Denise Lee, Founder and CEO of ALALA, Defines Her Brand
When she trained for her first triathlon six years ago, Denise Lee was swimming, biking, or running six days a week. But she couldn’t find gear that made her “feel like a badass.”
So she set about to craft activewear with a look that motivated her to train harder and reflected her edgy, urban, high-fashion style. ALALA, the athleisure company she launched four years ago—before athleisure was even a word—has gone on to thrive despite burgeoning racksful of competitors.
On this week’s episode of #WeGotGoals, Lee told me she credits this success, in part, to luck and good timing. But she has entrepreneurship in her blood—her parents both had their own businesses. Clearly, she drew inspiration from their perseverance and strength from their encouragement.
“When people think about starting their own thing, it’s really important to have that support from the people closest to you, because it’s scary enough as it is,” she says. “If you really have a lot of people telling you, ‘Don’t do it, stay at your job, just be comfortable, you know, just climb the corporate ladder’—I do think that can be a hindrance to your early success and early development of your business.”
She’d also spent time working for Chris Burch, a serial entrepreneur in the New York fashion world. From him, she absorbed instruction on speed and trusting your intuition. Far better to make a bad decision quickly, he told her, than to dawdle while making a good one.
“If you’re a smart person, you’re confident in yourself and you trust your gut, most of the time you’re going to make the right decision and not make too many bad decisions,” she says.
“But even if you do make bad decisions, you’re able to make them quickly and adjust to whatever decision you made, and then pivot off of that and make another quick decision.”
The big goal Lee set this past year was to craft a clearer vision and personality for ALALA. She kicked off this process with an ingenious exercise—asking everyone to come up with adjectives they thought defined the brand, then narrowing it down to three. Now, they use these words as a guidepost and filter for every move, from big marketing campaigns to individual Instagram posts.
Listen to hear how she’s created successful partnerships, whether she managed to crush that triathlon after all, as well as what those three adjectives are (and if you, like us, were inspired to craft your own—share with us in the comments). You can see more of ALALA’s personality on Instagram and online.
#WeGotGoals is produced by Cindy Kuzma. If you like it as much as we do, please subscribe—and rate and review it on Apple Podcasts.
JAC: Welcome to #WeGotGoals, a podcast by aSweatLife.com on which we talk to high achievers about their goals. I'm Jeana Anderson Cohen. With me, I have Maggie Umberger and Cindy Kuzma.
CK: Good morning Jeana.
JAC: Good morning Cindy. Cindy you talked to Denise of ALALA, right?
CK: Yep I sure did. I talked to Denise Lee, who is the founder and CEO of ALALA, which is brand of activewear that's kind of taking the world by storm right now.
MU: Cindy I loved listening to your interview with Denise because it is an up and coming brand and it was cool to hear the brand story and sort of that journey that it has been on. But I didn't expect to take away such personal life lessons from it. And I really did. So you'll hear in the interview an exercise that she took her team through to help really define what Alala is. And I thought about it and I was like I want to do this exercise for me to kind of gauge, am I doing the things that ladder up to who I am? It's a simple exercise just defining three adjectives that really encompass who you are. But I haven't done it before. So I was surprised and delighted to take away a personal lesson.
CK: What is interesting about that too is that--there's a little bit of fear involved in letting go of some of the things that don't fall under those adjectives but once you really have that clarity of vision and are able to make decisions based on those adjectives that do define and describe you I think it really ultimately leads to kind of a sense of freedom and purpose. And yeah it's definitely something that could be applicable for a person or a company.
JAC: And it's interesting to hear her talk about partnerships and other brands that she grew up with. I know that as aSweatLife has grown we've seen brands like Carbon 38, ALALA, Bandier, all sort of grow in athleisure and activewear space. So hearing her name those brands as partners and almost mentors not that you look to a brand at the same age as a mentor but sometimes they are because they learn lessons that you aren't learning at the same time. A partnership actually led her to me where I met her and got to talking about this very podcast which is how we ended up with her on the show. She caught a trend before it was a trend. ALALA is athleisure at its finest. I'm wearing a pair of ALALA pants that are luxe in every sense of the word.
They have details that I would never think of. There's a sort of shiny brushstroke gloss on them. There's mesh behind my knees. These pants are not traditional yoga pants. Everything they make is meant to be worn in all areas of life and the company was founded right at that sort of inflection point where athletic attire became what you wore all day everyday. So they kind of got lucky in that they caught that trend and they caught that trend with some partners who also had some clout and some movement like Bandier and like carbon 38.
CK: Right. It's true. I think you're right that she was lucky in her timing. But the reason that she got lucky is because she wanted something that wasn't there. I mean she came up with the idea to create this line of activewear because she was looking for workout wear that inspired her to work out. But then that she could also wear around town in New York as the busy kind of entrepreneur type woman that she was. And she didn't see anything out there. So she caught the train but she was able to do that because she was focusing on on a need that wasn't yet being filled. And that's what let her take advantage of that opportunity at that moment.
MU: And when we talk about setting goals and attaining them you actually have to make decisions to get there. She has a really interesting take on making decisions.
CK: Yeah, she talks about making bad decisions quickly and then adjusting if they turn out to be bad. You know again back to the point of her being in a kind of a cohort of a lot of brands coming up at the same time I mean things move quickly in this space and she has learned from her mentors and has applied to her life and her business that sometimes it's better to just make a move even if it's not 100 percent the right one. And you can always course correct it's far easier and far better for your business than just kind of sitting around waiting for for you know deliberating and making sure you make the 100 percent right decision every single time.
MU: It's a really refreshing take on making choices. So here is Cindy with Denise.
CK: I'm Cindy Kuzma and I am here with Denise Lee who is the founder of ALALA. Denise, thank you so much for joining us today on the #WeGotGoals podcast.
DL: Thanks for having me, Cindy.
CK: Before we talk about our two big questions on #WeGotGoals I wanted to have you tell our listeners a little bit more about how the brand got started. I know the idea came about because of your own unsuccessful search for activewear that you wanted to wear. Is that right?
DL: Yeah, exactly. So in 2012 I was training for a triathlon. And along with that was six days a week of running and swimming and training and so being a part of the fashion retail industry in New York City I've always had my own sense of style and as I was training for the first tri I was like, OK well I want to go out and get some new activewear so that I feel more motivated to work out six days a week and I look good and I feel good. And during my own personal search at the time there really wasn't too much out there besides the big brands that we all know. My thought on those were just that it didn't really reflect my own personal taste and my personal style like I wanted something cooler and kind of more innovative and you know, made me feel like a badass.
So I looked around and there really wasn't too much out there. And so that's kind of the genesis of how ALALA started. I thought there was a wide space for a more kind of New York City downtown cool aesthetic activewear line and you know that was something that was missing from the market.
CK: Well, and my next question was going to be what you felt kind of to describe the aesthetic and what you kind of feel sets the brand apart. So that sounds like a pretty good description of that.
DL: Yeah I think we are very much rooted in New York City and the style of New York City women. It's very individual and independent. There's a little bit more edge and like fashion elements to our line, I think, as compared to some of our other friends out there. And I also think there's a really great selection of products at ALALA so you don't only get the sports bras and the leggings. We also offer a lot of great T-shirts and long sleeved Ts and even like this season we have velvet jackets, things you can wear to the office. You could wear out to actually a really nice dinner. So I think also in the four years that we've been around we've kind of evolved to be a lot more like everyday wear while keeping the performance and function in a lot of the pieces too.
CK: Wow the velvet jackets. I'm looking forward to those that fall creeps in here in Chicago
DL: Yes, so cute!
CK: Denise the big question we ask here on #WeGotGoals is about a big goal that you've achieved, what made it so important to you and how you got there. So let's talk about that. What was that big goal for you and how did you make it happen.
DL: You know I think in starting a business from scratch there is a lot of big goals. One of my big goals for this year was to kind of have ALALA have an identity that was different than everybody else. A little bit of what we spoke about before. Just like our aesthetic and the design and kind of the mood of the collection. That was something that wasn't really there when we started and has certainly evolved as there have become more and more and more activewear players in the market. And so a big question that I had for the company earlier this year was, you know how how are we different like what are we going to say how are we going to stand out from the hundreds of brands that are coming into the space. And I think we've achieved that in two big ways. One through the design of the collection and the other is through very conscious branding and marketing efforts to kind of bring that vision together.
CK: So when you talk about a goal like that that is sort of not--I don't want to say it's not an objective goal but it is the goal that maybe the steps between here and there aren't 100 percent clear when you set a goal like that. What does that look like on a practical level how do you have that conversation within the company to get to that goal?
DL: You know one great thing that we did to get to that goal was really to sit everybody in the company down and have a real discussion about what their vision was for the company what my vision was for the company. It was like actually a full day exercise that we did at the beginning of this year to kind of really understand the collective vision and goals for what we wanted ALALA become. So that was a very actionable step to achieve something that you know might not be so numbers driven and so tangible. But you know we took a really like defined step of sitting everybody down talking about the brand like who, you are what are the three adjectives that we would end up describing ALALA with. And that was actually a really great exercise. Very clear and we actually did come away with the three adjectives that we wanted to encompass ALALA the brand and also the products. And those three adjectives were New York City, powerful, and luxe. And so now we've been able to very successfully build our vision on top of those three adjectives. And I think that was something that we didn't have clearly defined before.
CK: Oh I really like that because then you kind of have a measurement where if you have a new idea or a new initiative or a new design you can kind of hold it up to those words and see if it if it matches with what you're going for.
DL: Exactly. And that was a really cool group exercise that we did like we started with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of words. And it was picking through, is it powerful? Is it strong? Is it fearless? Is it this or that? It was really kind of cool to see it really distilled down to three words that we really believed in.
And like you said we use those now as our filter for everything--all the designs kind of go through that filter. All our photography goes through that filter. All our copy goes through those filters. And so it's actually really cool to kind of see who we are and what ALALA stands for kind of really be tightened up this year.
CK: What are some of those branding and marketing changes or initiatives that you're most excited about?
DL: I think from my perspective--we're a fashion company. So I think the visual aspect of the marketing and branding are very cool you know and it kind of trickles down from the major things. Our lookbook photo shoots. How do those look? We were talking actually before we did this exercise of shooting our next lookbook in Santa Fe. We're like oh, we want to be in the desert we want to do this and that. But now that we actually were able to say OK we're a New York City brand and we want to stand for New York City, then that idea kind of stopped making so much sense and it made a lot more sense to shoot it here in the city if that's what you want to portray yourself as. So like I said again like those three words and those three filters have been very very helpful for us though. So we ended up shooting on the beach volleyball course in New York City so we still got a desert, sandy vibe, but it was like against the backdrop of New York. And the model we chose a very New York cool. So everything from kind of big visual aspects like that all the way down to what photos we're choosing for our Instagram feed all kind of go through that filter too. You know we used to post a lot more nature photos or beachy photos and now we're trying to post more of things that are like in our vibe and aesthetic. And I think that's really cool because to be honest as a brand I think you go through an evolution and you learn more about yourself every day and I think we come to the point where we know ourselves a lot more than we did when we started. So that's very exciting.
CK: That's interesting. That must be a really fascinating process to go through and as you kind of point out a lot of that seems to revolve around as much knowing who you aren't as knowing who you are right.
DL: It's scary right? Because I think when you start out you want to be a lot of things to a lot of people you want to sell as many things as you can or you know appeal to as many people as you can. But through setting that goal for ourselves of learning who we are defining who we are I think we've also gained the confidence as a brand and as a team to really like take a stand and that's been very empowering to just having those filters there to guide us in our daily decisions and in the future of ALALA has been really cool.
CK: Iwonder you kind of mentioned that empowerment that comes from going through this exercise and it does seem like in a crowded market as activewear has become and I know even more so since you started. That must give you a sense of confidence to have that definition and you can kind of--I don't know, does it change the way you view the competition too? Are you finding it easier to you to be focused on your goals as opposed to what everyone else is doing? When you have that clear vision in mind.
DL: Yeah I definitely think it helps a lot. And it's, like I said, given us the confidence to really like do more of our own thing. We've always kind of done our own thing anyway people have responded to it which has been great. But even more like taking the next step pushing the envelope a little further in the direction that we want to go. It's helped us stand out from our competition. You know it's helped us have a personality and like character versus a lot of other brand they're just clothes on a rack. I'm very excited about the direction it's going. And also it's easier for us to talk to our partners now that we have a more defined view of ourselves--our buyers, our customers that come through our website, our partners that we work with. You naturally life will gravitate towards some partners more than others because you have more knowledge of of who you are.
CK: Right. Which is really interesting too. So you're sold in your brand is sold in a lot of major retail outlets. Has this changed that approach that you're taking to that or maybe you could start by talking a little bit about how you built some of those relationships to begin with and then talk about whether this focus on really defining your personality has changed the way you approach that at all.
DL: Yeah I think we started at the time where the whole athleisure trend also started. So we really entered the market at the right time when people were starting to be more interested in wellness, in health, in activewear. And so we were very fortunate our first season when we launched to have Equinox as one of our key partners. They actually put us in most of their best locations for Season 1 which was amazing. We were also very very fortunate to launch the same time as two of our biggest partners, Bandier and Carbon 38. So you know we kind of all grew up together which is a really nice feeling. And I actually met both the founders of Bandier and carbon's through just like my network that had built up before.
Funny story was that I was connected with the founder of Bandier Jennifer through social media at the time in 2013. Her trainer started following up on Instagram and she actually reached out and said, oh my client starting a new activewear athleisure--I don't think athleisure was even a word back then. Like a new activewear store, you guys should connect. We did that and now here we are four years later with a great relationship with them. So it's really cool. I think like you know we found them in so many different ways and I'm just like really, it's really cool to see how far everybody's come since then.
CK: Yeah right it's like a cohort or like a shared shared experience.
DL: Yeah yeah exactly.
CK: Well to talk a little bit more about sort of the business aspect of the business I know you through our parents and some of your previous employers kind of exposed you to the world of entrepreneurship even before you started your own business. I wondered if there were lessons you took from those early days that helped you when you set the goal of launching your own venture.
DL: Ah, definitely. I think you know the more the more I was confident in my own abilities through like just learning from people observing my parents and kind of talking to them it really helped give me the confidence to start ALALA and kind of venture out on my own. From my parents, they're both entrepreneurs. I just learned the value of hard work and perseverance. I've seen them work hard for so many years on their own and really like you know have good times and bad times with their own businesses that I was prepared for the highs and lows of what was to come. And just I think having their support to venture out on my own was a very key part of my journey. You know I think a lot of times when people think about starting their own thing like it's really important to have that support from the people closest to you because it's scary enough as it is. And if you really have a lot of people telling you don't do it, stay at your job, just be comfortable you know just climb the corporate ladder. I do think that can be a hindrance to your early success and early development of of your business. So I'm very grateful for their support and their teachings of hard work and like I said perseverance.
From my last boss who was also an entrepreneur, a serial entrepreneur and investor and has done very well for himself. I learned a lot of stuff from him. And one of the biggest lessons I took away from my three years of working with him was really the lesson of, it's better to make a quick bad decision than a slow good decision. And that's something that I've taken to heart in my own business. And I think what he meant by that and what I've taken from that is really that there's an importance to momentum and making things happen quickly instead of trying to get things perfectly right. And I think his reasoning behind that was really that if you're a smart person, you're confident in yourself and you trust your gut. Most of the time you're going to make the right decision and not make too many bad decisions. But even if you do make the bad decisions you are able to make them quickly and adjust to whatever decision you made and then pivot off of that and make it another quick decision hopefully in a better direction.
There's a lot to be said about entrepreneurship and the risk that you're taking with it. There's never clear answers. Right. And you're always making decisions with imperfect or incomplete information.
I see a lot of people that I talk to people want to start their own businesses get kind of paralyzed by this fear that you know what if this doesn't work. What if you know this is a bad decision. What if I do this and something bad happens to me afterwards and that makes them actually not make decisions at all which to me is worse than making a bad decision and being able to change it quickly when you realize that was the bad one.
Business moves so fast and it moves so quickly and opportunities don't stick around forever. Especially in a space as competitive as ours. You really need to be prepared to act quickly if you want to be successful.
CK: Can you think of an example at all of when that that did work out well for you?
DL: We were brought the opportunity to participate in this really cool event out in L.A. by one of our partners. But it was a very very quick turn around and actually you like a little bit too quick for anybody to be comfortable with. There was a lot of moving parts and kind of a lot of things that were a little bit unknown to us. But just like kind of evaluating that potential gain from that experience was enough for us to say, OK we're going to take the risk and take on whatever travel cost inventory cost you know investment we need to make in this project and really kind of see how it goes versus sitting around which we were actually going to do like sit around and pass on it. And it turned out to be an amazing event. We met so many great people we actually met Jeana from aSweatLife there which is how I'm speaking with you today. It turned out to be one of the best events we did. So you know really not knowing very much going into it and getting such a positive experience at the end was like really cool.
CK: Well that was a great experience to hear about and I'd imagine that you are taking that attitude forward into some of your future goals too. So the other big question we ask on #WeGotGoals is a big goal you have for the future and how you plan to achieve that one.
DL: So a big goal we have for the future of ALALA l is really like building our ALALA community and connecting more with our customers. You know we think that again in such a crowded market and such a kind of trying time for retail in general, it's really important to have a personal connection as much as possible with the people who are spending their hard-earned money on your clothes. So it is a very big goal for us to connect more have more face time with our customers and understand their needs and really try and help serve them.
CK: What are some of the ways practically speaking that you're making that happen?
DL: So we're investing in customer service, really spending more time and energy improving the customer service experience so that if you're e-mailing us or you have a question about sizing on the website or any kind of styling question you would be able to talk to a real person and really get an individual answer for your questions. And the other thing we're doing is a little bit of surprise and delight for our customers. Every year actually we've done a Thanksgiving thank you gift to a lot of our customers. We send them an item from the line that you know is just a thank you for being a customer with us this year. And I feel like that's really resonated a lot with people who feel like you know we're not just a brand that's here to take your money or just to make a profit off of you. We're actually very appreciative and grateful for the connection that we have with our customers.
CK: Well Denise, it's been great talking with you. I am curious too--how did that triathlon go and do you have any other personal fitness goals coming up?
DL: That triathlon went really well! I have to say like swimming in open water is pretty scary but I did do a couple more after that though. So it's been great. And on the personal side I've actually been really enjoying both personal training and boxing. So those two are kind of my things right now.
CK: Well those are also just coincidentally in line with your with your three adjectives too.
DL: Yeah, there you go! I love it.
CK: Perfect. Well Denise, I can't thank you enough for joining us today on the #WeGotGoals pocast. Really appreciate your time. And I wish you the best of luck in achieving that goal.
DL: Thank you Cindy.