Sweaty Betty

autobiography

There are so many rumours about where Sweaty Betty came from, so we thought it was time to set the record straight! Welcome to Part 1 of Tamara's 'no holds barred' autobiography!

read the story

"Every cloud has a silver lining" said my Mum, or was it "Don't look back, keep looking forward"? Either way, she was right. I had just been made redundant from my first real job. I was taking my first steps on the Sweaty Betty adventure. Moping about was not an option, so I talked to my fiancé about my idea for a shop selling women's sports clothes. Being a consultant and a typical man wanting to fix things rather than listen to me moaning, he insisted on a ridiculously thorough business plan. And so the work began. One hundred women answered a viral questionnaire, numerous 'price points' were checked in sports and surf shops, financial spreadsheets became my friends (sort of) and a business plan was borne. It looked good so we bought a company off the shelf (can you believe you can actually do that?) for a few quid and my fiancé called it Lady of Leisure Ltd, as he said that was what I was. I won't tell you what I said…

"We might be able to supply you if Adidas are supplying you," explained Nike. "We'll only supply you once Nike are supplying you," declared Adidas. "We won't give you money until you have found a suitable shop," warned potential investors. "We won't talk about shop rentals until we see money," shop landlords replied. For us, it was particularly complicated as we had no money of our own, so we had to raise enough cash to buy stock, fit out the shop, pay wages etc. I had no idea how we were going to break these barriers as my savings from my first real job were fast running out! We persevered, we had some luck, we massaged the truth (sometimes) and we had friends who helped. One friend, Juliet, worked for a big sports brand, so with her support we cut through the 'we will only supply you if they supply you' conundrum. We also had the lovely Olly, our very own Dragon from the Den.

This is our version of pitching to the Dragons. We were on holiday with friends in the early days of the business plan and Olly (a retailer who we'd already quizzed about how to run shops) was there too. It was a long night in front of a fire drinking bad red wine and it was snowing outside. My husband (yes we are married now, keep up) and I were full of the enthusiasm of wannabe entrepreneurs and could not stop talking about our plan. Either our passion was overwhelmingly convincing or Olly had drunk too much wine (or both!) because Olly declared his interest and said “I will give you £20k to get started and I know a shop on the Fulham Road that is available." We checked with Olly the next morning and... YES he did have £20k available to invest YES he would invest it in our plan We never secured the Fulham shop, but now we had a Dragon.

We needed a name. By that point, we had done all our supplier presentations and bank meetings with the snappy working title 'Women's Activewear Retailer'! But while we may not have named our business just yet, we knew what we were going to do: redefine the UK sports market. Instead of trainers and replica football strips, our plan was to focus on women's activewear by selling gym and yoga clothes alongside ski wear and bikinis. And we were going to present each beautiful product in an aspirational female environment. Oh, and we wanted to be a brand in our own right. Our talented store designer, Tina called on a friend and gifted graphic designer, George (ina), to help us with the branding. Once again, a late night (all girls this time) and more red wine brought the breakthrough. 'Active Woman', 'Egg', 'She's Active', 'Form' and many others were all rejected in favour of Sweaty Betty. And once the typeface and colours were finalised, there was no turning back. We realised later that 'Sweaty Betty' is a sexually polarising name - 90% of women like it and 90% of men actively dislike it. You will probably have your own theories on this but one thing is for sure, it always catches people's attention and often makes them smile.

Since our humble beginnings as a multi-brand retailer with one boutique in Notting Hill London UK, Sweaty Betty has grown considerably to 30 stores nationwide, including concessions in Selfridges and Harrods. We have diversified into a multi-channel retailer with a growing website, mobile site and catalogue business. Along the way we have picked up some industry awards all of which we are particularly proud of including ‚ÄėSports Retailer of the Year 2001', ‚ÄėEntrepreneur of the Year 2003', and most recently ‚ÄėDrapers Best Single Etailer 2011'. In 2008 we celebrated our 10 year anniversary and to mark this momentous occasion we gave our identity, particularly our stores, a makeover. We took a blank piece of paper and drew up a new description of our brand plus a drawing of our perfect shop (in reality it was quite a few pieces of paper, customer focus groups, staff feedback and late night inspiration sessions). We found a brilliant designer at Caulder Moore who translated our ideas into a stunning new store design think traditional yoga studios meets futuristic gym. We re-fitted Soho, Selfridges, Kensington and Harrods as a start, threw in yoga mannequins made from a cast of Christy Turlington's body, added walls of yoga mats and the customers loved it and so did the judges at the 2009 Retail Interior Award.

In the late 1990s, Notting Hill was the coolest place in London, and London was the coolest place on the planet. Notting Hill epitomised ‚ÄėCool Britannia' with a mix of international jetsetters and old-school Londoners as its residents. For Sweaty Betty, looking to push the boundaries of fitness fashion with statement styles and technical designs, it was a perfect location for our first boutique. We had secured our first store, but it seemed doomed for failure. Not only did our November 1998 open date fall on the infamously unlucky Friday 13th but our beautifully-designed boutique sat awkwardly sandwiched between a pawn broker (whose owner Ricky was renowned for keeping a baseball bat under his desk to deter thieves) and a 24-hour convenience store ‚Äď not exactly the kind of competition I had had in mind. Despite the less-than-glamorous setting, the store itself was exactly as I had imagined: a beautiful listed building with high ceilings, presented like a fashion boutique. However, my positive (and admittedly somewhat biased) opinion was not shared by all of the public before opening. Perhaps it was because the shop we had chosen had previously been a sports retailer that had gone bust, or perhaps this particular pedestrian had merely been having a bad day, but upon his first glance at the shiny new signage that I had put my heart and soul into and had just that minute revealed, he muttered audibly and disdainfully, ‚ÄúSweaty Betty? Typical Notting Hill rubbish. That won't last 12 months.‚ÄĚ What this man was unaware of, however, was the strength of my vision. There was a functional-fitness-fashion shaped gap in the market, and I intended to fill it with all the passion and design innovation I could muster. Fortunately for me, the women of Notting Hill were more than happy to oblige.

So we opened our doors on Friday 13th November 1998, and the women of Notting Hill embraced our first boutique, praising the store, the stock, the service ‚Äď everything. I was delighted by the response, particularly as it coincided with a multitude of unexpected problems. The challenges began when our first and only member of staff resigned at the end of Sweaty Betty's opening week. She had just spent three weeks helping me paint walls and scrub floors, and decided that she preferred serving men to women, so I waved her off with a half-smile and took on a six-day working week. All at once, I became Store Manager, Sales Assistant, Buyer, Designer and Business Owner, while simultaneously attempting to recruit a fitness-loving team who shared my dedication. Oh, and don't forget my at-home role as Wife as well. No mean feat I admit, but despite the challenges, I still loved every minute I spent on the shop floor. Why? Because the Notting Hill customer understood my vision. They knew what I was trying to accomplish, and why, and were as passionate about sport and style as I was. While others questioned why bikinis and running clothes were being sold in the same store, these women were grateful to see all-in-one ski suits and beautiful yoga leggings sitting alongside flattering swimwear. They were discerning and knowledgeable about sport, and were happy to have finally found a wide range of beautiful activewear stocked in one place. They forgave my mistakes and embraced what I was trying to achieve. During those opening weeks, the women who understood Sweaty Betty best were mostly American. While the Brits at this time were still focused on diets to make you skinny, US women understood the importance of being fit and healthy: the very same lifestyle we were trying to inspire. Obviously this is a sweeping generalisation, but it was Americans who kept coming through the door (plus a few enlightened Brits!) Two weeks after opening, the Evening Standard ran a ‚ÄėOne To Watch' feature on Sweaty Betty, and we were officially on the map of luxury fashion-fitness retailers.

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