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London's Sweaty Betty Is Taking on Lululemon in the U.S.

It's a good time to be a lover of cute workout wear.

British entrepreneur and exercise enthusiast Tamara Hill-Norton started her activewear line, Sweaty Betty, in London back in 1998, which is the same year Lululemon launched. Sweaty Betty has had a very different trajectory, though -- slow and steady growth rather than the extremes ups and downs that Lululemon, which went public in 2007, has experienced. Sweaty Betty now has 40 boutiques in the UK and just opened two in the U.S. (one in NYC and one in Greenwich, Conn.), with more planned.

I caught up with Hill-Norton at a recent presentation for Sweaty Betty's fall 2014 collection, which is full of the vibrant prints and slouchy, cool-girl shapes the brand is known for. (Full disclosure: I'm a big fan and couldn't have been more excited when the U.S. site launched a few years ago. I used to buy up pieces when I went to London for work.) For fall, expect to see a graphic mash-up of floral designs and city architecture, a print featuring "Men at Work" sign-style stick figures cavorting on tops, and a running range called "Night Ninja," based on girls who do parkour.

With Lululemon opening in London this month and giving the homegrown Sweaty Betty some competition, I was keen to speak to Hill-Norton about her plans for the brand.

Have you been inspired by what you’ve seen women wearing here in the U.S.?

Yeah, absolutely. Particularly California. I’ve been going there quite a lot. The way they wear workout wear all day everyday, that’s really inspired us. It’s not just for the gym. And all the bright colors and showing off their bodies. Plus the surfing and the skiing and the whole active lifestyle. Not just running or studio workouts.

Gym to street is happening in New York too. Is that not such a thing in the UK?

It’s really starting now, finally. I think we’re still a bit behind. Well, definitely in London it is [starting]. But in the rest of the UK, there’s sportswear for working out and then you change into your normal clothes. It’s getting trendier and cooler. People like Cara Delevingne, who’s looking cool in her trainers and her beanie and hoodie, make people say, “Right, that’s a good look!”

What are you most popular styles in the UK vs. the U.S.? Is there a difference in what women buy?

In the U.S. for sure they’re loving the things that other [brands] don’t do so much. Like dance. We do a ballet-inspired dance range. In the UK people really embrace the prints more. They’ve done the black thing for a long time. In New York, they'll buy prints, too, but they always want it in black as well. We sell a lot more proper bras for running in the UK. Everyone says, “I want a proper bra that won’t move” and it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. But we feel that’s important, so we do it in bright colors. Over here it tends to be a nice pretty bra, it doesn’t really matter if it’s not so supportive -- we’re finding that a little bit. So that’s quite interesting.

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Funny. Some U.S. companies are very focused on their bra technology.

We’re trying to do both: Make it really supportive but also quite pretty, do it in nice colors. And do creative things with the straps.

Are there certain fashion brands you look to for inspiration?

I personally love Alexander Wang and Helmut Lang and those quite sporty designers who are more about the silhouette and the shape and the fabrics than about the neon trims. We definitely look at them, but we do try very much to come up with our own unique theme and then just push that forward, rather than translating catwalk looks into sportswear.

Lululemon just opened in London. Are you concerned? I think it’s really good for us in a sense because it’s keeping us on our toes and it makes us look at what our differences are. And then really play to those strengths and not be the same as everyone else.

What do you think makes Sweaty Betty different?

It has got a bit of wit, with our slogans, but it’s also designed from a theme, like a fashion range is. We also do multi-sport. We’re doing really fun stuff like ski and swim where we can really push the fashion aspect of it. And the fact we do quite a lot of European fabrics -- like jerseys and knits -- as well as the technical stuff. So it’s a bit unexpected. We mix up our looks with the knitwear. You can wear a sweater over the top of yoga pants. I think it’s a bit of a British thing-- a bit unexpected, a bit quirky, a bit of wit. With Lulu coming, it means there is a lot more focus on [this industry]. Everyone’s like, “Wow. What is happening with activewear?” There’s a much bigger focus.

What are your future plans for the U.S.?

We’d love to [open more stores]. We’re looking to the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side in New York City. Our dream would be California for sure -- and then me go live there!

Photos: Courtesy