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The Three P’s of Lucas Hugh: Product, Positioning, Persistence

With an appearance in blockbuster film The Hunger Games and stockists like Net-a-Sporter, high-end activewear brand Lucas Hugh is poised for growth. BoF speaks to founder Anjhe Mules about how years of product development and premium positioning in an ascendant category have paid off.
Lucas Hugh A/W 2014 | Source: Lucas Hugh
  • Lisa Wang

LONDON, United Kingdom — Given the explosive trajectory of the activewear market, which is outpacing growth in traditional apparel categories, it's no surprise that upmarket fashion players like Tory Burch have set their sights on the multi-billion dollar opportunity. But can fashion and athletic wear come together in a single product that performs to the highest standards and looks good beyond the gym? That was the question designer Anjhe Mules set out to answer when she began developing luxury activewear brand Lucas Hugh, named after both of her grandfathers, in 2006.

Although the category is undergoing a wave of 'premiumisation', led by the likes of Sweaty Betty and Lululemon, back when Mules launched her label in 2010, there was nothing in the market that integrated technology and high-fashion design. "It was something that was very important to me because what was missing in my eyes was something that provided all of that but was still within fashion," said the soft-spoken Mules, a New Zealand native.

All of a sudden people were realising that women were wearing activewear throughout the day and not just at the gym but I think that is the future of ready-to-wear.

In a sharp cream blazer layered over a royal purple top and leggings of her own making, she embodied her brand’s target audience of on-the-go, fitness-focused women, who pay £225 (about $385) for a pair of leggings. The brand is now stocked at the likes of Net-a-Sporter, Net-a-Porter’s athleticwear spinoff, as well as Harrods, Shopbop, Kirna Zabete, and its own web store.

“I think that you can definitely get fashion-related sportswear, but not a technical product,” she said. Indeed, high-calibre technical specifications and fabrication are the brand’s calling card. Over four years of research and development, funded by her savings and loans from friends and family, Mules consulted with sports scientists and fitness trainers, including a technical designer who worked on Team GB’s Olympics kits.

Anjhe Mules, founder of Lucas Hugh | Source: Courtesy

Lucas Hugh leggings, fabricated with moisture-wicking polyamide elastane, are fused together with an iron rather than stitched, which is better for blood flow. Strategic mesh panels help ventilate areas of heavy perspiration, such as the inner legs, while concealed shorts on every pair ensure that they stay opaque. The company is also in the process of patenting the seamless waistband.

But beyond its impressive technical specifications, Lucas Hugh is also covetable for its minimal, futuristic aesthetic, rendered in an on-trend colour palette – no Day-Glo hues that seem to appear only on workout gear. Understated branding, slimming construction, and geometric hand-sketched prints combine to lend the garments sleek, multi-functional appeal. The full range has expanded to include puffer jackets and wool-lined bodysuits for skiing and a less structured knitted line for yoga and pilates.

Lucas Hugh A/W 2014 | Source: Lucas Hugh

Mules is a former swimwear designer who owned her own label after graduating from design school in New Zealand. She first spotted the activewear opportunity when she was employed on a private jet owned by a Russian businessman, a side job she took to earn a living while interning for Alexander McQueen in London.

“I was working for one of the richest men in Moscow part-time,” she said. “This was such a good way for me to get global perspective and understand the luxury market. And I realised then that fitness was massive – it was definitely big in Russia but [also] every location that we went to.” From Sardinia to New York, Mules realised that women everywhere were on the hunt for clothing that adapted to their increasingly busy lifestyles. “Working out of hotels, I found it really difficult to find something that was cool enough to walk through the hotel lobby or if you got locked out of your room or just these multi-purpose occasions,” she recalled. “That’s when it clicked – the product is missing from the market.”

Utilising her swimwear expertise, Mules began formulating the concept for her then-nascent brand. But her exacting specifications limited her options for manufacturing and the threat of dwindling funds loomed. “It was very difficult to find a place that would take me on because it was a start-up idea, it was very conceptual, very different to anything in the market as far as incorporating the technology,” she said. “It took me one year to get into the factory that I wanted to get into.”

Lucas Hugh Spring/Summer 2014 collection | Source: Lucas Hugh

Despite the initial setbacks, Mules pressed on and launched Lucas Hugh with a basic online shop in July 2010. Adapting the brand’s five-month production lead-time to the fashion industry’s calendar proved problematic early on. “If you arrive late or don’t stay on the shop floor long enough, you get a bad sell-through. So we do two fashion collections a year and we have a core collection where we introduce new colours twice a year as well, but at opposite times to the fashion collections.”

Initial success came when the company signed on key stockists, including Net-a-Porter and Browns Focus. Slowly, they began growing their way to profitability, which it achieved this year thanks to its steady ascent of core clients and an appearance on last summer's blockbuster dystopian action film The Hunger Games, starring actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Costume designer Trish Summerville stumbled upon Lucas Hugh while on the hunt for futuristic activewear, and within months, Mules found herself working on the technical garments worn by the film's lead characters. Almost overnight, the fledgling young brand was inundated with interest from fans and fashion press from all over the world.

“I was in the front page of The New Zealand Herald, the national newspaper! Which pleased my mother so much,” Mules laughed. “And I even received a letter from the head of my university, saying congratulations and he was so proud, which was really nice.”

Orders from all over the globe poured in, particularly from the US, where online sales picked up by a sustained 25 percent. The exposure accelerated Lucas Hugh’s growth and internal organisation. “Dealing with the international press was really interesting for us because we weren’t set up to land the goods with the tax and duties. I had to hire an operations director, who had to come on board to restructure all of that.”

Since then, the brand has continued to grow by 100 percent year on year, and turned over £750,000 (about $1.3 million) last year with a profit. It secured a distribution centre in Atlanta and plans to launch both US- and Australia-facing websites early 2015. The US, which now comprises 20 percent of all online orders, represents a major area of focus and opportunity for the brand.

And although other players, both established and emerging, have begun to tap the ascendant category, Mules’ prescience and persistence have positioned Lucas Hugh for continued growth. “It’s a really topical subject right now; there’s so much noise around activewear,” she conceded. “I think Lucas Hugh is in a really good position right now because it’s at the top end of the market at the moment and – touch wood – we don’t have any direct competitors.”

Mules believes that the recent rise of activewear is a harbinger of fashion's evolution towards cross-functionality. “All of a sudden people were realising that women were wearing activewear throughout the day and not just at the gym but, in my eyes, I think that is the future of ready-to-wear, not necessarily activewear, but technical products that women can do multiple things in.”

“I still own 100 percent of the company. But obviously that’s going to change shortly because we’ve got big plans to grow the business quite quickly now,” she continued. The company is actively seeking a minority investor to catapult it into the next phase of growth.

“We’ve had quite a few significant milestones along the way where I thought, oh thank God we’re not going to keel over!” Mules laughed. “I don’t believe things just happen. I think if you’ve got a very clear idea of where you’re heading, often things come.”

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