If you’re not the kind of woman who spends $150 on a sports bra and $320 on workout pants, then you probably haven’t heard of Wone, a luxury activewear startup.
But if you happen to love a pair of sleek leggings to wear to your boutique workout studio or personal training session, then someone at your gym may have told you about Wone. Since the brand launched this spring, it has sold out of its debut collection, in which each piece was numbered for exclusivity. Kristin Hildebrand, who launched Wone with her husband, says the brand will sell 15,000 garments by the end of the year.
That’s a remarkable feat, because Wone makes it very, very hard to find and buy its products. The company does little to no advertising, which is why you haven’t seen the brand as you’ve scrolled through your Facebook feed. Wone does have an Instagram presence, but it is totally bare except for one single post, which is of blank white space. (The image has more than a thousand likes.) And to purchase a product, you need to apply to gain access. If you are lucky enough to be taken off the wait list, you will have one week to make a purchase.
As a fashion reporter who covers startups, this business model boggles my mind: Most entrepreneurs I speak with are single-mindedly focused on spreading the word about their brand and ensuring as many customers as possible can purchase products. But for Hildebrand, this approach makes perfect sense. “We’re trying to be a brand that does things differently from the rest of the industry,” Hildebrand says. “Our goal is to build personal relationships with our customers, and so we are keeping the brand deliberately small and niche.”
Hildebrand knows a thing or two about how the mainstream sportswear industry works. Before launching Wone, she spent seven years at Nike, the largest sportswear brand on the market, which brings in $34 billion in annual revenue. She eventually worked her way up to creative director of global concepts, which involved creating high-performance women’s activewear. And while she speaks fondly of her time at Nike, she acknowledges that it was impossible to really know the women she was designing for. “It was such a huge corporation that there was no direct feedback loop between myself, as a designer, and the specific women who would wear the clothes,” she says.
With Wone, Hildebrand literally Googles every woman who requests access to the brand through her website. She says this helps her weed out people who might be trying to rip off her designs or resell her limited-edition goods for more than the list price. But it also means she gets a better glimpse of a potential customer.
While that may seem like a potential invasion of privacy to some, it’s a more labor-intensive version of what many brands are already doing when they advertise on social media. When companies advertise on Facebook, for instance, they can select who to target based on location, income level, hobbies, and many other personal preferences. Hildebrand’s approach reverses this process: She finds out many of these details on the internet after the customer has provided her with their names. Hildebrand says having some context about her customer allows her to better serve that woman if issues ever arise. Hildebrand herself responds to requests, such as when a customer asks to have their pants hemmed, or a shipment expedited. “My goal is to blend real, human contact with all the benefits of the internet,” she says.
With Wone, Hildebrand has designed the pieces she always dreamed of creating, but couldn’t at Nike because the materials were too expensive. While most activewear brands generally source fabrics priced between $2 and $4 a yard, Wone’s fabrics cost between $20 and $30 a yard and are milled in Italy and France. Hildebrand says these materials are generally only used in the garments worn by professional athletes competing at the highest level of their sports.
One fabric, which is also used by some professional cycling teams, is both 35% lighter and dries 75% faster than comparable fabrics in the market. It has been tested to resist pilling and color migration for more than 50,000 washes–significantly more than most performance fabrics–and is both UV and chlorine resistant. Wone is currently the only women’s activewear brand using this fabric, and is working with the manufacturer to secure global rights.
Hildebrand believes it’s worth investing in these fabrics, as she says they are much more durable than most fabrics on the market and provide the ideal level of compression. “Nike couldn’t justify using such expensive material, because it would make the final price of the garment too expensive,” she says. “But I love these materials. They’re so sturdy and durable; I wanted to make them available to women who were not just elite athletes.”
Her debut collection includes leggings, two types of bras, shorts, and a sheer cardigan. Every item is sleek, matte, and black, designed to give the wearer a clean, elegant look. There are no logos or patterns in the collection. “Activewear doesn’t need to look slouchy or casual,” Hildebrand says. “Our customers want to look polished and put together, even if they’re going to the gym.”
But it’s the materials that really stand out. I tried on a couple of pieces; on the surface, they seem like the same synthetic fabric that a lot of activewear brands use. But when you put them on, you can see how much sturdier it is. It is thick, holds its shape, and provides a moderate level of compression. It’s easy to see how it resists pilling, and the wear and tear that comes from high-intensity activity. And because because there are very few seams, there was very little friction against my body when I moved.
According to Hildebrand, Wone’s garments will last for years with consistent wear. They can be washed and put through the dryer up to 50,000 times without losing their stretch or the glue in the seams loosening. This is very different from the majority of fabrics on the market, according to Hildebrand. “What big brands don’t tell the consumer is that most fabrics are only guaranteed by the mill for 50 washes before they begin to disintegrate,” she says. “And you cannot put them in the dryer at all, because the bonded seams will come undone. You learn a lot of secrets when you’ve been in the industry as long as I have.”
The quality of the garments contributes to their high price, Hildebrand says, and this puts the brand out of reach for many women. Combined with Hildebrand’s very selective approach to picking who can buy the products, many women will perceive Wone to be rather exclusionary. It’s like activewear’s answer to luxury high fashion. But that’s not entirely Hildebrand’s goal. She sees her debut collection as a kind of beta launch, and an opportunity to get to know the kind of woman who gravitates toward her brand. Her goal is to eventually make her website open to all.
And perhaps more importantly, her material choices, while expensive, are driven by the desire to give customers fewer, better products, so they don’t need to amass heaps of leggings in their closets. She’s found that her customers are on the same page.”Many customers I have spoken to seem to care about quality over quantity,” she says. “They like the idea of Wone because it allows them to have fewer pieces that they can wear again and again. They like the idea of a minimalist lifestyle because they think it is more sustainable.”
So far, word about Wone has spread by word of mouth. When Hildebrand launched her startup earlier this year, she first shared it with her friends and family, and gave products to a few influencers in the fitness world. The women who gravitated toward the brand have brought their like-minded friends with them, and over time, the brand has managed to gather steam, quickly selling out of their debut collection within weeks. Given the demand, Hildebrand is trying to find ways to open up the brand to more customers without losing its intimate feeling. With her new collection, which will drop in the next few months, she’s considering making the website open, but giving existing loyal customers early access to products.
But as far as she’s concerned, the fun of leaving Nike to launch a startup of her own is the ability to experiment with every part of the business. “Nike already exists, so I am definitely not trying to be another Nike,” she says. “Quite the opposite. From the materials I use to constantly changing how customers engage with the brand, I’m all about taking risks.”