With the launch of Wone activewear, Kristin Hildebrand literally wants to know her customers.
After runs in design at Nike, Target, C&C California and other brands, she decided to offer a more personalized direct-to-consumer operation. Launched this spring in Portland, Ore., Wone is a direct-to-consumer business that offers limited-run styles, designed to simplify wearers’ lives. During an interview Thursday morning, Hildebrand and her husband and business partner Ryan discussed their mindful approach to consumerism.
The couple met while she was creating Portland’s first meditation center in 2013, when the health and wellness trend had not yet set in. “Everybody thought I was weird and that meditation was strange. They said, ‘How are you going to commercialize that? No one is going to go to classes.’”
When they met, they shared a similar ethos, as he had just returned from a meditation retreat in Cambodia after Simple, the commercial banking start-up he was working for was sold to the Spanish bank BBVA. He has a new company Seed.co, which facilitates banking for start-ups. Expecting their third child in late August, their lives are considerably more demanding, but they still believe in a less-is-more mentality. Referring to her former roles with large corporations, Kristin said, “Inevitably what would happen is that product would get sent out, we would never have feedback from the actual customers that this was going to.”
Rooted in self-actualization, the self-funded brand aims to be a guiding force in people’s lives, she said. That sounds like one tall order. But Hildebrand said the company “drafts off Daoism and Stoicism, but it’s really about simplicity, discipline and honesty.” From a product standpoint, the simplicity can be found in the primarily black collection, which is meant to avoid any excess inventory. The highly focused styles are engineered with minimal seams to simplify consumers’ lives and save time when getting dressed. “I hated this whole ath-leisure deal, because it makes you look lazy even though you are a type-A personality going to the gym, meetings and what have you.”
“I think the industry in general has a certain amount of dishonesty. In that, you’re not totally upfront about where your product is being produced and the treatments it is going through. Designers, for the most part, are not fully aware of what goes on behind-the-scenes,” she said. “There is a lot of dirty stuff that goes one. I really don’t want that in my future and in this brand, so we’re trying to be as transparent as possible.”
The debut collection consists of French fabrics and the second collection will be made of French, Italian and other European fabrics. (The second one will be produced in Los Angeles.) The first run has 600 units of each style — all of which are numbered on the interior label to give the shopper a greater sense of exclusivity. The second run will be even more limited, with 350 units of each style planned. “Everywhere I had been felt like there were pieces of the business model that were broken. From a merchandising perspective, it felt really wasteful, as well as allocation and what have you,” she said.
While major brands source fabrics that are in the $2-to-$4-per-yard range, Wone’s fabrics are $20 to $30 per yard. One top is made of the same fabric used for the yellow jersey that the winner of the Tour de France wears, Hildebrand said. “My intent is that if I’m happy and my customer is happy, that is a definition of success.”
The escalated retail prices were another reason to sell direct-to-consumer, with leggings at $320, a bra top at $150 and tops around $200, Hildebrand said. Consumers need to be approved before shopping online, and once they are, they have one-week access. With a waiting list in place, the founder said, “We actually Google everyone. The thing is we want to know who our customers are. It’s very different than having a mass of customers, e-mail marketing and Google ads. That’s not who we are as people or is aspirational for us as a company,” she said.
Wone expects to sell about 15,000 units in its first year, Ryan Hildebrand said. Turning over her smartphone, which has a sticker, “Social media really harms your mental health,” Hildebrand said the plan is to reel in customers through word-of-mouth. By keeping a limited base, Hildebrand said she is able to connect with shoppers who may need an order prioritized, an item tailored or have a question. “You can e-mail me or call me, but I can’t do that if I’ve got tens of thousands of customers. The way I look at it, if you’re buying from me, you’re supporting my business and I’m going to support you.”
Allowing that the concept may come across as its excluding people, Hildebrand said it’s more a matter of prioritizing the people who support us. “I would love that from a brand. Even though I was spending hundreds of dollars, I was getting a generic e-mail marketing push and thinking, ‘How is this possible?’“ she said.