The interview: Sisters, Directors and co-founders of YANA Active, Charlotte and Sophie Wilson

YANA Active
Sophie (l) and Charlotte Wilson

Based in Newcastle, sisters Charlotte and Sophie Wilson launched their YANA Active brand, “combining comfort, performance and high-end style” in December 2019, working on it at every available moment while still holding down full-time jobs.

Funded by themselves, and after making a “significant investment in stock” to take to fitness events up and down the UK, along came Covid-19 and the first lockdown in March 2020, scuppering all their plans.

Despite such a massive set-back, and not being able to meet with potential new customers to show them their products, they managed to pivot their business to an online focus with social media and word of mouth being key.

They also managed to secure pop-up spaces in the John Lewis store in Newcastle in October, 2020, and in Leeds in December, before Lockdown 3. And the first week in June saw them triumphantly return to do another pop-up in John Lewis Newcastle, with fresh products which have sustainability at the core.

The sisters talk candidly about the challenges of launching a brand during a pandemic, and growing a loyal following in such as short space of time.

Are you from Newcastle originally?

Sophie: We’re based in Newcastle, but we’re both originally from North Yorkshire. We moved to Newcastle for university. Charlotte stayed, but I moved to London for four years before moving back when the pandemic hit in March last year.

How did you launch and how do you run a business and grow a brand just in your spare time?

Sophie: With us both working full-time it’s certainly not been easy!  I’m a Programme Manager and Charlotte is a Talent Acquisition Partner. We spend all of our spare time working on YANA, including very early mornings before work, after work and most of our weekends. If we take holidays from our full-time jobs, we spend all of our spare time working on YANA. And any days off we have are usually spent doing some kind of work on YANA, whether that be designing, manufacturing, meetings or new photoshoots. We launched YANA Active in December 2019, but we’d actually been working on the brand since January 2018. We would love to go full-time on YANA, and we were encouraged to by so many people pre-Covid. However, when the pandemic hit, our full-time jobs provided us with a level of security that YANA wouldn’t have been able to, as it was such a new business. We were glad we hadn’t taken the advice of others to give our full-time roles up at such an early stage, as we would likely be in a very different position now. Eventually we will look to work on YANA full-time, but it will take some time to get there.

How difficult has it been to grow during the pandemic?

Sophie: At the start of 2020, not long after we launched, we made significant investments in stock to take to many fitness events up and down the country. In March 2020, when Covid-19 came into focus, those large events all started to cancel and we lost out on many opportunities to meet with potential new customers and show them our products. As our products are luxury activewear items, it makes all the difference for a customer to see and feel our products before they purchase, so they can see why they’re worth investing in. We couldn’t just launch YANA and expect people to buy our products online immediately. We’d always planned to launch online and then hold a series of pop-up shops and attend events across the country to showcase the YANA brand and get to know our customers. It takes time to build trust between a new brand and new customers, so despite online sales increasing for many businesses, we found ourselves struggling to reach people and we didn’t have the cash in our business to invest in marketing, as it had been spent on stock!

That being said, we still had some amazing achievements in our first year. We’ve been featured in Grazia, Stylist, Women’s Running, The Mail on Sunday and many more, as well as securing a series of pop-up shops with retail giant, John Lewis. We did the first one in the retailer’s Newcastle store for a week in October, 2020, then we did one in the John Lewis store in Leeds in December, 2020 – both in the womenswear departments.

From starting out, we’ve grown our social media pages from zero to over 4,000 supporters, and we have supported local charities such as Newcastle Women’s Aid and Teesside Hospice to help them during the pandemic and beyond – something that sits at the heart of YANA.

How have you found the journey so far?

Charlotte: At times it has been a real struggle. When you give your everything to make something a success, and it’s not quite going how you envisioned it, it can be quite mentally draining. On the other hand, we’ve found it has opened up a side of the business we didn’t think we’d be able to spend so much time on – the community aspect. We’ve found that Covid-19, despite the obvious downsides, has brought people together and has allowed us as a brand to offer support to our customers who needed it most. That support could be anything from working with fitness experts to offering free workouts, fun YANA and YOU (YAY!) videos such as Zoom-ready make-up tutorials and cooking classes, or even simple motivational quotes to keep peoples’ spirits up. We’ve found through the pandemic that meaningful experiences with your customers mean more than anything else. We’ve come out of this pandemic with a whole new perspective on our business, and it’s really put our key business aims into focus.

 

Do you see the boom in activewear continuing?

Charlotte: We’ve certainly seen a shift in fashions over the lockdown periods. People are more inclined to wear activewear on a daily basis as it’s comfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time. People have incorporated activewear into their everyday wardrobe. Activewear isn’t just used for fitness any longer, it’s used by people to go about their daily activities in comfort and style.

Is that what you mean by people wearing activewear “on the daily”?

Charlotte: Yes, as people wear activewear more frequently than they used to. Where they perhaps used to wear jeans or other items, people are now more inclined to wear activewear to go about their daily business such as shopping, working, socialising and so on, as well as exercising.

Have a lot more people got into fitness – and activewear – as a result of the pandemic?

Sophie: We’ve certainly seen a big shift in the way people train. When the pandemic started, we saw people purchasing activewear to wear working out at home, but also to wear “on the daily”. For us, we’ve lived in our activewear since March last year and wearing comfortable, reliable and high-quality clothing has been so key to making the ‘at-home’ work experience that little bit more bearable.

In terms of people getting into fitness, we’ve noticed more people out exercising more – even if they’ve just been going for a walk and exploring their local area, as people couldn’t do much else for such a long time!

We’ve also noticed that a lot more people have got into home workouts from fitness trainers like Joe Wicks, Courtney Black and, closer to home, our brand ambassador Meg Fynn (MoveByMeg).

Does YANA stand for anything?

Charlotte: Our name doesn’t actually stand for anything, but we were inspired by the strong female Amazonian tribes who were all about female empowerment, sisterhood and strength. We wanted to build that strength into YANA. If you look closely, you can see that our logo spells our name.

Who is your real target market?

Charlotte: Our target market is women who want to feel empowered and who want to empower others. One of our key philosophies at YANA is sisterhood. As sisters ourselves, there’s a very strong bond. We support each other no matter what and we want other women to feel that connection too. Sexism and misogyny are still rife, despite it being 2021! We can work together to help one another, breaking down stereotypes and building each other up. We wanted YANA to help empower as many women as possible by creating multifunctional, ethical, sustainable and stylish activewear to help them go about their daily activities, as well as creating a supportive community for women to interact with one another.

What are the price points like?

Sophie: We have a range of key activewear pieces, from our cellulite combatting leggings which start at £65 a pair, our bamboo and mesh vests, which are priced at £30, and our crops (bras) which start from £40. There’s also a range of accessories starting with towels at £10, and there’s caps and yoga mats too.

What are the key pieces?

Charlotte: Our best-sellers are our cellulite combatting leggings. The leggings utilise a special technology that helps to reduce the appearance of cellulite over prolonged periods of time. It also helps that they are squat proof and sweat wicking, two major problems that women often face when choosing a pair of leggings. We recently launched an ‘I Pledge Yoga’ box, which helps remove self-limiting beliefs with motivational quotes and yoga poses, as well as a hand poured candle called white sands – a calming box and the perfect gift. Our hoodie is also a great seller, super soft, comfortable and it washes well. Our customers love it.

How do you intend to take your product offering forward?

Charlotte: We will continue to work on products that our customers really want or where there is a gap in the market. We will develop products moving forward to some specific fitness related activities, but the beauty of our YANA activewear range is that it is very multifunctional – activewear you can wear to the gym, for a coffee, to sit in all day if you are working from home, or to even style up to wear out.

What’s next?

Sophie: We’re launching our eco-friendly range for summer. As a brand, we aim to be sustainable and ethical, which is one of the main reasons we manufacture so many of our garments in the UK. Over the next few years, we want our product offerings to be sourced from UK manufacturers wherever possible, and we want to make more use of recycled fabrics and materials. Our new range of activewear will contain recycled materials from fishing nets and even carpets!

What different product categories do you currently have and what will you be adding later this year or next? 

Charlotte: Our activewear is all multifunctional, meaning you can use it for numerous fitness activities such as running, HIIT workouts, weightlifting, yoga and more. We already have some key pieces specifically for running and yoga, but we try to keep our products multifunctional so you can get as much use out of them as possible. New products we are launching soon will be shorts, a new long line crop, some jumpers and a new T-shirt.

Do you have any plans for own bricks and mortar retail going forward perhaps?

Sophie: We’d love to have our own studio, fitness and retail space one day. We’ve had it planned in our minds for a long time and know exactly how it would look, what we’d call it and what we’d offer, but for the moment we will focus on our online side.

Are there more pop-ups planned?

Sophie: We’ve literally just done another one in the John Lewis store in Newcastle, and we’ve got others planned for elsewhere later this year. We love working with small boutique gyms and fitness studios with pop-ups, as it means we can work together with other small businesses to offer customers something special and unique.

How do you promote your brand and what’s your USP compared to other activewear brands?

Charlotte: We like to think our products provide a USB (unique selling benefit) to our customers. Also, as many of our products are manufactured in the UK, we help to support the local economy while also keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible. All our products are manufactured around 30 miles away from our HQ. We promote YANA as a high-end luxury activewear brand which has timeless design, fit for a tribe of ‘Everyday Warriors’ who support one another.

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