In mid-March, while stocks plummeted to record lows and economists predicted an economy rivaling that of the Great Depression, Denverite Matt Addison noticed one stock in particular that was doing quite well. While Disney and Delta Airlines saw significant declines in their stock prices, Lululemon, the 22-year-old, Vancouver-based athleisure company, kept notching higher stock prices each day.
Addison started thinking more about the viability and marketability of athleisure industry, especially after seeing his wife and business partner donning the activewear frequently as the pandemic wore on. Then he wondered about the brand’s offerings for men, and asked one of his male friends if he’d ever wear the brand’s clothing. His friend laughed and told him absolutely not.
While there’s certainly been a new demand for comfortable clothes—nearly half of consumers say that athleisure bottoms have replaced some of the denim jeans in their wardrobes according to a 2020 survey done by Cotton Incorporated—Addison anecdotally found that men weren’t as willing to pony up the hundred-or-so dollars that a pair of Lululemon joggers cost. And while Lululemon does sell clothes for men—joggers, yes, but also T-shirts, hoodies, and socks—there is a certain feminine connotation associated with a brand that has “Lulu” in its name.
Addison, a University of Chicago Business School graduate, saw an opportunity: So he and his wife, McKinley, started to do research, compile fabric samples, and raise funds (including a $11,632 Kickstarter campaign) for what became Rugged Black, a male-focused athleisure brand they launched in Denver in November.
The changes that the fashion industry experienced during the pandemic—skyrocketing online sales, athleisure as everyday wear—will, Addison believes, persist even after we’re all vaccinated and mask-less once again. “We are starting a campaign called ‘Denim is Dead,’” he says. “With the pandemic, the center of life is geared towards home. That informed what kinds of fabrics we chose. We wanted something that was warm, stretchy, breathable, and able to handle a lot of washings.”
His product and online-only business model were created specifically with a pandemic-transformed world in mind, but Addison wasn’t immune to the pitfalls of starting a business during the days of COVID-19. The process of fielding sample fabrics, he says, was challenging because of delays in shipping, and he had to direct a product photoshoot via video-chat. Even with the added obstacles, though, the launch of Rugged Black was a success. Even before its website went live, Coloradans began requesting orders of henleys, joggers, and hoodies.
Addison wasn’t the only Denverite who jumped on the athleisure bandwagon. Dana Ford, owner of Tennyson Street boutique Lariat, which was launched during the early days of the pandemic, was forced to adapt to the times. Ford’s vision for a boho-chic shop had been years in the making, and before the reality of lockdowns and working from home set in, Ford had been sourcing upscale dresses in preparation for wedding season. “I felt like I had the wrong product for the world we were living in,” Ford says. “I had to recalibrate my future buy.” Quickly, she pivoted, buying the cozy threads everyone wanted.
Although shoppers weren’t snagging the high-end dresses like she hoped they would, Ford found that her customers were looking for luxe items to lounge in. In short: Raggedy old sweats weren’t cutting it. “People are at home, but they still want to feel good,” she says. Ford worked with luxury activewear vendors to transform her inventory from being 40 percent dresses to being 30 percent athleisure and 10 percent dresses. Sales have been good, but for all the graphic tees and comfy leggings she’s sold, Ford is still seeing customers buy for the future—people are “trudging forward,” she says. “People are who they are. If they love dresses, they’re going to buy dresses.”
In the fall, Lariat expanded by 900 square feet in part to give shoppers more social-distancing room. “Even though we’re in a pandemic, there are still successes,” she says. “It’s been really positive. By that, I mean the support that I’ve gotten from the community. I feel really embraced.”
Though they’ve been able to adapt and cater to a coronavirus-aware public, Ford and Addison are looking forward to a post-pandemic future. Addison says he’s interested in hosting pop-ups and giving clients a chance to shop in-person; Ford believes that next year fashion will enjoy a renaissance. “People are going to lose their minds,” she says. “Business is going to be a-booming.”