In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Jennifer Bandier's luxury activewear boutique-slash-studio Bandier is living proof of the old adage that success simply comes down to a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck. The luck part — or, the burgeoning activewear market that had just begun taking shape when Bandier opened its doors in the summer of 2014 — is somewhat inconsequential when compared to the grind it took to get Bandier off the ground.
Prior to launching her first store in Southampton, Bandier, the woman, had exactly zero experience in fitness or in fashion. In fact, she had spent the majority of her career as a music industry executive, managing such artists and groups as iconic R&B trio TLC. In those days, much of her job revolved around discovering and supporting emerging musical talent, the likes of which she still does today in the activewear space. After leaving music, Bandier had simultaneously become very involved in boutique fitness and was also looking for her next act. But as is the case with so many great ideas, she ended up stumbling upon her new venture by accident: Bandier broke her foot, and it was during that time that she noticed there was a lack of activewear shops within walking distance. Poof! Bandier, the boutique, was born.
Of course, it wasn't that easy. Bandier recalls many early difficulties, including hearing from friends and peers that the idea was among the worst they'd ever heard. ("I remember feeling, like, a knife in my stomach.") But flash-forward four years, and Bandier, now a celebrity- and influencer-favorite, has five stores in top-tier luxury retail markets across the U.S., with two additional locations opening later in 2018.
I spoke to Bandier about how sheer will allowed her to push through the beginning criticism, how she discovers the niche startup brands Bandier stocks and how the business stays on top of its (plethora of) competition. Read on for the highlights.
You've talked about your "lightbulb moment," which came after you broke your foot and discovered a lack of stylish athleticwear shops within walking distance. How was Bandier born out of that moment?
I had broken my foot and was walking around the streets of New York hoping I would have an idea. I was spending the larger portion of my day being active and there was really no clothing, I felt, that was my personal style. There was a lot of stuff I could buy, but I didn't feel like it was what I wanted to wear. So I started looking online and finding a lot of different brands of clothing, but I realized there was no physical store to actually purchase these items. In order to get them, I had to buy them online from the brand. It wasn't like I could go to one location and find all of them. And one day it occurred to me: Why is there no multi-brand luxury activewear store? There were other ones that just sold a lot of gym clothing that were more on a mass level, but I thought, why is there no boutique that sells an amazing curation of activewear?
At that moment, I was like, I have to do this. I knew I had never, ever had any experience in retail or in fashion other than I loved activewear. I was obsessed with the right leggings and the right jacket, and I was in love with the whole culture of living an active lifestyle. I thought it was an incredible investment in my future. I hadn't always been so healthy, but now I was. I really believed in this lifestyle.
And the timing was right. All these brands had no outlet [other] than their websites, so you had to know about them in order to purchase them. I thought, "Let's open in Southampton," because obviously, the rents in New York City are so expensive and I had no proof of concept. I thought it would be easier to take a lease out there, and it was the same audience.
What challenges did you face when you were first getting started?
Well, I didn't have the experience of working in fashion, or working in retail for that matter. But I always viewed myself as the ultimate consumer. I looked at it and I thought, What would I want? What would attract me? What would get me to a store? The challenge was that I hadn't done something like this before.
Pair that with telling people your idea and people telling you it's the worst idea they've ever heard. You know what I heard that was very hard to hear? 'Don't you think somebody else would have thought of this?' And I remember feeling, like, a knife in my stomach. But I have to tell you, I never looked back. My husband even said to me, "Are you sure you can do this?" I was like, "Listen to me!" It was like I was on autopilot. I became a savage. It was the only thing I would think about.
I got the reaction [I expected] when people would come into the store: "Why didn't I think of this?" And I'm telling you, I got it from family members, from friends, from people who really didn't believe in it — who didn't believe in me doing it. But then I also had people who really believed in me. My mom was 100 percent behind it. I don't think she understood it because my mom doesn't dress like this. But she was 100 percent behind me.
How do you discover the niche, startup brands Bandier stocks?
Initially, I searched out every brand. Even if a brand was hiding under a rock in Australia, I found it. Even if they had one amazing product, I had to have it in the store. We searched out everything, and found everything. We wear-tested every single item. There were even a lot of brands we now sell where the fit wasn't right [at first], so we worked with them to make sure it would fit the customer the right way and it would be the right article of clothing for us to sell. We curated everything. I still do. We have a merchant team, but I still send them [brands] all the time. I'm always looking. That, to me, is so exciting. I don't get to go on every buying appointment I used to, but I'm still super involved in it.
But at the same time, introducing 40 new brands, I knew we needed to have a Nike or Adidas because you need to have familiarity. We couldn't just all of a sudden say, 'Here's 40 new brands you've never even heard of or seen.' But we were able to have Nike. I remember being so grateful.
The athleisure trend, of course, really took off several years ago and opened the doors for a myriad of brands and retailers. How does Bandier stay on top of its competition?
I think it's just constantly searching the market and the industry, and looking at fashion trends. I spend a lot of time in the stores. People are always like, 'What are you doing here? I didn't think you'd be working here.' I go to a million classes. I like to hear, 'What are you missing? What do you need?' We have a strong community of brands, customers and salespeople, so I'm constantly getting feedback from everyone. We all speak to a million editors and fashion influencers and people we admire, and we try to understand what brands they love, what things they want us to bring in, what they see that Bandier should have. It's about listening and hearing what people want. We can always bring in things we think people will love, but also, a lot of fashion is necessity. If you're doing high-intensity classes five days a week, you want something that's going to perform, and if you wash it a million times, it's going to keep its shape.
We all go to a million trade shows. We're constantly looking. I mean, seriously, I love a search. One of my favorite things to do when I'm not working on Bandier is to be on Zillow and search for real estate. Honestly, that's how I view every single item in the store. I'm just constantly searching for the next greatest thing.
I want to grow with a lot of our brands. That's the other thing that's so exciting. People used to roll a suitcase of clothing into my house, and that's how we'd do the buy. And now, seeing how everybody's businesses have grown, we're able to create a ton of exclusive products with collaborations with different bloggers and influencers, and brands you can't find anywhere else in the market.
Bandier has gained quite a loyal following among those A-list celebrities, influencers and editors you just mentioned. How did you start building that clientele?
A lot of it was very organic. That first summer, a lot of celebrities, a lot of influencers, just walked in the store, from the Kardashians to Gwyneth Paltrow to Arielle Charnas [of Something Navy], and the community was built. We've been able to grow a lot of those relationships.
When we first opened in Manhattan, one of the most important things was having Studio B and creating community. I remember telling my dad, 'I want people to hang out.' And he'd go, 'Well, you want them to shop.' And I was like, 'Well, if they hang out long enough, I guarantee you they'll buy something.'
I feel like women are more apt to know an instructor in their community than they are, say, a female athlete. The instructors are huge influencers and celebrities in their own right to their customers, and each one of them has a different point of view. I honestly think our point of view differentiates us. And I think women are so drawn to that.
How has social media changed how you approach your job?
It's our biggest channel to connect with our community and keep in constant communication with people. When you write a comment on our Instagram, we really read it. It's not like we're blind to it; we really pay attention. There's been so much of a dialogue between our customers, and we want to be the best version of ourselves. We want to offer the best product and create the most incredible atmosphere at which people are going to want to shop. There's a daily conversation of how we can improve and what can we do better. I always say, it's progress, not perfection. That's a huge mantra of mine. And then I'll joke, like, 'I know my husband is the only perfect person on the planet, but for the rest of us: It's progress, not perfection.'
What's your ultimate career goal?
I started Bandier to help women feel good, make an investment in their health and look good while they're starting to feel so great about themselves. I always wanted that community environment where I could be around other women who were like me. I want to continue to do this, and continue to be super involved. Our business is growing so quickly. We're opening two additional stores this year in Los Angeles and New York — I'm so excited to go to LA and to be a part of that community — and our e-commerce just continues to grow and grow.
When I would say to people, 'Oh, meet me at this class,' I would hear they would feel intimidated and they didn't feel like they wanted to go because they didn't know the routine, or whatever. I always wanted to create an environment where everyone felt welcome, and everyone felt like everyone else was nice and helpful and kind and wanted to make people feel good about themselves.
What advice would you give someone just starting out who is looking to work in retail right now?
I would say, go with your gut. And you know what? I've had so many people come to me and say, 'I work in banking, but I really want to be a SoulCycle instructor.' I always say, 'Go with your gut! If you're young and this is your dream? Then go for it.' It's a lot of hard work, and I'm still learning all aspects of the business, so I think it's hard for anybody to understand everything. In the beginning, I would wake up every day and be like, 'Is this Groundhog Day? Am I going back to this?' It just seemed like it was a lot. But it's truly my passion, and I feel like for most people who want to be in this industry, it's probably their passion, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.