What Chris Burch Taught Alala Founder Denise Lee About Building a Business

Product is king. But customers are important, too.
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Product is king. But customers are important, too.
Denise Lee. Photo: Denise Lee

Denise Lee. Photo: Denise Lee

Welcome to Fitness Week! All week long we'll be posting stories about fitness, with a distinctly Fashionista spin.

Before starting her upscale activewear line, Alala, retail vet Denise Lee attended a different sort of boot camp: three years working under Chris Burch. (Burch is the co-founder of Tory Burch, as well as the founder of women's retailer C. Wonder and Poppin, a company that makes fun office supplies. Most recently, he became a lead investor in BaubleBar.)

 So what what did she learn from the serial entrepreneur? As a part of Fashionista's inaugural Fitness Week, I spoke with Lee about launching Alala in the midst of the activewear craze, and what she learned from her old boss. 

How did you get from Point A to Alala? 

I've always been in retail. I worked at Armani Exchange, then I went to business school at NYU. I worked for Chris Burch for three years and helped him launch Poppin and C. Wonder. Working with Chris, I learned a lot about how to launch a brand. It was a foundation for me. 

What sort of foundation? 

One of the things that we’re focussed on here is profitability and building a sustainable business. He taught me about paying attention to our margins. And he's so passionate about treating his customers right. I've tried to apply that to Alala. We do everything for our customer. We exist to make her life better, make her workout better. If we're designing a new bra, the first thing we ask ourselves is, "Will this bra be comfortable? Will she be comfortable bending down in yoga class?" 

How did you come up with the idea? 

In 2012, I was training for a triathlon. Being someone who loves fashion and shopping, I wanted to buy some new clothes. I realized there wasn’t a brand out there that spoke to me in terms of aesthetics. It got me thinking about the design-led, fashion-focused activewear space. I did a lot of research -- it was about the time when everybody was catching on, realizing there was a lot of opportunity here. After about eight months of research, I left my job and started Alala. That was the beginning of 2013. The first thing I did was hire an activewear designer. It was important to me to have someone with that sort of expertise. Christie [Orlando] came from Champion, so our pieces are performance driven.

And how did you initially fund it? 

It's funded by friends and family right now. I haven't done an official raise. 

Alala Spring 2014

Alala Spring 2014

You launched the collection in February 2014. What are some of your top sellers so far? 

We have a bra called the Zip It Up bra. It’s a racerback style, so it’s pretty supportive. We always felt like sports bras were so hard to take it off--you’re always wrestling yourself out of it. With this bra, you can actually pull the zip down. It  gives you leeway. Another favorite is the basic black leggings with sheer mesh panels at the back. The panels are sexy, but they're in a place where most women feel comfortable showing a little skin. And they serve a functional role, offering ventilation when you're sweating. 

You've been at this for over six months now. What has the response been like? 

The response that we've gotten has been really amazing, not only about the product but also about the brand. We have a great social media following, and people are really interacting with us on Instagram and Facebook. The range of age and demographic is really exciting to me -- I get emails from customers in their twenties and thirties, but also in their fifties and sixties. We launched with Equinox in February, and now we're stocked at Bloomingdale's. We are actually in the windows uptown at the flagship through the end of this week! 

Three years ago, there were one or two players in this space. Now there are many. What made people suddenly catch on to the idea that activewear can also be fashion? 

As a culture, I think we're getting more wellness and fitness-minded. The rise of activewear mirrors the rise of these boutique fitness studios. People used to go to bars and clubs, now it's cool to go to a fitness studio and juice. Fashion has also adopted a sports aesthetic. 

A good deal of your business is via your website. So many brands these days are forgoing wholesale altogether and focusing on direct-to-consumer sales. Was that your plan from the start? 

We never intended to start out as direct to consumer, and we're still focused on building a strong wholesale business. But direct to consumer is such a wonderful channel to tell our story and give the customer an immersive experience. I think it's definitely a very important part of our strategy.