Long before living in loungewear was a pandemic-era norm, and even before the word “athleisure” snagged dictionary recognition, triathlete and retail-development associate Denise Lee, one of Well+Good's 2021 Changemakers, was looking for clothing that could both feel and look good. To her, truly versatile garments needed to be both comfortable and functional enough for a high-intensity workout but also chic enough for a day (or night) out and about in New York City. Mesh the two together, and you get Alala, a line of elevated activewear essentials, which Lee founded in the spring of 2014.
- Denise Lee, Denise Lee is the founder and CEO of elevated activewear brand, Alala.
At that time, this blend of style and function hadn’t quite hit the activewear world in full force. And Lee’s unique background in both the fitness and fashion spaces made her the ideal person to create the line that would essentially blaze the trail; as we know now, countless wear-all-day activewear brands would soon follow in Alala's wake. “We quickly found ourselves in a good place at a good time, creating a product that really didn’t exist,” says Lee, describing how she launched Alala around the same time as activewear mainstays Bandier and Carbon38, both of which were founded by women whom Lee sees as counterparts working toward the same goals.
Initially, however, one place where Lee sought inspiration was the pro sports world. “I would see Olympic athletes, and they were the exception at the time: They did have great, functional, stylish gear, but it just wasn’t being commercialized like it is now,” she says.
“The key was in finding a blend of performance elements like sweat-wicking and anti-stink, while also maintaining a clear sense of fashion.” —Denise Lee, founder of Alala
Much of the ethos for Alala sprang from these Olympians’ confident fierceness; after all, “Alala” is the name of a Greek goddess, and it signifies a battle cry, says Lee. But while the technical makeup of the clothing certainly mirrors the performance activewear worn by these pro athletes, the look and style are designed to be fun and approachable for anyone who moves. In particular, the garments are geared toward those who identify as women—in large part because the entire team behind them is composed of women. “I started Alala for women like me who were going to work, then going to a studio for a class, and then maybe going out and doing something else right after,” says Lee. “The key was in finding a blend of performance elements like sweat-wicking and anti-stink, while also maintaining a clear sense of fashion.”
To source the fabrics that could make that versatility possible, Lee brought on an activewear designer from Champion early in developing her brand. “She connected us to great fabric mills that were already supplying a few of the top labels, so we could be confident in the materials we were using,” says Lee. Namely, that meant nylon (instead of its flimsier cousin, polyester), super-soft Pima cotton from Peru, and, most recently, new made-in-America fabrics and washable cashmere. With Lee's vision, these fabrics have been transformed into the brand’s stylish best-sellers, including sports bras with cute bow-tie accents, leggings with mesh cut-outs and contrasting ribbing, and flowy oversize sweaters and relaxed-fit joggers.
How the pandemic changed Alala—and continues to shape its future
Put simply, the brand shape-shifted to accommodate the rise in numbers of online shoppers stuck at home—and their desire for comfy things to wear while doing all that online shopping, of course. “Before COVID, most people knew us for sports bras and leggings. But we saw a huge surge in our lounge business over the last year,” says Lee, adding that the brand was already charting its foray into washable cashmere items pre-pandemic, but fast-tracked it when the demand became that much more clear.
That decision was a big part of Alala’s pandemic pivot, in general, as other streams of revenue—in particular, the brand’s wholesale business with fitness studios, gyms, and retail stores—dried up. “We had our wholesale team switch to really focus on e-commerce, and it actually brought us all together over this one shared goal,” she says. “It wasn’t seamless, but we were able to move things nimbly around and make it work.”
For Lee, that agile strategy was far from foreign. “I’ve never been one to do things the way they’ve always been done anyway,” she says. Other recent changes at Alala reflect her innovative edge, too: She’s spent the past few months rethinking everyone’s favorite topic of late: the supply chain. “We currently produce some of our clothing in Los Angeles and in New York City, on 38th street, and we’re exploring the possibility of eventually moving all of our production closer to home, or even going vertical, and producing out of our own micro-factory,” she says.
On the customer-experience side, Lee is getting just as creative. “We’re exploring more high-level ways to reach our audience, beyond just paying Facebook or Apple to put up an ad,” she says, describing how she wants to give each customer the same type of experience as walking into their favorite retail store and having the sales rep remember them by name. As for how? Expect more “less produced, less polished” social content, she says. “Video platforms like TikTok give us a real opportunity to show people who we are as a brand and as a team. You can see the real women working on Alala, talking about how long this inseam should be, or what dimensions this piece should have, so it’s comfortable for you,” Lee says.
And on the flip side, engaging with these platforms more closely gives Lee a chance to hear just what the Alala follower wants from the brand—which will help inform the direction for the year ahead. "We've gotten to know our customers and ourselves a lot better [during the pandemic]," she says. "Leaning into what we do best and the things that our customers care the most about…that's what we're going to keep doing next year."
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