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Why Monreal London's Founder Left a High-Paying, High-Fashion Gig to Start an Activewear Line

Stefanï Grosse, who has been playing tennis and golf since she was a kid, was so fed up with the athleticwear market that she abandoned a cushy job in order to transform it.

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

Much of the fashion-y activewear currently on the market is geared towards the boutique gym goer, rather than those who work out outdoors. So last year, Stefanï Grosse, a tennis player and veteran of some of the biggest fashion brands in the world, launched Monreal London, a line of dresses, skirts, shorts, etc., all designed to wear on the court. (Most are good for the golf course, too.) I recently hopped on the phone with the German-born Grosse -- who is currently based in, yes, London -- to talk about the challenges of launching an activewear business, and the segment of the market that's still hurting. 

How did you get your start?

My mother worked in the fashion industry, she’s retired, and my dad’s in the sports industry, mainly tennis and golf, so that’s a bit of my initial set-up from both of these worlds. I’ve been playing tennis all my life, really, and I started golf a bit later. I’ve been working in high-end fashion design for a long time. I actually went to Parsons in New York and Paris, and when I graduated I started working as a design assistant at Donna Karan. I was a designer there for three years, then went to Calvin Klein Collection, worked for him for three years, and at some point after having been in New York for 11 years, I just decided to get some experience back in Europe. I am German. I took a job in London and worked for Nicole Farhi for four or five years. After that, consulted for Temperley and Issa London. But the whole time I was … I am still passionate about fashion design, but I always saw this gap in the market. It’s not just that I wanted to grab an opportunity, but I really thought, as a tennis player and a sportswoman myself, I never liked the sports clothing that I would have to wear to perform my sports or workout. And it really bugged me.

Take me from Monreal London’s inception, through to its launch.

I didn’t understand why nobody cared about sportswear. These women that work out, a lot of times they’re quite conscious about the way they look. A lot of times, they do spend quite a lot of money on fashion for day, work and evening wear. Why would they not care when they [exercise]? I could never quite understand this, and at some point I just decided that I would do something about it. I launched the first collection in May 2013, so it hasn’t even been that long. I resigned from my job in 2012. It took me eight months to find the right manufacturing. I went through three different factories to finally find a great one in Portugal.

Why was it so hard to find the right factory?

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I wanted to use European materials and also produce in Europe, because you have more control over the product. A lot of sportswear is manufactured in Asia, so for a company that wants to produce in Europe you’re already a little more limited in options. It’s expensive for factories to have the technical equipment needed for athleticwear, so their minimums tend to be quite large. It’s tricky starting in a factory that normally makes 300 to 500 pieces per style production. I was lucky to find this manufacturer who actually believed in my product. They also do fashion for all these brands influenced by sports, including Balenciaga. They have all the equipment that’s needed to do a functional sports garment, but they also have the understanding of high-end fashion details. They actually made the first production run for Monreal in their sample rooms -- they wouldn’t even put it in their production rooms. So it was twice as expensive as normal production. Originally, I started with a factory in France. They work for Hermes and all kinds of fantastic French high-end houses, but they just didn’t have the machines to do performance garments. And I’m not saying that Asia cannot produce beautiful garments, but you have to have huge quantities. And you have to fly over there and really work to control it. As a small start-up, it’s difficult to do that.

How were you able to fund the business?

I’ve worked in fashion for 20 years and have held some design director and creative director roles, so I saved up quite a bit of money and I financed it myself for the first year and a half. In February 2014, we closed the first round of financing. The majority of the seed investors are people that work in finance or other areas and just believed in me. The product, yes, but mainly in me. It’s not institutional money.

You’ve been in operation for a little over a year. How’s it going?

It’s been quite phenomenal. With my first seven tennis dresses, I went to U.S. Vogue and they wrote a feature story about it right away, and then two months later British Vogue followed, and it was quite amazing. Our small collection at Harrods sold out in three weeks. It was quite phenomenal. And that obviously proved the point that women are definitely keen to look good, whether they play tennis or in the gym or what have you. And they’re also willing to spend a bit if it’s special, if the quality is better, if they just feel better in it.

You’ve focused primarily on tennis thus far. Are you planning to expand beyond that?

The next step will definitely be a little golf range. Then we'll cross over into fitness, because we have already quite a lot of pieces that are completely versatile. The ball shorts, for instance: they just look so fantastic on and are flattering and supportive in the bum area, so Bikram yoga people and Pilates people are also interested in them. We’re going to do more leggings that you can wear to play tennis or just run in at the gym. And I absolutely think that the accessories market in sportswear is even worse than the clothing market. The press interest that we receive for our few little bags and racquet cases is just enormous because there’s not much out there. Most of us never win Wimbledon, so why is everything so serious? Why would I want to walk around with a huge racquet case that has "Prince" or whatever spelled all over the place when I just want a nice bag to carry around my stuff, you know? There’s nothing out there, absolutely nothing.