality in consumer-level activewear, despite initial pushback, she said, and from here the plan is to meaningfully iterate, pushing the boundaries on what its fabrics can do and looking for ways to increase attributes like proprioception, or awareness of one’s limbs relative to the body.
“We’re partnering with the best of the best but we’re also pushing the best of the best,” added Hildebrand, who has one patent in her name and has applied for two more for Wone, which she’s funding on her own. The brand’s innovation extends not only to its limit-stretching fabrics that rely on polyamides, elastane, Lycra, micromodals and even a touch of silk, but also to how the garments are produced. Hildebrand declined to reveal details about new manufacturing processes but believes it could “affect the rest of the apparel world and how garments are actually constructed.”
Wone’s approach to sustainability led the brand to find mills producing fabrics entirely in house, eliminating globe-spanning supply chains that see yarn spun in one location and textiles knit or woven in another. Not only is it more efficient but it also keeps Wone from “being harmful to the planet,” Hildebrand noted.
Whereas many athletic brands resort to chemical coatings and other techniques to achieve moisture wicking and quick-dry benefits, Wone doesn’t want to “compensate” with these shortcuts, choosing instead to building performance characteristics directly into the fabrics. “Hopefully, we’re educating the customer than you don’t need to compromise,” Hildebrand said. Today, the brand manufactures garments in a Los Angeles factory and while the Made in America storyline is great, Hildebrand isn’t wedded to domestic production; it’s more important to find the best factory “from an innovation standpoint,” wherever in the world it happens to be.
Though platforms like Instagram enable brands to set up shop seemingly overnight and have become indispensable to many a marketing strategy, Wone’s approach to wellness extends to how it views social media. Promoting a health-focused brand like Wone on Instagram when studies have shown social media to erode mental wellness would be a “blatant, dishonest lie,” Hildebrand said. “The medium is the message.”
Contrary to some popular conceptions, the Wone founder believes the Instagram model that relies on short-term attention and mindless “likes” represents “antiquated” thinking and a “dying” format.
Hildebrand wants to forge a deeper engagement with customers, part of the reason why people interested in shopping the Wone website must request access first—at which point the meditation enthusiast or one of her five employees researches each prospect thoroughly. Hildebrand hopes that women flocking to Wone have Marie Kondo’d their closets just as she did, paring multiple clothing-stuffed walk-in closets down to curated, high-quality, well-loved essentials. You might adore that stunning pair of designer shoes and maybe it meant something to you at some point but if you don’t wear them anymore—where’s the logic in holding onto them?
Even the macro trends in fashion retail point to the potential for a seismic swing in how people consume clothing as mass-market brands like H&M struggle to move fast-fashion wares and even high-end brands like Burberry have resorted to torching unsold, overproduced stock. All of these headlines serve to educate people that they should be “wearing amazing clothing instead of [expletive],” Hildebrand added.
As Wone prepares its third collection, it’s looking to expand its network of retailers beyond Barneys New York, where its second set of product is available for pre-order online. Partnerships with Selfridges, Lane Crawford and Matches Fashion offer a global footprint with like-minded luxury purveyors, though Hildebrand cautioned that the brand is taking a “methodical approach” to getting into a total of 10 wholesale accounts this year.
Between 500 and 600 people have been granted access to purchase product through Wone’s e-commerce site and average order values climbed with the arrival of the second collection, likely due to the greater selection of product, Hildebrand added. But scarcity is a compelling lever for who women who have been known to purchase “multiples of the entire collection” for thousands of dollars knowing that Wone’s bras, leggings and tees will be here today and gone tomorrow.
Offering specific products available exclusively on its website versus with retail partners, Wone gives customers a reason to repeat even as it remains “super hyper-focused” on evolving its core business of bottoms, bras and (sometimes) shorts. Improving on what it deems to be the best women’s activewear around is a challenge, Hildebrand admitted, but “a good problem to have.”
With an innovation roadmap laid out covering the next five and even 10 years, “we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” she added.