How a Blogger and a PR Intern Launched London's Chicest Fitness Boutique
On a recent trip to London, I made a point to meet up with two women behind one of my favorite activewear e-boutiques, Fashercise. My workout wardrobe regularly blurs into everyday-wear, so I spend a lot of time shopping for full-length leggings with matching sports bras, cropped sweaters, and sporty tanks from brands like Alala, Michi NY, and LNDR, all of which are available on Fashercise.
While today the eboutique stocks what are arguably the most coveted activewear brands on the planet, the platform started as a simple fashion blog. The founders, Camille Roegiers de Silva and Alexandra Vanthournout, then leveraged their existing following to create an experience that cleverly weaves content and commerce. Originally hailing from Belgium, both women are now based in London where they work from their recently opened an office.
They've also learned a lot over the past 24 months in startup land. Neither founder comes from a business or tech background—Alex was a full time blogger while Cam worked in Public Relations—but together they've launched and successfully grown an enviable fashion company. Today both women are sharing some practical advice about how to land your first customers, build a website, manage and order stock, and work with influencers.
What were you both doing before launching Fashercise?
Alex: I was a freelance fashion journalist, and somehow along the way I became a professional blogger. With my blog, Alex Loves, I was very lucky to be part of that first generation of bloggers who managed to turn a hobby into a career. I traveled the world, met some of the most incredible people and got to work with brands I could have never even dreamed of—working with and writing for Chanel was by far the highlight of my blogging career. When I started my own fitness journey, I would write about it on the blog, and realized a lot of my followers had a similar view on fitness, wanting it to be fun and social and stylish. It's why I almost jokingly started Fashercise as a second blog. And three years later, here we are!
Cam: I studied economics and then marketing at university, but I always knew that I wanted to work in fashion. When I was a kid, my dad worked for Le Printemps in Paris and he used to bring me back French Vogue every month, I still read it—I have a tower of Vogues in my apartment—it was my bible. After university, I interned in [public relations] in New York and London, before getting a job in wholesale fashion. I’m so glad I gained experience in sales, it taught me so much about the business side of fashion and gave me the opportunity to work with giants like Net-a-Porter and ASOS as well as e-commerce start-ups. It was the perfect education to start Fashercise.
How did you come up with the idea for Fashercise?
Alex: Fashercise was a natural progression coming out of [my fashion blog]. I was at a time where I wanted to create something beyond my blog, and it felt like there was a big gap in the market for a fitness site with a stylish angle (there were hardly any at the time). Fashercise was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek word I came up with, a way of saying that exercise can be fun and stylish and doesn’t always have to be super serious.
Fairly soon after launching the blog, I discovered that there were a couple of young designers who were launching new activewear labels and the idea of the shop was conceived! I lacked experience with retail and wholesale, which Cam had plenty of, so we decided to do go on this adventure together.
What was involved in turning a content platform into an ecommerce platform?
Fashercise was functioning as a normal blog for over a year whilst behind the scenes we were busy turning it into an ecommerce platform. We decided very early on that content would still be key in the redesign—something which was hard to understand for the many web designers and developers we interviewed. In the end we found the perfect team who understood our vision; a site where e-commerce and content interact easily and beautifully.
Eight months later we finally relaunched to the Fashercise you see today. Finding the right people to go through this process with is very important as it is a very personal and complicated journey. Our designers created our entire branding and the visual concept for the website, whilst a freelance developer helped us turn that vision into reality.
What tips have you picked up over the past two years about how content can drive sales?
It’s no secret that content is king in the online space. As a blogger, Alex spent years creating editorials for brands, so it was always going to be a key element of Fashercise as well. It provides a context for the customer, allows them to see the brands in action and creates a more personal relationship with the individual brands and Fashercise as a retailer. For example, each of our brands has its own page with a designer interview, their latest lookbooks, and any blog posts they may have been featured in. The posts where we mention any of our brands have a custom-built widget where you can buy the item straight from the post. It’s all about interaction between the two parts of the business.
We don’t just stick to creating content about our brands, but really work at creating a hub about all things fitness, fashion and wellbeing. From food recipes to workout playlists, we want to provide the customer with an experience beyond just shopping. Whether they are customers or readers, we just want to attract people to our site on a regular basis and become part of the Fashercise community. If you can’t offer them new products every single day, then there is no reason for them to return on a regular basis, but content does just that. In the long run, we hope to grow the editorial side of the site so much it almost becomes its own entity.
We would definitely recommend that other ecommerce startups think about this at the very early stages of building their websites. Find a way to integrate content in a way that is more interactive than just a separate blog—make it a key part of your story and not just an afterthought.
How did you manage to get your first brands on the website when you didn't have any recognition of your own brand? In a premium space I imagine this can be quite tough.
When we first started approaching brands, the landscape was very different, as there were only a handful of fashionable activewear labels around back then. We made a list of the few brands we wanted to approach and simply cold-called and emailed them. As Fashercise was already operating as blog back then, we had a platform to direct the brands to, but it obviously looked nothing like what the ecommerce would look like and we had nothing concrete to show them. This made things a little harder at times, but because of Cam’s experience in wholesale, we were clear about numbers and budgets and knew what to include in our pitch to get the brand’s attention.
Our passion for our vision and knowledge of wholesale practices helped gain legitimacy with those first few brands, almost all of which are still stocked on Fashercise. After we had a couple of them on board, it also made it a lot easier to then convince the other ones.
How did you finance the startup in the early stages? Have you worked with angel investors or venture capitalists?
As it stands, we are currently completely self-funded. This has been great for us as it enabled us to build Fashercise exactly the way we wanted it to be without external pressures. It also means that, because we don’t have unlimited funds, we've had to be extremely resourceful in the way we spend our money.
It also means that we have a great framework as we gear ourselves up for future growth. We’ve built some great foundations, and now we are in the process of preparing the business to go out for investment in the near future. We are looking to grow aggressively and hoping to find an investor who loves Fashercise as much as we do and can lend their expertise to help us conquer the world.
You told me earlier that you think packing boxes is one of the most important tasks. Why?
Being an online business, our packaging is the only physical interaction we have with our customers. We take enormous pride in giving them a premium experience and still to this day pack all our orders ourselves to ensure that it remains at the standard we want it to be. Orders come in a beautiful box you won’t want to throw away, custom tissue paper, a free tote bag and a handwritten, personalized note.
We constantly get praised for our packaging and quite often customers will photograph their parcels and show them off on social media, so it has become a vital part of our marketing now. As we grow, we know that it will be harder for us to keep doing it by ourselves, but we will always ensure that this part of the customer journey will be at the highest level.
How did you get your first customers?
We were very lucky to launch with an existing following, as the blog had been online for over a year. At first it was mostly friends and family, so when we started getting our first orders from complete strangers, we were ecstatic! As part of our launch, we also opened a pop up at Boxpark, which allowed us to introduce ourselves and our brands to the general public—some of whom have become regular customers to this day. It also generated some press coverage, which gave us legitimacy as a business.
How did you leverage influencers to boost your sales?
We love working with influencers and have built some great organic relationships with a number of bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers. Because we work with limited budgets, we have to be careful with what we spend and who we spend it on, so we aren’t always able to do as much as we’d like in terms of gifting or creating campaigns together.
What we’ve learned is that quite often the obvious choice doesn’t always convert, whereas some smaller or more unusual [influencers] do. Influencer marketing is a great way to open up your market to a new audience, so sometimes stepping outside of the little world of fitness influencers—whose following often already know about us—can be more beneficial in terms of targeting a new customer.
How do you track results of influencer marketing?
Tracking results can definitely be a bit tricky at times—more and more influencers no longer even have a blog, which would have given us all the data we need. Instagram is notoriously difficult to track, yet that’s the social media platform where we probably function best. We sometimes give the influencers a personalized discount code they can use on their feed, so we can keep track of who generated the sale. It’s important to remember that t’s not always just about sales, but about creating brand awareness, so we’ll keep encouraging the conversation with influencers, even if it doesn’t always convert.
When you first started, how did you select the first styles and size runs to buy? How has that process changed over the past two years?
From Cam's experience in wholesale, we had an idea of what size runs online retailers were using so we took that as a starting point. Since then, we've continuously analyzed our sales data to make sure we respond to what our customers are asking for. Our sizing requirement has changed a lot over the last two years and is still changing so it is crucial to always monitor your data as you go along.
In terms of the styles we stock, at first we mostly bought what we personally loved and what made sense in terms of assortment. Today we still buy what we love but we are much more in tune with what our customers are buying. For example, full length leggings completely outsell capris so we make sure that our future buys reflect that. Buying is a learning process, and we continue to learn about our customers every single day.
Occasionally we’ll step out of our comfort zone and buy styles we may not have picked for ourselves. Funnily, we’ve found that more often than not our customers have similar tastes to ours. For example, neither of us likes to wear pink, and the few times we’ve stocked pink, it simply doesn’t sell well. We’ve tried it in every kind of shade, fabric, price point, etc. but pink simply doesn’t work for us!
What are some practical things about both buying stock and managing inventory for an ecommerce platform that new founders should know?
Our main advice when buying stock would be not to overextend yourself, especially when you’re starting out. You can plan and forecast as much as you want before you launch, but the reality is that you don’t know your customer at all yet, you don’t know how much and what they will buy until you go live. You want to avoid finding yourself with a lot of leftover stock that you will need to discount heavily as you’re learning what your customer likes. Most brands should be able to help you with reorders so it is better to be cautious.
The key to retail is maintaining a healthy cashflow so it’s important to spread out your stock buys as much as possible.
In terms of managing your inventory, make sure that the ecommerce platform you use has some robust reporting capabilities, it will make life a lot easier when you need to run your sales and merchandising reports.
In activewear, do you buy in seasons like with other fashion categories? Or is it more sporadic?
Originally we did follow a more traditional fashion schedule in terms of how we bought our collections, but as activewear doesn’t really have a season to it and is less trend-dependent, this has changed a lot since we first started. It all depends from brand to brand—some (like legging label Hey Jo) have a more classic product that never goes out of style and just add new colorways, allowing us to stock up as we go along. Other brands (like Varley and Alala) follow the more traditional calendar, with several collections a year.
In recent months we’ve changed the way we buy a bit, to allow for more regular, year-round deliveries, which as an online retailer is more interesting to maintain constant newness on the site and give the customers more reasons to visit the site regularly. However, all of our brands offer a core styles program with basics which are always available and never discounted, so we don't have to worry about running out of stock.
When did you decide it was the right time to move into an external office?
When we first started, we worked from Alex’s home for over a year. As a startup, this was great for saving money, but eventually the business started to take over—the stock and endless boxes were a bit overwhelming, and we wanted to start hiring interns, which obviously made things a bit cramped in a little home office.
Now we have a little space in a big office building in North London, nothing fancy or glamorous, but we have a lot more space and we can have a few more people in the office with us if we want to. We’re surrounded by other small businesses like ourselves, which is an inspiring and social environment for us to be in. The best part of moving here is that we now have a reception and a postroom—both of which are such luxuries after working from home and being stuck constantly waiting for deliveries!
Although working from home is probably a key experience of every start up—and one we’re grateful for—we felt a lot more ‘real’ as a business once we had a real office address.
What's next for Fashercise?
It’s definitely an exciting time for us at the moment. We’ve spent the past two years establishing ourselves, learning about our customer and developing our vision, and now we’re ready to grow aggressively and start looking at the future!
We have a couple of exciting new brands coming soon which will be total game changers, we are finally able to spend more time focusing on more regular and original content and really build our community further. We are very lucky to have some great people mentoring us and helping us get to the next level—there’s a lot of plans we hope to make reality sooner rather than later!