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It’s a winter afternoon at the New York City headquarters of SoulCycle, the boutique cycling studio that launched in 2006 and has developed a cult-like community, and Bob Colquhoun, the company’s vice president of retail, is seated at a high conference room table, munching on a salad.
At the headquarters, the company’s West Village studio is located on the ground level, where a class has just finished and a group of red-faced college students spill out the door, chattering. Around the bend, the office has a white, clean aesthetic complete with glass walls, artwork, pillows, and tchotchkes made of the company’s signature skull logo. Up the stairs, the majority of the 185-person team sits at long, white tables. The entire place smells like the signature grapefruit-scented Jonathan Adler candle SoulCycle burns in all its studios, and nearly every employee bustling around the office is decked out in leggings and SoulCycle-branded tees. (Also notable: Everyone is incredibly fit.)
In the conference room where Colquhoun sits, racks of SoulCycle clothing line two sides of the room, and mood boards cover the others. Colquhoun arrived to SoulCycle a year and a half ago after working at Adam Lippes, Urban Outfitters, and Abercrombie & Fitch — a brand he spent six years working at, and whose former aggressively attractive aesthetic he still remarkably resembles. He’s been tasked with building out SoulCycle’s fashion division, which already has a robust collection of leggings, shorts, tank tops, sports bras, and tees, and is seeing immense growth as the fitness chain expands.
Today, Colquhoun’s team is planning SoulCycle’s summer apparel collection. Surrounding him, the mood boards are organized by forecasted trends by month. In June, SoulCycle will be going for a Shibori vibe, and the board has photos of blues and indigos. The July board is labeled “Vintage Americana,” and there are photos of baseball tees and Western-style patterns; the August board is a bit sparse, sans a few images of tie dye and surfspray.
Seven members of the retail team shuffle into the room and join Colquhoun at the table. Each employee is charge of styling a different category within SoulCycle’s retail business — women’s tank tops, men’s technical gear, and so on — and everyone comes to the meeting with printed images to present to the team.
An employee to Colquhoun’s left, who heads up sports bras for SoulCycle, holds up a photo of a deep-cut black sports bra with mesh siding.
“This caught my eye because it’s pretty different. It’s almost like a harness, but I think it’s really cool!” she says. “It reminds me of Lara Croft. I could see riders loving it,” Colquhoun adds, nodding along.
After the team goes over styling ideas — “bold, oversized statement street graphics, like those Opening Ceremony shirts!” — and color themes — millennial pink, because of course — Dallas, who designs women’s tank tops, clears his throat.
“Okay, I have some ideas for tanks, and just hear me out,” he cautions. “I was trying to think about words and phrases that our rider feels strongly about, and there are three things that she wants: To ride front row, drink green juice, and be on the cover of Vogue. So what if we went with those? Just give into the basicness of SoulCycle and give it back to them.”
The rest of the team laughs, and Colquhoun agrees — some of the suggestions might be cheesy, but he notes one of the company’s current best-selling tank tops has been its Bike is Bae one.
Eventually, the team grabs scissors and begins to cut and paste common trends and colors they’ve each pulled.
“This is the most efficient way to brainstorm concepts and bring it all together,” Stephanie, a senior merchandise manager, explains as she snips away.
Twenty minutes later, the SoulCycle retail team team has pooled together several ideas — big graphic fonts, vintage LA surf tanks, soft watercolors. In a matter of three months, they will be turned from a concept to a mock-up to SoulCycle-branded gear, which will eventually fly off shelves.
Every generation’s fitness craze has an accompanying uniform that eventually becomes iconic.
There were the leotards from the Jazzercise craze of the ‘70s. Those were eventually paired with spandex leggings during the aerobics trend of the ‘80s with the helping hands of Denise Austin and Olivia Newton-John. There were those ill-advised cargo pants from the early millennia thanks to the Zumba crowd.
If today’s fitness craze is the boutique gym class — luxury studios offering spin, yoga, and barre for some $34 a pop — then the accompanying uniform of our generation can best be described as fitted black leggings with a graphic muscle tee. And more specifically, black fitted leggings with a printed skull on the upper left thigh, and a muscle tank with the word “Soul” splashed across the chest.
Right alongside the rise of boutique fitness, the athleisure category has skyrocketed, pulling in an estimated $44 billion in the US alone, according to the NPD Group. And while the current state of retail is dismal at best, Morgan Stanley expects the athleisure category to grow to $83 billion by 2020. Classic sportswear brands like Nike, Lululemon, and Under Armour have enjoyed record sales from the athleisure boom, but they aren’t the only ones. Many boutique fitness gyms release fitness lines of their own — an easy way to drive revenue while boosting brand awareness — and no one has been plugging away harder at it than SoulCycle, which is often credited for kickstarting the boutique fitness trend in the first place.
SoulCycle has been making clothing from the very beginning. As co-founder Elizabeth Cutler put it back in 2015, “When we first started, we had a couple thousand bucks left over after we filled our front desk, and so we said we’d create one T-shirt for a bunch of people to wear and talk about SoulCycle.” Over the last few years, though, the company has grown exponentially — there are now 74 locations around the country — and so has its retail arm. These days, SoulCycle puts out a monthly collection of 40 to 60 new styles, and its fashion business has turned into a significant cashflow. According to SoulCycle’s since-delayed IPO filings from 2015, $18 million of the company’s $112 million worth of revenue in 2014 came from purchases other than studio fees. SoulCycle wouldn’t release official sales or revenue figures to Racked because it is in a quiet period after filing for IPO, but shared that its retail business sees 20 to 30 percent growth year-over-year, and in 2016, retail sales were bigger than the growth of ridership.
The success of SoulCycle’s retail line is not all that surprising. The company has cultivated such a large community of dedicated riders (with quite the reputation, too) — these days, it sees more than 17,000 riders a day — it makes sense these customers would want to own a piece of its fashion line, too. For some fans, wearing SoulCycle clothing helps them feel solidified as part of the community. Chloe Glenn, a student at the University of Miami and SoulCycle superfan who blogs about the fitness chain, says she’s a little embarrassed to admit that she owns more than 220 pieces of Soulcycle gear, but maintains it brings her pride.
“Honestly, it’s so much more than clothing,” says Glenn. “It reminds me of how proud I am of my own achievements within SoulCycle.”
Colleen Wachob, a co-founder and chief brand officer of the wellness site MindBodyGreen, adds that wearing clothing from SoulCycle is nothing short of a status symbol.
“Wearing SoulCycle can communicate that wellness is important to you,” she says.
Like the price tag of classes itself — a class in New York City costs $34 plus tax, and does not include spin shoes — SoulCycle clothing comes with a steep price point, with in-house leggings costing about $108, and tanks averaging at around $50. Devoted SoulCycle riders say the price tag of the clothing is often associated with the experience itself.
“Given that the class itself already feels like a luxury splurge for me, it follows that the gear should feel that way, too,” says Erin Griffith, a writer at Fortune and a SoulCycle fan. “I have been totally brainwashed into paying an obscene amount of money for spin classes, why not throw in a $70 tank top?”
Griffith adds that the small amount of apparel, as compared to the offerings of giant athleisure companies, adds “a bit of a scarcity appeal.”
“The merch changes regularly and differs across the studios, even within a city. So if you see something you like, there’s definitely a feeling of ‘buy it now!’ because it might be your only chance,” she says. “And for that reason, it also feels more one-of-a-kind.”
SoulCycle’s retail business isn’t just important from a financial perspective; it also helps the company leverage unsurpassed marketing. And who to better act as SoulCycle’s “walking advertisements,” as Griffith refers to them, than the company’s instructors? As part of its ingenious branding, SoulCycle strategically uses its instructors as models for the clothing on its site. Colquhoun says that SoulCycle’s roster of 300 instructors are encouraged (but are not obligated) to promote the launch of each monthly collection (Soulcycle instructors receive the clothing at a discounted rate).
The psychology of it certainly adds up; the novelty of wearing the same clothing — and doing the same workout — as an attractive and fit instructor likely doesn’t wear off too easily.
So how does SoulCycle keep its riders coming back to shop? And how to compete with myriad athleisure brands, not to mention rivaling boutique fitness studios like Barry's Bootcamp and Flywheel that put out fitness lines of their own? Colquhoun likens the process to arts and craft — quite literally, taking inspiration from all sorts of industries and pooling it all together to create the SoulCycle aesthetic.
“We’re pulling looks from runway, editorial, shopping at other stores, and then actually cutting and pasting them to rank them by the biggest and strongest ideas,” says Colquhoun later in the afternoon, sitting in his office.
To Melisse Gelula, the co-founder and chief content officer of health and fitness site Well+Good, this is SoulCycle’s secret sauce; the company doesn’t just see its line as simple workout clothing riders can wear to the gym. It has been focused from the very beginning on building fashion cachet.
“Early on, SoulCycle behaved like a fashion brand,” says Gelula. “Instead of selling riders a basic logo tee — which is not that evolved from a college sweatshirt, when you think about it — they really elevated the concept, creating lifestyle apparel that makes it super easy to profess your fitness fandom. Pieces meant to be worn outside the studio is where the marketing magic happens.”
Colquhoun notes the company turns around product monthly out of sheer necessity: “We have a problem unlike any other retailer because while they don’t see their shopper in stores all too often, we see our rider two to three times a week. We have to move product from studio to studio or constantly change product out in order to help that newness factor feel like it's there. Or else you're just going to hit a point where everybody's got what they want and so you hit a saturation point.”
Some 65 percent of the clothing SoulCycle sells comes from companies like Nike, Lululemon, and Terez, which SoulCycle buys wholesale and then adds additional touches, like logos and slogans. The rest is private label, which leaves SoulCycle with plenty of creativity to create its own clothing. Colquhoun says the company used to design clothing based on fictional riders the team would imagine up, but it’s since moved onto thinking about the customers in wider terms; for example, an “uptown mom versus a downtown girl,” Colquhoun says. This ultimately breaks down the style of Soulcycle’s clothing into classics — think clean, black-and-white design — versus trendier styles.
“So with tanks, for example, we’d break it down by a conservative rider who might want more coverage versus a liberal one with a tank that has a lower neckline and a deeper arm hole. We then flip to how it connects on a trend level,” he says.
SoulCycle also has a unique advantage that most fashion brands don’t, and that is being extremely close to its customers. On product launch days, members of the team will go out to various studios around the New York tri-state area to talk to shoppers about what they are (and aren’t) buying. It’s easy to tweak merchandise when you're getting direct feedback.
“We try to stay close to studios and talk to them about what they are hearing,” says Colquhoun. “Our whole approach is to stay as local as possible because that's the beauty, right? Riders feel like it’s their region and we want to make sure the clothing still feels like there’s a community-driven piece to it.” As an example, Colquhoun adds that back in October, some customers complained SoulCycle’s muscle tees were too narrow across the shoulders, revealing underarm fat.
“What we did there, and with all the feedback we get, is to style, refit, and ask vendors to make adjustments,” he says. “That’s part of the emotional tie to SoulCycle, that the riders really do have a say.”
For the SoulCycle fanatic, perhaps the most anticipated events are the brand’s warehouse sales, which had only been in New York City over the last few years but recently expanded to Los Angeles and will eventually debut in Boston, DC, and Chicago, too. The popularity of the warehouse sales speaks to the high pricing of SoulCycle’s apparel as much as it does to the hype behind it. Colquhoun says the brand’s high price point has to do with the short turnaround time — the company is currently on a three-month-out cycle, although he’s aiming to get it closer to six — but creating a more accessible price point is something the brand is looking into.
“When I came on board, we didn't monitor our price points,” he says. “It was getting a little out of control and nobody was really paying attention to it. We’ve started to making adjustments, but the cost structure of how we operate being on such a short timeline has just gotten a little out of control.”
For SoulCycle, the cycling studio, plans for expansion are full-steam ahead: The company plans to open eight more studios this year, with international expansion slated for 2018. According to the brand’s IPO filing, it anticipates opening as many as 250 studios across the country. This means that SoulCycle, the fashion line, will grow as well.
Colquhoun sees growth opportunities in collaborations. SoulCycle has done a number of partnerships over the years, notably with Target and Shopbop. Its most popular partnership has been with artist Gregory Siff, whose third collection with the brand came out this month, and Colquhoun says SoulCycle is currently assessing what its future collabs will look like. Colquhoun also says the brand is looking into expanding into categories like sneakers, recovery accessories like foam rollers, and yes, even jewelry.
Denim is also on the way, with SoulCycle working on a partnership with Levi’s to release jean jackets for its April collection. And while that might seem way off from the fitness apparel you’d normally find from SoulCycle, it’s actually the extras that make the company go the distance: Colquhoun says the onesie it launched in November was one of its fastest-selling items.
“This is a true lifestyle brand,” says Colquhoun. “We've been asked to do just really off-the-wall random things, like clocks and dog accessories, because people want to take SoulCycle into their homes.”