Free Country, which was founded 25 years ago as a men’s skiwear brand, is taking the plunge into women’s activewear for fall.
Called Free2B by Free Country, the new collection zeroes in on the red-hot ath-leisure trend with its active-inspired assortment of leggings, yoga pants, shirts and jackets that work as well in the gym as they do in the coffee shop. But what sets Free2B apart from its competitors is its price point. Retail prices for the line range from $40 to $80 retail.
The moderate prices are a hallmark of Free Country, which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. The company was founded by Ira Schwartz, who grew up in the fashion business, cutting his teeth at the family’s retail chain Fur Vault Inc. His uncle was Fred the Furrier and his brother is Andrew Marc of the leather goods brand.
He worked at the family business early on in his life, but after five years, decided that wasn’t the path he wanted to take. He moved to Colorado to attend college and it was there that he learned to embrace the outdoor life.
He returned to New York City and recalled walking through Macy’s coat department and realizing there was “nothing there I’d want to wear.” That lightbulb moment prompted him to use his experience in the outerwear business and create Free Country. “All those wool coats motivated me,” he said with a laugh.
The label started as a men’s ski brand, and over the years added other categories including outerwear and activewear that offered high-performance fabrics and detailing with contemporary styling. When Schwartz’s wife Jody joined the company in 1994, Free Country branched out into women’s wear, which now represents 58 percent of its annual sales of more than $100 million.
Today, the brand offers outerwear, activewear, swimwear, cold-weather accessories and even some home goods. Its offering is sold at major department stores such as Kohl’s and J.C. Penney as well as sporting goods specialists including Bass Pro Shops.
“Ladies are looking for more lifestyle product,” said Schwartz, explaining the thinking behind the launch of Free2B. “We’ve always been in the active business, but we weren’t making active sportswear.”
He said the Free2B launch is “timely. We feel it’s a lifestyle trend, coming from the street, not the runway.”
Brian Drennen, vice president of sales, said the brand has owned the name for a long time and felt this was the right time to bring it back. “We feel it’s on trend and makes her feel more empowered,” he said. “She’ll feel comfortable and look good, but there’s also a functional component. It’s not just another legging.” Silhouettes are designed to make women look trim, many of the pieces are intended to be layered — embracing another strong fashion trend — and there are feminine details such as ruching. There are around 50 stockkeeping units in the launch collection.
With the introduction of Free2B as well as the other categories, Free Country now has developed a year-round assortment of merchandise, which leads Schwartz to believe the time is right to open stores. “Wholesale is a challenging model,” he said. “So we want to build retail stores. Now that we have enough product, we’re hoping to open one this year.” Tops on his wish list are Austin, Tex., Portland, Ore., Boston and other cities that “cater to the active life.”
With technical jackets that open at $120 for basics and tops that sell for $40, Schwartz is confident that consumers seeking high performance at a moderate price will find something they like in the Free Country collection. “We have a first price, right price strategy,” Schwartz said. “We take the risk it will sell through. That’s our secret sauce.”