The Sweaty Betty Story: 20 years of redefining activewear
From Notting Hill to San Francisco, it's safe to say Sweaty Betty has travelled far in the last twenty years. From spotting a gap in the market to over 60 shops worldwide, our Founder and Creative Director Tamara shares her story to mark our landmark 20th birthday.
It all started on a motorbike in Vietnam, well actually let’s rewind…
I’ve always lived a really active lifestyle. My Dad was in the navy and we travelled round a lot living in Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Italy. He was really into sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter, so I always led a healthy outdoor life. I was always quite rebellious and strong-minded and didn’t like being told what to do. Even as a kid, I was just like, “I don’t want to work for anyone else, I know what I want to do, I want to run my own business!” I always had that streak in me.
When I graduated, I got a job as a buying assistant with a start-up called Knickerbox. It was run by a dynamic, brilliant couple and I was in quite a small team, so I was able to learn loads. I was buying sportswear for them, when I came across an American brand that was just starting out. I’d never seen anything like it. It was all bright colours and it wasn’t designed for men and then transformed for women, which was what the market generally offered. I was just like, “Wow, this is incredible!” and thought this is a real gap in the market.
Fast-forward to Vietnam, I had been made redundant from my job and had been talking to my partner Simon about starting my own activewear business. The sports department at the time just did not serve women. They called the female active wear department the ‘shrink it and pink it’ section, where they took men’s clothes and shrunk them and dyed them. Simon pointed out to me that I worked out more than anyone he knew, yet no one was providing me with the clothes I wanted to wear. So with this in mind, we teamed up and wrote a business plan. Simon had an MBA in business and was working in finance at the time, so we filled pages designed to create a brand to target young women with active lifestyles.
It took about six months to write the plan and raise money. We raised from friends and family and the bank. There were so many challenges when we started Sweaty Betty. I’d never done anything like this before. I had never taken on a shop before, done any lease negotiations, purchased any of my own stock, or raised any money, so it was a challenge to persuade other brands to work with me.
When I was thinking of a name, I wanted to challenge the notion that it’s not cool to sweat. Who cares if you’re a Sweaty Betty? So I took the ultimate cool chick Betty, juxtaposed this with Sweaty and we had it.
We then found a store in Notting Hill, London an up-and-coming area (at the time), there was a really nice gym and one of the first Pilates studios and we were where the early customer was — they just got it. We filled our store with beautiful and technical workout wear for run, ski, yoga, swim and every discipline for the British fitness enthusiast. That’s not to say everyone loved it straight away. Before we opened I hosted a ‘try and buy’ party with my girlfriends and they all went away empty handed. Plus, on the week we opened Simon overheard a passer-by say that it won’t work as he put up our sign.
We opened on Friday 13th November and the day before, my first assistant quit leaving me on my own over the Christmas period. Despite the initial bad luck, I was very determined so persevered and this taught me so much about our customer. When we wrote our business plan we were committed to providing ‘unbeatable customer service’, and this is something that still resonates today. Plus, it paid off, two weeks after we opened, affirmation came from the Evening Standard, which named Sweaty Betty as “one to watch”.
One other thing that’s never changed is our obsession with product. Even though we started off selling other brands, our customer was never interested in beautiful fabrics, cut and styling rather than a label. This really resonates with my original mission, I’ve always wanted to empower women through fitness and beyond and create gym clothes that are so beautiful you can wear them all day.
We continued to open shops across London, in fact our first 10 were within cycling distance of our house so Simon could access them easily. It actually wasn’t until he got a motorbike that we opened any shops outside of the capital. We’ve always thought of our shops as wellness hubs, so from the very beginning we wanted foster a real community. Simon and I have always been united in our determination to make a difference. One thing we’re really proud of is helping so many people on their journey to a healthy lifestyle through 100s free in-store classes.
What was amazing is that we started to win awards. In 2001 we were awarded Retailer of the Year and in 2003 I was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Harper’s Bazaar and Chanel. People were really starting to get it. In the meantime Simon and I had two of our three children and he started working for the business full-time. It was all go.
The Next Stage
Cut forward to 2008. This was a real turning point in our business as we shifted from selling other brands to focusing purely on our own brand product. This was a big step change for us as it really set Sweaty Betty up to become what it is today. This also meant I had to hire an entire product team which was a lesson. One of my mottos is ‘be passionate and hire passionate people’ and we are really fortunate at Sweaty Betty to have an amazing team. Having travelled buying product, I knew exactly where I wanted to source our fabrics and luckily I found a team with the same ethos.
This was amazing for me as it mean it I could start to create clothes for busy, active women. We design our collections inspired by a place I've travelled to, and that fused with our inherent London style creates collections which are uniquely Sweaty Betty in style but ever-changing season to season. I had always wanted to design beautiful styles that go from studio to street in the best technical fabrics. I think it's safe to say we're obsessed with fabrics, particularly our infamous bum-sculpting Italian fabric we use for our leggings.
During this time there was a real shift in how activewear was seen in the fashion space. People used to separate out their gym time and say these are my gym clothes and these are my ‘normal’ clothes, but it became so much cooler wearing your sportswear as part of daily life. Activewear started to appear on the catwalks and London finally caught on. Incredible boutique studios began to open and suddenly you didn’t have to go to New York to try out cool classes. Women started going to a workout with their friends and then for a drink and they needed clothes they could wear all day.
This really kicked off from 2012 when the Olympics came to London. The city just completely changed with the best atmosphere. We created a limited edition ‘God Save The Queen’ collection which featured in Vogue and our Union Jack leggings completely sold out. We also welcomed Ennis our Luca Terrier to the family (I couldn’t not name her after the Olympic star).
From then on we really started to combine fashion shapes with technical fabrics, excitingly our design team then went on to win the WGSN award for Activewear Design Team of the Year in 2013. To top it off in 2015 we collaborated with the designer Richard Nicoll, and seeing our pieces on the catwalk at London Fashion Week was a real bucket list moment.
The + Now
When Simon and I started Sweaty Betty we wanted to empower women through fitness and beyond. I had always lived this active lifestyle and I wanted everyone else to enjoy it. We’ve now opened 62 shops globally, from Notting Hill to San Francisco, having opened our first US shop in New York in 2015. I had always been so inspired by the healthy lifestyle over there so we knew we had to be part of it.
We’ve always seen Sweaty Betty as a lifestyle brand and in the last few years I’ve really seen this come to life. In 2016 we launched our first Sweaty Betty Live - a wellness festival with the best workouts, inspiring talks, healthy street food and beauty all under one roof. We then had to take it one step further and open a flagship shop. Located on Carnaby Street, we’ve curated a space where you can shop our new collection, work out daily with London’s hottest studios and eat the best healthy food in town. I wanted women to be able to socialise with friends, go for a class, get a cocktail and their hair done all under one roof.
Like most women I try and squeeze in a workout, whatever and wherever it may be – so beautiful clothes that work for both are becoming paramount in my life. We design pieces for every occasion and every sport, from bum-sculpting leggings for your run, to super soft Italian fleece for lounging and of course, our technical skiwear. I still test every piece myself and am as fit and fabric obsessed as ever.
What's next? I can't tell you everything, but I can promise more London-designed activewear that will help you create a fashion-forward wardrobe for daily life.