TORONTO – North America’s traditional athleisure players may well be showing a little more “R-e-s-p-e-c-t,” as Aretha Franklin once crooned, to Canadian label Respect Your Universe in August as the company ventures into the U.S. market and aims to turn its urban athletic apparel into a global lifestyle brand.
“Other brands may take you from a workout to a coffee shop. But with our exclusive patents and technology, RYU can take today’s active man or woman from the gym to the office, a restaurant or other urban settings without ever compromising their style or comfort. That’s a big point of difference in today’s retail market,” said RYU president and chief executive officer Marcello Leone, who chose Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, Calif., as the site for the company’s first American flagship.
Launching on Thursday with other locations to follow in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in late September and Newport Beach, Calif., shortly thereafter, the expansion kicks into gear with RYU targeting smaller “community” markets across the U.S. that are densely populated with educated, wealthy and fitness-conscious 20- to 50-year-olds.
“These locations are nothing like Fifth Avenue in New York City, where there’s this constant in and out of tourists coming through. They’re more local and community-driven. That sensibility is part of our brand philosophy and DNA,” Leone said.
Distinguished by its more tailored cut and fit, RYU’s focus on innovation, fashion and functional performance figures prominently in its messaging to American consumers.
“As we enter a crowded space of athletic apparel, we do so having 22 patents in fabrication, style and design,” said Leone. That includes such performance- and comfort-enhancing features like RYU’s TriLayr waistband on its women’s tights; the gusset underneath the arms in most of its tops, and the construction of its hoods and Quick & Locker backpacks.
Over the next 18 months, North American consumers can expect to see six or seven new hero products debut in RYU’s minimalist flagships, including a trainer; swimwear for both sexes; performance-based lingerie; and outerwear for men and women, which will roll into stores in August.
All these elements – along with RYU’s brand credo, store activations with fitness trainers and chefs, and fashion-influenced basics ranging in price from $40 for tanks to $245 for duffel bags – took time to evolve under Leone.
Formerly vice president of operations at Canadian luxury retailer Leone, which was founded in Vancouver in 1987 by his parents Maria and Alberto Leone, Marcello left the business in 2009 to build a new business. He stumbled across RYU in 2011 when it was then a Portland, Ore.-based outfit specializing in workout gear for mixed martial arts.
When that initial company fizzled out in 2014, Leone took over the business, relocated it to Vancouver and began its transformation into an upscale, high-performance brand. Since its official relaunch in 2015, RYU has opened five stores across Canada and shipped through its e-commerce capabilities to 35 countries, including Australia, China, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S.
The fledgling business also raised 47 million Canadian dollars, or $36.1 million, from investors who include NFL and NBA athletes as well as several members of Justin Bieber’s family.
“We’re excited to have big-name investors. But RYU was never about being a billboard at the Super Bowl to promote an athlete. The brand is the brand and its message is to do good and change the world,” said Leone, who admits to having an immediate emotional reaction when he first heard the words “Respect Your Universe.”
“Right off the bat, they reminded me of when I was young and people would get bullied. But they also got me thinking more broadly about respecting your wife, your kids, as well as the athlete that exists in all of us and the passions that drive our lives outside of a gym,” he said.
That perspective is what U.S. consumers may ultimately find most appealing as RYU’s store rollouts continue and the company launches its new website in November.
“At the end of the day, we definitely see ourselves growing into more of a lifestyle brand as the needs of our tribe grow and have to be served,” said Leone. “We’re not fashion but we never for a moment forget that people want excitement. They want pleasure, interest and purpose from a brand. Shopping has to be a magical experience today and if you don’t do what you must to have that emotional connection with consumers, don’t bother to go into retail.”