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This cult womenswear brand steals some tricks from the boys

AYR, beloved by Emma Stone and Chrissy Teigen, is built for women who don’t want fussy, off-the-runway looks, but tailored pieces they can wear forever.

This cult womenswear brand steals some tricks from the boys
[Photo: courtesy of AYR]

The three founders of cult womenswear label AYR believe the fashion industry has fundamentally misread the modern woman–and found success by taking a cue from an unexpected realm: menswear.

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Does a working woman really want to constantly chase the ever-changing stream of off-the-runway styles that brands sell every season? Maggie Winter, Jac Cameron, and Max Bonbrest–who had been working at J. Crew, Madewell, and H&M respectively–knew for them, the answer was decidedly no. Their tastes ran more toward wearing a variation of the same basic look every day. After all, staying on top of the latest trends can be exhausting, not to mention costly. Florals would be in one summer but seem dowdy the next; the ’60s Mod style would be all the rage in the fall, but passé by spring.

[Photo: courtesy of AYR]
Most men, even the most fashion forward, it seems, have the same dilemma. The guys, put simply, have it much easier. Year over year, menswear designers tend to focus less on dramatic new looks and more on small updates to classic garments, like the three-piece suit, polo shirt, denim jean, and trench coat. Brands tend to emphasize tailoring, to ensure that every piece is perfectly suited to the body wearing it. And there’s an emphasis on functionality, whether that’s providing professionalism for the office or allowing for movement when playing sports.

“It is more rooted in reality,” writes Robert Leach, a professor of design. “Menswear customers, I think, buy more with longevity in mind than their female counterpart.”

In 2014, Winter, Cameron, and Bonbrest decided to try a daring experiment with women’s fashion, by taking a page from the menswear playbook. They launched AYR (pronounced “air”), that stands for All Year Round. Their goal was to focus on perfecting archetypal clothes in the women’s wardrobe, essentials like jeans, blazers, button-down shirts, and long coats. Rather than taking cues from the runway, they would be inspired by tailoring, working to ensure that every piece draped just so and flattered the body.

AYR’s connection to menswear runs deep. For the company’s first two years, it was incubated at men’s clothing brand Bonobos, where the founders had a chance to learn directly from CEO Andy Dunn. (Bonobos was acquired by Walmart last year.)

While AYR’s clothes are feminine, accentuating curves, the entire approach to design has more in common with designing for men. “Our intent from the beginning was to make a very distilled product,” Cameron, AYR’s creative director, explains. “It feels incredibly classic and at the same time inspires a kind of ease that is empowering to the wearer, because she feels confident and can be herself in these pieces, whatever she’s doing in them.”

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AYR SOHO store [Photo: courtesy of AYR]

The changing culture of fashion

Over the last five years, AYR has slowly gained a cult following. It wasn’t long before the clothes were appearing on fashionistas like Gwyneth Paltrow, Karlie Kloss, Emma Stone, Heidi Klum, and Chrissy Teigen. The concept has been intriguing to well-known entrepreneurs–like designer Steven Alan, Birchbox founder Hayley Barna, and Manrepeller founder Leandra Medine–who have chosen to come on as advisers and investors. The brand sells most of its products online, but it has been tinkering with pop-up stores over the last year and recently opened its first permanent location in SoHo.

From the brand’s launch, their customer has been very consistent: Her average age is 34, tends to live in a large city, has a rich professional life, and travels a lot for work. The clothes cost just under the typical luxury price point, with jeans starting at $185, T-shirts at $55, and camel hair coats going for up to $595.

[Photo: courtesy of AYR]
AYR’s founders believe that part of their success has to do with tapping into a cultural change in the way that women dress.  “We have grown into our own target customer,” Winter, AYR’s CEO, says. “We identify very closely with this new generation of working women. I think we’re seeing a really exciting revolution in how women dress: what it means to get up and go to work looks very different than it did 20 years ago.”

Today’s woman is tired of having to keep up with the constant churn of the fashion cycle. We’re seeing this within the apparel industry more broadly, as fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara appear to be on the decline, while basics brands like Everlane are on the rise.

“AYR’s is the opposite of fast fashion, in many ways” says Winter. “AYR standing for “all year round” speaks to the fact that we’re asking our customer to make an investment and so we have to honor that by really investing the time and resources into developing a good product.”

[Photo: courtesy of AYR]

The challenges of modern dressing

The thirtysomething founders believe that women would rather skip whatever trend is in vogue and instead build a uniform of classic pieces that fit well. But dressing for the modern world is also complicated, because corporate America has become more casual, but women still need to look professional when they show up for work.

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AYR’s founders have made it their mission to create clothes that perfectly hit the mark, balancing relaxed with polished. They spend a lot of time with their target woman, holding customer feedback sessions to see what women are really looking for. Sometimes these events happen in stores, but the brand has also been very smart about using social media to gather feedback from customers around the country.

The founders have discovered that women have all kinds of wardrobe challenges. They’ve spoken to lawyers who operate in a very formal setting, but are constantly visiting clients who are at casual startups. There are women who work at creative agencies whose clients are all corporate. “The trend we’re seeing is that there’s a breakdown in the delineations between casual-professional, creative-corporate, masculine-feminine, everyday-luxury, effortless-purposeful,” says Bonbrest, VP of brand marketing. “In the past, these were separate categories, but women can now travel between these spaces seamlessly in a way that we couldn’t before.”

AYR has enjoyed success creating key components of a woman’s uniform: A full 50% of the brand’s sales come from just 10 products, including a pair of skinny jean, black pants, a blazer, a silk camisole, and a long coat called “the Robe.” “The foundation of AYR is a capsule wardrobe,” she says. “The Robe has been one of our top three bestsellers since we launched. It’s the ultimate five-second outfit upgrade trip: it makes you feel confident and put together, even when you’re feeling far from that.”

[Photo: courtesy of AYR]

Obsessive attention to fit

AYR pieces are simple and classic, and part of their magic has to do with how beautifully they fit. While traditional fashion brands spend a lot of time and money developing an entirely new collection of clothes every four months, AYR invests all resources in perfecting the cut and construction of each garment. The brand spends up to a year on a single product, continually adjusting the fit and the fabric.

“Our approach is to honor the tradition and skill that goes into making clothing,” Winter says.  “You can get catfished so easily online when it comes to products, because it is easy to make a product look good in a picture of a model. To build real trust and credibility with our customer, we have to make sure all the research and development is done before the product launches.”

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[Photo: courtesy of AYR]
Part of the reason AYR can take this long is that, unlike traditional fashion labels, these founders don’t feel any pressure to release products seasonally. They only drop a new product when it is ready. And since the brand sells a collection of classics, each new garment can fit neatly into the assortment.

Cameron, who leads AYR’s design operations, can get obsessive. It took her years to develop the brand’s very first product, a pair of skinny jeans. Jeans are a foundational part of the modern wardrobe, taking women from the office to date night to the weekend, but there are hundreds of brands making denim on the market. Cameron believed that she could win women over with a better-fitting, more-flattering pair of jeans. She drew inspiration from her favorite pair, which she wore for seven years and always made her feel incredible. She refused to let them touch water, for fear that it would wash away their magical powers. (They only came into contact with water once, in the ocean in Nicaragua.)

[Image: courtesy of AYR]
The pair she ultimately designed–which are appropriately called Jac’s Jeans– leave no detail unconsidered. The waistband is constructed in one piece (rather than two, which is industry standard), to create a slimmer profile and flex with the wearer. The back panel is designed to lift the bum, while the pockets are optimized to flatter the rear end. Even the stitching was considered. Using finer thread and more stitches per inch creates a cleaner appearance. And importantly, AYR created the jeans in a wide array of sizes, including inseams between 26 and 34 inches, so that they look equally tailored on women 5-foot-2 and 6-foot-2.

Before AYR launched, the founders begged a factory in Los Angeles to make a limited run of the jeans in two washes, to test it with potential customers and magazine editors. They sold out immediately and Vogue named them “a gift from the denim gods.” The jeans effectively put AYR on the map and have continued to be a bestseller for the past five years. This was an important lesson for AYR’s founders, who have continued to put product above everything else. “Our product has really been our biggest marketing investment,” says Winter. “Our audience has grown organically since day one and we believe it is because of the consistency and quality of the product.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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