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Tamara Hill-Norton of Sweaty Betty on Seizing the Opportunity in Activewear

In the latest instalment of Founder Stories, a series highlighting the personal and professional journeys of fashion’s most dynamic entrepreneurs, BoF speaks with Tamara Hill-Norton of Sweaty Betty, one of the first companies to see and seize the opportunity in activewear.
Tamara Hill-Norton, founder of Sweaty Betty | Source: Sweaty Betty
By
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

LONDON, United Kingdom — Today, buoyed by the rise of running, yoga and boutique workout classes like SoulCycle, CrossFit, Pilates and ballet-inspired barre courses, women's activewear is a multi-billion dollar market that is quickly attracting new players, from fast fashion giants like H&M to accessible luxury brands like Tory Burch. "This is not an ephemeral frenzy driven by January's good intentions, detox plans and gym memberships, but, rather, part of a larger healthy lifestyle drive," says Ashma Kunde, an apparel analyst at Euromonitor International, a market intelligence firm. "While most prominent in Western markets, the trend is picking up pace in Asia-Pacific as well."

But back in 1998, activewear was still in its infancy. And Sweaty Betty, then a small start-up in London, was one of the first companies to see and seize the emerging opportunity at the intersection of fashion and fitness. With remarkable prescience and seed capital raised primarily from friends and family, founder Tamara Hill-Norton opened the first Sweaty Betty store in London’s Notting Hill, at the time an up-and-coming neighbourhood that has since become known for its attractive, wealthy and fitness-conscious “yummy mummies.”

What began as a single store selling other brands has since grown into a fast-growing international business with its own label, which, has attracted financing from Wittington Investments (the investment vehicle of the British Weston family) and, last year, generated $40 million in revenues. Sweaty Betty now operates 36 points of sale in the UK, including concessions at Selfridges and Harrods, as well as two US stores, launched in 2013, in New York’s Soho and the affluent New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut.

BoF sat down with Tamara Hill-Norton to talk about her personal and professional trajectory, building Sweaty Betty, and the increasingly integrated future of fashion and fitness.

BoF: What were you doing before Sweaty Betty?

THN: Growing up as a kid, I was always quite rebellious and strong-minded and I didn’t really like being told what to do. And, later on, I was just like, “I don’t want to work for anyone else, I know what I want to do, I want to run my own business!” I always had that streak in me. Then, when I was at university doing languages, I did my year abroad partly in Germany and partly in Paris, where I came across all these amazing little underwear boutiques, which I hadn’t seen in the UK. I was like, “Right, okay, I’m going to start my own underwear business.”

Once back in the UK, I got a job as a buying assistant with a start-up called Knickerbox, run by a couple who had worked at Marks & Spencer. It did about £20 million turnover at the time and my reason for doing it was to learn. Jamie, the wife, was an ex-designer and her husband was an ex-merchandiser. They were such a dynamic, brilliant couple to work with and it was quite a small team, so I learnt a lot.

BoF: Why did you decide to launch Sweaty Betty? What was the specific opportunity that you saw?

THN: While I was at Knickerbox, we started to do a little bit of sportswear. And I was buying that in the north of England when I came across a brand that was just starting out called USA Pro. I’d never seen anything like it. It was all bright colours and designed just for women. It wasn’t designed for men and then transformed for women, which was what the market generally offered at the time. I was just like, “Wow, this is incredible!” And I started to research the women’s sportswear market.

I discovered some other amazing female sportswear brands, mainly Scandinavian and Italian, but no one was selling them on the high street. You could find them in certain department stores, but on the high street, it was just those big, male-oriented sportswear stores and you’d have a little patronising female area in the corner. So, then, I said, “Right, this is a proper gap in the market.”

BoF: What pushed you to take the plunge?

THN: I was made redundant from Knickerbox. The company went bust shortly afterwards and it was then that I was like, “Now I have to go do it.” I had this idea. And, definitely, it was something I had wanted to do. But suddenly it was forced upon me.

My fiancé at the time (now CEO of Sweaty Betty) had an MBA and helped to write the business plan. It took about six months to write the plan and raise money. We raised from friends and family — just like £2,000 here and there. And, then, we raised some money from the bank. I really did not have a clue what I was doing, apart from the product. Sourcing and buying the product was fine. Trying to find the shop and get the finance in place was the hard thing.

BoF: You opened your first store, selling other activewear brands, in London’s Notting Hill, back when the neighborhood was much less evolved.

THN: Opening the first store in Notting Hill was really important, because, even then, there was a really nice gym and Bodyworks was one of the first Pilates studios and there were loads of American expats living there — they just got it, of course. They knew exactly what we were about. We were right where the early customer was living. It put us on the map, being in Notting Hill, and got us a lot of press. Remember, it was 1998 and then the [Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant] film came out and everyone was talking about it. Notting Hill really worked.

BoF: You began with seed money from friends and family, as well as a bank loan. But you’ve raised several rounds of investment since then and shifted your business model.

THN: We’ve done a few refinancings over the years. And that’s because our business fundamentally changed. In about 2007 or 2008, we realised that reselling other people’s sportswear brands in a premium location wasn’t going to work. The margin on sportswear is so low, because everyone was doing the high-turnover stores on the high street. So, we needed to change direction and do our own label. Also, we were beginning to gain awareness and really wanted to push our brand.

When yogawear arrived, we were doing really well with our own label. In parts of the UK, where we wouldn’t have thought people were aware of the health and fitness lifestyle, we were opening stores and it was working. I don’t know that there was one eureka moment, but definitely it was like, “Wow, we are riding this wave and it seems to be working.”

BoF: More than a mere fashion trend, the rise of activewear — and the success of Sweaty Betty — is rooted in a much longer-term lifestyle trend. How do you see this trend evolving?

THN: Well, people used to separate it out and say, “That’s my gym time and when I’m going to wear my gym clothes. I’m just going to fly in with a personal trainer and get it done with.” Now, I think people are wearing their gym clothes all day, adapting it a little bit, making it look quite cool and funky. They’ll go to a really cool class with their friends and that’s the beginning of their night out and, then, they’ll go party.

I think it’s just going to become so much cooler, wearing your sportswear, and so much more fun going to really cool fitness classes, so it’s just going to become part of everybody’s lives and not a separate little box or something that you have to do in order to stay fit and look good. It’s becoming all mixed up and just a part of your life.

BoF: So, much more integrated into everything we do rather than a separate activity?

THN: Yes. And much more social. For a while, there was a thing about having your personal goal and escaping from everything, which I think is still important for quite a lot of people. But it’s also quite solitary and scary for maybe the majority of people. So, now, I think it’s about being social and training with other people and making it really fun.

BoF: Last year, Sweaty Betty expanded into the US market. Why now?

THN: In terms of the UK, we have a plan to open more stores over the next three to five years, but a bit more gradually. We’ll probably see 50 to 60 stores maximum in the UK. So, we want to find our customers in other places. We are not going to change our concept, we’re still chasing the same customer. And, of course, in the US there is a massive market.

BoF: Why did you decide to open in New York and Greenwich?

THN: Because we wanted to establish ourselves as a brand and get people in the media and influencers to see us first. And, also, logistically it’s close to London. But the West coast is definitely somewhere we’d love to go sometime. We’ve been visiting California forever and we absolutely love it and always get inspired going there. We could really see our brand there, so that’s sort of the next stage.

BoF: What differentiates Sweaty Betty from North American competitors like Lululemon?

THN: The fact that we’re British and we use British designers and a mix of European fabrics. We’re also multi-sport and we’re finding that our swimwear and skiwear is selling really well. And we’ve got a lot more unusual statement styles. Also, we’ll style up whole looks — we’ll even have knitwear thrown in that you can wear on top of your yoga clothes to look a bit quirky and different. So, a lot of layering. We’re hoping these traits, our fabrics and being multi-category will really set us apart.

BoF: With global fashion giants like H&M now targeting activewear, how will you defend your position?

TNH: Obviously their product is amazing — H&M and all that — and it’s very good prices. But we’ve got really loyal followers. We’ve got a very strong community-based marketing programme where we offer free classes, really unusual and different classes, in our stores. We have seasonal “Get Fit 4 Free” promos where we do whole campaigns around unusual workouts, like ballet bootcamp, and we’ll stream them online and invite shoppers into the classes. So, I think that whole brand side and marketing side is really important.

In-store, our girls are really knowledgeable on the technical side of the products. They all work out themselves. Being able to educate the customer and talk to them about the technical quality of the sportswear is really important. We spend a lot of time fitting our garments. We’ll do three or four fits on each garment — the seams on the bottom making your bum look amazing. I would say attention to detail when it comes to the product is something that perhaps a typical high street store wouldn’t have as much focus on.

BoF: It’s really interesting that you offer actual fitness classes as well as activewear itself. Do you see Sweaty Betty offering experiences as well as clothing?

THN: I love that idea. At the moment, our focus and expertise is on the clothing and we’re not going to be opening gyms in the future, but we love the idea of giving our customers an experience that takes it beyond just the clothing. Some of our shops have beautiful basements or mezzanine levels that we use as studios, so that just works perfectly.

BoF: You mentioned online video, as well. How might you extend that experience via the Internet?

THN: We’d love to be the online hub of women’s fitness. Essentially, it would be great if you could come to our website and find videos where you could do classes. We can also be more editorial. We can help people with styling their clothing, with what products to wear. We’re working towards that.

BoF: Tory Burch recently teamed up with wearable technology company Fitbit to launch a fashionable activity tracker. Clearly, Sweaty Betty is tapping the opportunity at the intersection of fitness and fashion. But what do you see at the intersection of fitness, fashion and technology?

THN: We have a really fantastic forward-thinking supplier in Taiwan who’s working on embedding technological devices into clothing. It’s something that we are looking into. We haven’t developed anything yet, but we are talking with our suppliers along those lines. And, yes, I think it’s definitely going to be happening. We’ve been looking at different types of clothing like a visor that could come down and show you how fast how you’re running, for example. But I don’t think I’m that keen with where we’ve got to yet. It’s still early days.

BoF: Looking into the future, where would you like to see Sweaty Betty in five years?

THN: We’d love to carry on growing. We see us as being an international brand. We’re loving being in the States — it’s still early stages for us, but we’re looking to open more stores there. Online is also a big area of growth for us internationally. So the plan is just to keep going, doing the same thing as we have been doing. We know our customer really well and want to be able to follow her wherever she is.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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