Back when I was about 12, there wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t have done for an Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt. Of course, that was all before the brand’s CEO Mike Jeffries came under fire for making comments about people who didn’t ‘fit’ the brand—and before our society uncovered many other unhealthy standards the brand was promoting to easily-influenced kids. It then comes as no surprise that around the same time in my life, just like many other teens, I began hating my thighs and picking at my food.
Fast forward to 2021, and things have changed for the better. More often than not nowadays, mainstream brands that are popular among young customers offer inclusive sizes and diverse model line-ups. In addition to this, gone is the type of monopoly we once witnessed with brands like Abercrombie & Fitch or American Apparel. Given the rise of social media, it’s been harder for such labels to appeal to teenagers who now have hundreds of subcultures to pick from. Even the term ‘basic’ has lost its meaning of late, because trends have been transitioning rapidly ever since we embraced consumerism with our heart and soul.
And yet, among all these brands, trends and products—to cop or not?—we’ve seen the emergence of another company with a loyal customer base that could easily be compared to the ones back from the 2010s. Enter the Canadian women’s fashion brand founded in Vancouver, Aritzia and its cult-like following.
Originally founded by Brian Hill back in 1984, the company only rose to fame after it went public in 2016. Aritzia primarily sells in-house brands, such as TNA (its most popular one), Wilfred, Babaton, Sunday Best, Main Character, Community and more. “We develop our own brands, treating each as an independent label with its own creative team and aesthetic. As a group, they have a few things in common: an effortless appeal, a focus on fit and an of-the-moment point of view,” reads the company’s website.
Its stores also carry clothing from labels such as Citizens of Humanity, Mackage, Six Eleven, New Balance, Levi’s, A Gold E, Havaianas, J Brand Jeans, adidas, Herschel Supply Co. and Rag & Bone. In other words, unlike the past strategies of some mainstream brands, by understanding the needs of the new generation and finding innovative ways of meeting them, Aritzia split its own company into well-curated and different ‘personalities’—its very own labels. Bonus, its signature brands range in demographic as well as price point.
According to Wikipedia, as of January 2021, Aritzia operates 101 stores in North America. Out of these, 68 boutiques are located in Canada including five TNA stores, eight Wilfred stores and four Babaton stores. There are a total of 33 Aritzia stores in the US, including a 13,000 square-foot flagship location in Manhattan, New York City. Its e-commerce website is also highly popular, especially for customers who don’t have an Aritzia store in their country yet—representing a large percentage of the brand’s customer base.
We’ll get to Aritzia’s loyal customers soon enough, but before we cover that, it’s crucial we look at the company’s most successful line: TNA. The brand mostly consists of gen Z classics such as tracksuit bottoms, cyclist shorts, hoodies, and puffer jackets—available in all shapes and colours.
On the internet, YouTube videos reviewing the latest TNA drops boast views ranging from 1,000 to 35,000. YouTubers like RachelRachel regularly post Aritzia shopping hauls on their channel in an effort to help potential online customers pick the right fit and size—in addition to amassing some effortless views on their videos.
Meanwhile on Reddit, r/Aritzia is home to just under 10,000 members who regularly discuss the company’s products, including the ones that are worth buying at the moment and which sizes fit a specific body type best.
Aritzia has also made headlines for a well-deserved celebrity hype after its ‘Super Puff’ TNA puffer jacket, which was first released in 2018, was seen on Ariana Grande, Kendall Jenner, Hailey Bieber and Margot Robbie—thereby catapulting the brand into its ‘fashion icon’ status. Oh, and Aritzia has also consistently been a favourite of the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle (who has been spotted in several items from the Babaton and Wilfred range).
All in all, Aritzia can pride itself on being a company that promotes gen Z values. 85 per cent of its employee base is made up of women, including 67 per cent of its Aritzia Leadership Team. Three of the brand’s six executive officers and 98 per cent of its retail management team are also female, as president and COO Jennifer Wong told Forbes in May 2021.
“In addition, one of our board committees oversees governance and diversity, which includes consideration for female representation both on our board and in senior management positions. We work hard to create opportunities for young women to join the workforce and gain skills to grow in multiple career paths because championing, supporting, and growing women in leadership and across all levels of our organization is core to our beliefs,” Wong continued.
Although real estate is a priority for Aritzia, the brand’s digital footprint is also a critical part of its strategy. With an engaged Instagram community of over 1.2 million fans and a robust e-commerce infrastructure, the brand has managed to stay ahead of its competition during the COVID-19 pandemic, redirecting this growth to its e-commerce site at the same time.
When asked about the growth of Aritzia’s e-commerce, Wong explained to Forbes: “Upon the closure of our boutiques, we took immediate action to drive e-commerce revenue, adjusting our product, marketing and operational strategies appropriately. Despite the challenges, our beautiful product assortment, best-in-class distribution centre, aspirational website, and response from our loyal clientele led to e-commerce growth in excess of 150% through the end of May 2020.”
Because the company also knows how much gen Zers care about their favourite brands taking part in social activism, after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Aritzia started by investing $1 million to expand and strengthen its diversity and inclusion programme and established an executive diversity and inclusion committee led by Wong.
To date, its actions include donating $100,000 to Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as implementing mandatory training and education on systemic racism, racial inequality and social injustice (courses are required for all current and future members of the team; the education covers conscious and unconscious bias, microaggressions, stereotypes, inclusive language, privilege, effective ally-ship and more).
It’s also important to note that this is only the beginning for the brand—with previous accusations highlighting Aritzia’s racist behaviour towards POC employees. “When we say that ‘real change starts from within’, we believe that we can impact change most by starting with the 4,000 people that are at Aritzia,” Wong told Forbes on the matter.
Aritzia’s focus on getting its product right rather than being marketing-led during expansion has been integral to the company’s success. The retailer has not only managed to woo gen Z consumers, but has impressed investors and analysts as well.
However, while the brand likes to claim it doesn’t take part in fast fashion, but instead conceives, creates, develops and retails fashion brands at a quality which no one can match at its competitive price point, it’s hard to ignore some of its labels’ clearly soon-to-be short-lived trends like its Wilfred ‘Free Divinity Jumpsuit’. I absolutely love it now, but what would I think of it in six months? Not sure.
Aritzia has a full sustainability page on its website which details its sustainability initiatives since 2010. It has already banned fur (not including down or wool), joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, conducted a “materiality assessment,” joined the Better Cotton Initiative, partnered with the Better Work programme, became a member of the Textile Exchange, and achieved carbon neutrality. The site notes it’s also taking measures to decrease water usage and adopt more sustainable materials. So far so good, right?
With all that in mind, however, it still may not be constituted as sustainable—in fact, Good On You gave the company a ‘Not Good Enough’ rating in the sustainability department, noting that although the company uses environmentally-friendly materials like Tencel, it doesn’t elaborate on actions to eliminate harmful chemicals, or initiatives to limit fabric waste. And while the brand likes to claim it has achieved “carbon neutrality,” per Good On You, its technique of offsetting emissions is effectively useless. It also makes no efforts to reduce emissions in its supply chains.
Meanwhile, although Aritzia reiterates its message to “minimize animal suffering,” it has no formal policy to do so. And because it doesn’t elaborate on animal products used during the first stage of production, animal welfare is not really addressed during its manufacturing process at all.
Long story short, while Aritzia may be better than most fast fashion companies, it isn’t totally transparent when it comes to its sustainability and ethical practices—and we’ve also noted above how it needs to seriously work on its diversity and inclusion programme.
As makeshift gyms and offices show no immediate signs of moving out of our living rooms, it is of little surprise to witness the steady demand for office furniture and gym equipment well into 2021. But what if your Instagram feed, one fine day, decides to tell you that you could workout while baking a cake on your cheat day? And that the only equipment required to do so fits right into your cosy little jewellery drawer? Enter Bala, a Los-Angeles based movement company behind the Instagram-famous workout accessory, ‘Bala Bangles’. Screen Shot spoke to Bala’s co-founder, Natalie Holloway, to decode the brand’s success and bring you insights into managing a business in these uncertain times.
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Let’s start by getting our hands on and into these chic accessories. Bala Bangles are the world’s first wearable weights that are both functional and fashionable. The one-size-fits-all accessory is made from recycled stainless steel wrapped in soft silicone and features an elastic band with strong velcro to aid its customised fit. Simply slide the bars down the elastic, wrap around your ankles or wrists and fasten the velcro with the logo facing outside. Available in sets weighing ½, 1 and 2 pounds each, these weights work by adding a constant yet comfortable resistance to all types of workouts, helping burn fat and build muscle.
Launched in 2018, Bala’s hero product, Bala Bangles shot to fame after debuting on the popular reality series Shark Tank, with Maria Sharapova and Mark Cuban partnering as investors. They are now sold at major retailers including Amazon, Urban Outfitters, Nordstrom and Goop apart from Bala’s own site.
“Bala was conceived on a trip throughout Asia with my then-boyfriend Max, now husband and co-founder,” reminisces Holloway, “We were doing yoga and thought we wanted a way to push ourselves during the class and we thought added weight/resistance would do just that.” The problem, however, as Holloway mentions, was that “no cool weights existed back then.”
Now, let’s jog your memory a bit before we proceed. Do you recall spotting wearable weights anywhere before? Perhaps in a Jane Fonda workout VHS back in the 80s? Ankle and wrist weights doubled as a workout staple and a fashion statement back in the 1980s before they fell out of trend. Apart from numerous other benefits, these weights are scientifically proven to increase heart rate by 30 per cent and improve posture by strengthening upper-back muscles. “We wanted to bring them back as they are so beneficial to workouts!” Holloway admits.
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Bala, which translates to ‘strength’ in Sanskrit, is passionate about designing products that help users make the most of every workout. With a clear mission of “inspiring movement through design,” the co-founder describes the aesthetic guiding Bala’s design process as “anti-fitness fitness.” “This is because we will put someone in heels while they are lifting weights, for example.”
Bala stands out in the industry with this unique approach to fitness, “We like to think of it as the fashionable, fun side of fitness. In contrast to the utility-led products that dominate the fitness space,” Holloway claims. “We believe beautiful, functional fitness accessories will change the way people work out.”
Bala differentiates itself from its competitors, the sandbag old school weights themselves, by being “designed very differently, made to be more comfortable and sweat resistant.” According to Holloway, Bala’s world can be summed up as playful, inclusive and colourful. The brand loves to have fun with colour and print pairings with a total of twelve options currently available for their 1-pound weights.
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The appreciation of health and well-being has somewhat been renewed over the lockdown. Yoga mats, resistance bands and workout weights are in the spotlight as Google searches for ankle weights have nearly tripled since last year. According to a report by Visual Capitalist, 60 per cent of gym members in the US enjoy their home workouts so much to a point where they plan to cancel their gym memberships.
This is where Bala Bangles come in. Bala portrays its hero product as the perfect pandemic lifestyle. The product realises the fact that there is more than one way to break a sweat. With Bala Bangles you can workout doing your daily laundry loads or grocery trips, a pandemic-accelerated market segment which the brand increasingly monopolises. This has also led to the creation of an entire community of Bala Babes eagerly awaiting special edition releases and higher weight options.
Holloway admits she didn’t expect this level of reception for workout weights back in 2018 with Bala’s launch. “We are still blown away on a daily basis. We just believed wrist and ankle weights were an 80s trend that went away but was one that should not have gone away because weights can be so beneficial to many workouts. We wanted to bring them back in a way that inspired people so we focused heavily on the design of the product.”
Bala Bangles are meticulously designed not to pinch, slide or restrict movement in any way. Wildly versatile, they can be used for training and recreational activities alike. Holloway recommends using these weights for slower-paced, lower-impact activities like walking, pilates and yoga. “Many trainers say you can use them for anything but those are some of our favourite ways to move with them!”
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Bala has achieved various digital feats of success over the pandemic. Apart from bringing back a forgotten 80s trend in one of the most uncertain times, Bala Bangles are dubbed ‘Instagram-famous’ and ‘internet-recommended’ fitness accessories.
When asked about the digital marketing strategies Bala invested in to achieve this, Holloway enlightens us with some insights, “We have partnered with several aspirational retailers, which has definitely helped. We also have a gifting strategy where we send press kits and products to celebrities and editors. This has really helped us because they try the product and if they love it, they share it with their community.”
Bala has also been in the news for being an active part of give-back programs. “My passion is giving back to rescue animal organisations. We have a colour called Pibble Purple where 100% of the proceeds go to animal rescue organisations. To date, we have donated $44,000 and counting.” The co-founder also plans on continuing give-backs, admitting that Bala’s success means a huge give-back programme one day.
“Our ambition is to overhaul the at-home and studio fitness experience with design-led accessories and equipment,” Holloway states when asked about Bala’s itinerary in the 10 years. “I hope Bala is more than just a brand, but we are a lifestyle and make people feel good about themselves. There will also be a huge give back component in 10 years from now!”
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At Bala, every movement matters. From hand-shipping each order back in 2018 to Bala Bangles presently flying off shelves moments after they are back in stock, Holloway reflects on some of her biggest struggles and learnings along the way: “I learn so much each day about running a business and growing a brand. I think the biggest thing I have learned is to roll with the punches, stay positive and just keep moving. My partner and I often joke that running a business seems to be mostly about solving difficult problems on a daily basis. And it’s true. With each day comes another problem or challenge so I have really learned to calm down, solve it, and move onward. All with a positive outlook.”
Bala prides itself on having a strong grip on every Bala Babe’s heart: “We understand that your life includes exercise but is not exclusively defined by it,” its website reads. The ‘small-but-mighty’ workout accessory has managed to redefine the fitness industry in a time where other brands employ survival tactics to outlive the pandemic.
And if you are thinking about establishing your own business soon, Holloway has the perfect advice: “Just start. So often ideas just stay ideas because it is so hard to know the first, second, or third move and it can feel extremely overwhelming to just take that first step. I think it is important to take baby steps every single day until you have something real. If you promise yourself to just take baby steps daily even if you don’t know the next step, eventually you will figure it out.”
“No business was built in a day. So keep moving and move daily towards your goal!”