In a culture obsessed with yoga pants (and for good damn reason), it seems like every time you turn around there’s a new activewear brand. But somehow, in the midst of Lululemon’s cult following and celebrity collections by stars like Kate Hudson, designer Denise Lee has managed to stand out. Her two-year-old, downtown-inspired fitness line, ALALA, has caught the attention of Elle, Marie Claire, and Women’s Wear Daily, along with A-listers like Reese Witherspoon, Naomi Watts and Jessica Alba.
We recently got a chance to talk to Lee about the idea behind the brand, what sets it apart, her famous mentor, and more. Here’s what she had to say.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT ALALA.
ALALA is a luxury women’s activewear brand with a sophisticated downtown attitude that was created for precisely the way we live today. We take our name from ALALA, a Greek goddess. Her name signifies a battle cry, a call to arms. To me, ALALA represents all that we aspire to be as modern women.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START IT?
I was training for a triathlon and was working out every day. I wanted to get some better looking workout clothes because personally I feel more motivated when I like the way I look in my gear. When I started shopping around, I didn’t see anything that I really liked – everything looked the same and wasn’t exciting. That’s when I started thinking that there was an opportunity in well designed, fashion forward, functional activewear and that’s how I decided to start ALALA. Also, at the time I had the idea of ALALA, I was working for a retail entrepreneur, so I was exposed so every part of the retail business and learned a lot about starting a brand. That gave me the confidence to go out and do it on my own.
WHAT WAS THE START-UP PROCESS LIKE? HOW DID YOU TAKE YOUR COMPANY FROM AN IDEA TO A BUSINESS?
As any entrepreneur will tell you, there are so many things to figure out when starting your own business – from big picture strategic decisions, to the most basic administrative tasks. Knowing what to tackle when is something I had to figure out through trial and error. Thankfully through my past work experience, I had met many entrepreneurs and spoke with them about their stories and advice, so I had a roadmap for how to start a business.
WHAT WERE THE EARLY DAYS IN BUSINESS LIKE?
Very busy, but also exciting! As soon as I decided to move forward and launch ALALA, my first big step was to find a design partner. I also had to develop a business plan which became a road map to getting the business off the ground. Every part of those early days was so exciting – from seeing our first samples to developing our logo and branding elements to of course the time we launched and saw our products in stores – it was such a thrill.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST MAJOR SUCCESS AS A COMPANY?
My major success was seeing ALALA go from concept to reality. There are many factors that go into starting a company- it takes a lot of hard work and determination, and I’ve learned that you can’t do everything yourself. I owe a large part of my success to the talent that surrounds me, and coupled with my determination, it’s amazing to see my brand out there in the world.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST LEARNING EXPERIENCE AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
One of my biggest learning experiences was going with my instincts. You always want to make the right decisions the first time around, but it’s certainly not that simple. Trial and error is something to be expected, but once you develop that “secret sauce” per se, you begin to build a solid foundation on which to grow and expand on.
BEFORE STARTING YOUR LINE, YOU WORKED UNDER CHRIS BURCH, FORMERLY OR TORY BURCH AND C. WONDER. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM HIM?
Through my experience working for Chris, I learned about all the facets of starting a retail business—from production and merchandising, to licensing and real estate. That really gave me the foundation and confidence to start my own business.
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR CLOTHING DESIGNS?
I take a lot inspiration from life in New York City. I create our line for modern style-setters who demand both the best in fashion and function from their gear. I want our pieces to be the ones you pick out of your closet first, regardless of where you’re headed once you’re out the door.
WHY DO YOU THINK WOMEN RESPOND TO YOUR LINE?
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?” We’re passionate about treating our customers right, and I think that’s a big part of why women love ALALA.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR BEST- SELLING PIECES?
We have a bra called the Zip It Up bra that has been super popular. 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 Captain tight – they are 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 IN BUSINESS FOR ALMOST TWO YEARS. WHERE DO YOU ENVISION THE BRAND IN TWO MORE?
Building a brand takes a lot of time and hard work. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great team around me helping create and grow ALALA to where it is today. I’m very proud of where we have ended up and we plan to continue working hard, dreaming up and designing fashion-forward and fun fitness pieces that keep women feeling empowered and strong.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?
It’s better to make a quick bad decision than a slow good one. This might sound a little contradictory but I’m a perfectionist and I could spend forever trying to figure out a problem. As an entrepreneur though, sometimes efficiency and momentum is more important than a perfect decision. More often times than not, your first gut reaction is the right one anyway so don’t lose steam always trying to figure out the 100% right answer.