The Interview: Alex Vanthournout, founder, Fashercise
Fashercise is where fitness meets fashion and it has just opened its first ever store at 46 Monmouth Street in Seven Dials, London. Hands-on founder, Alex Vanthournout, is very much learning the retail ropes on the shop floor. She talks about her journey from fashion journalist and blogger to the development of Fashercise, which caters for women of all shapes and sizes
What’s your background?
I was a freelance fashion journalist in a previous life. I was based here but working for Elle magazine in Belgium, where I’m from originally, among other publications and newspapers. The I kind of accidentally became a blogger. I’m a dinosaur in that field now, but at the time is was very new and I was part of that first generation that did it professionally. It was a fashion and lifestyle blog called Alex Loves (alexloves.com), which is still floating out there on the internet! I did that professionally for about five years. I got to a point where I wanted to change something, so I started a second blog about fitness and fashion, which I called Fashercise.
When did you launch Fashercise?
I originally started the website on my own as a blog, which quickly developed into an online retailer in 2014 with the help of a business partner. As of 2019, I took full control back and I’m running the business on my own again. I really started out in a small way from my kitchen table, but it’s been slowly growing and, in the last couple of years, I’ve done a couple of pop-up shops, as I always felt there was room for a physical space. I then decided to take the plunge with this permanent shop in Seven Dials. I think it’s the perfect match for me. It’s all been about organic growth for me, as my background is not running a business.
Do you think you hit on the activewear phenomenon at the right time?
I think I was really ahead of the curve and very lucky because of that. I’ve seen many competitors start and go in the past few years but, because I was very early in this story, I think a lot of people just know and trust Fashercise. As my background was in fashion, I was automatically looking at sportswear from a fashion perspective. The things I was buying for myself were always about how I could make them look good, and whether I could go out for brunch wearing them other than just wearing them in the gym.
I used to be really embarrassed going to the gym, as sportswear was so horrendous, but then all these little brands started appearing. I think it’s a great industry to work in because it promotes a healthier and happier lifestyle. The reason I carry so many American and Australian brands is probably because the phenomenon has been going on for much longer in those countries, so there’s more brands on offer. In the UK, I think Sweaty Betty were probably the first to really hone in on the lifestyle aspect of working out. I think a lot of women like to go to the gym, but then also want to drop off their children in their sportswear, so it needs to look nice.
What makes your approach different from, say, Sweaty Betty?
The brands that I stock definitely have a point of difference. Although Sweaty Betty were one of the first, I don’t think they push the boundaries in terms of the fashion aspect. Some of the brands that I carry I think are a bit more daring and definitely make more of a statement. I think online we have a different audience to what we will have in store. It’s early days, but I might have to assess who my customer will be in store as opposed to online where I probably have a slightly older demographic, more like 35-50 years old. What we stock is quite luxurious, so we sell to a lot of professional women in the city who love to spend money on good quality activewear. But we also have a younger customer who is really into it because of the statement in makes. We have these two very defined groups of people shopping with us.
Is social media an important tool to promote your business?
Social media is one of the strongest spaces in doing what we do. This is a completely self-funded business, so we don’t have huge marketing budgets for advertising. Social media is such a great way to reaching out to your customer base directly. Instagram particularly is a really powerful tool because that’s how we can share with our dream customers that we have something new or what’s going on.
We were quite lucky in being one of the first to take the fashionable activewear route in the UK, so we built that base fairly quickly. I try to post on Instagram two or three times a day, but at the moment it’s a bit of a struggle as I’m a bit busy doing everything in store. We have around 16,000 followers and I can really tell a difference with business when I post, as people do need to have that constant reminder on their screens to say ‘we’re here!’ Posting two or three times a day seems to be that happy spot, as you don’t want to bombard people with too much either. It’s finding a balance. We also have a newsletter data base which has been growing organically. We have about 10,000 people signed up to that now.
What kind of brands do you sell?
We now sell about 35 different brands of activewear and everything around it, so accessories, shoes and so on. My whole vision for Fashercise was having an alternative to the Nike’s of the world, so focusing on smaller designers which, at the time, was a very new market. Now it’s a lot bigger and more developed. At the start, I could barely scrape 10 brands together. If I say which brands I started off with, unfortunately none of those brands still exist. It really was just very young companies.
We now sell Khloe Kardashian’s Good American brand, which has its own cult following and I got it exclusively for the UK for a very short time, Varley and a lot of Australian brands including L’urv, which does really well, and The Upside. I’ve also just added adidas by Stella McCartney. Although I’ve always said I wouldn’t have a big brand that’s an exception to the rule because it’s a collaboration. I generally try to source brands from all over the world. We are also very well known for our boxing gloves, which is a collaboration with a Dutch brand called Fab by Fabienne, as they were featured on the cover of The Financial Times’ ‘How to Spend It’ magazine earlier this year.
Do you carry all 35 brands in the store?
No, there’s a lot more on the website than there is in the store, but the idea of the shop is for me to really curate those brands in a more narrowed down edit. One of the things I really aim for is diversity and body positivity, so a lot of the brands I stock I try to carry standard fits to XL, and whichever brand offers larger sizes, so we go right up to 4XL with a couple of brands.
That’s why Good American decided to launch in the UK with us, because that’s exactly what they do as well. Rather than it being a plus-size brand, it’s just a brand that happens to fit every size. That was a really big launch for us online, and it’s going to get a very big push now in store as well. I’m looking at doing a shop takeover for a short time with that brand, maybe for a week or two. I’m also in talks with a couple of other brands that may be doing bigger launches and, because they may not be based in the UK, they might want to takeover the store and really show their full collection for a short period, as well as hosting events in here in collaboration with Fashercise.