19 March 2015

Health & Fitness | I Chat | Charli Cohen

Photograph courtesy of Charli Cohen

When sportswear first infiltrated the fashion capitals, no one was certain whether or not the trend was fleeting. Season after season, activewear has influenced collections and featured prominently on the catwalks. Every month seems to bring about a new collaboration, marrying the creativity and talents of a high-end designer with the mass-market appeal of a sportswear brand. To date, notable collaborations have come from Adidas, who have worked with Stella McCartney, Mary Katrantzou and Moschino game-changer Jeremy Scott. Nike is also set to release their first designer collaboration with Berlin based designer Johanna F. Schneider this month. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Nike chief executive Mark Parker explained that womenswear is a five billion dollar business for the sportswear company.

The boom of women both interested and excited equally by fitness and fashion over the past couple of years is undeniable, and a gap in the market was created for a designer activewear brand to blossom. Cue Charli Cohen, a young designer, entrepreneur and pioneer of luxe performance wear. Taking the industry by storm, Cohen launched her own t-shirt label at the young age of 15, followed by a full womenswear collection at 17. It’s unsurprising that the determined young designer won sponsorship from Lycra to fund her fitness line shortly after graduating from Kingston University.

With the help of a few extremely successful kickstarter campaigns to raise funds, the past year has been something of a whirlwind for both 23 year old Cohen and her namesake brand. The SS14 collection showed at London Fashion Week to unanimous acclaim. Vogue even took note, dressing Kate Upton in the collection for their June cover and, well, the rest is history. I sat down with Cohen to find out more:

Millie Cotton: When was it that you noticed a gap in the UK market for a performance-luxe brand?

Charli Cohen: It was towards the end of my first year at university – I was helping one of the third year students with their sports-luxe menswear collection and thought, “How amazing would this be if the performance was as great as the design?” There was nothing that really came close to doing that, other than Stella for Adidas, which seemed crazy in a sector of the market that had such potential. By then, fitness was already a massive part of my life and it made perfect sense to me not only to jump on this huge gap in the market but to consolidate my two passions through sportswear design.

MC: You’ve used Kickstarter to fund a lot of your work so far, haven’t you? Why do you think your campaigns have been so successful?

CC: A whole lot of pushing. Crowdfunding primarily relies on an extended network – not only getting your friends and family excited about your plans, but getting them excited enough that they want to tell everyone else about it! As much as press and social media is an important factor, incentivising word-of-mouth promotion was by far the most important thing. About 90% of the £33,000 I raised was through my extended network.

MC: Why did you first decide to show your collection as part of London Fashion Week?

CC: It’s key to my branding to push the fashion side as much as the fitness side. I try to innovate as much in design and aesthetics as I do in performance, and that’s something I’m keen to showcase in a fashion environment rather than just a fitness one. And, of course, I’m a born and bred London brand! London Fashion Week is a great opportunity to prove that activewear can be just as exciting as ready-to-wear.

MC: What would you say is the difference between the quality and performance of the pieces from your collection compared to a similar product that is Adidas or Nike?

CC: The bigger the brand, generally the more corners they will cut to get the cheapest mass production available. This might mean compromising design, fabric or performance, depending on what the priority or target audience is for that particular style. Charli Cohen is a premium brand and willing to pay whatever is needed to give look, feel and function equal priority – and to push all of these elements as far as they will go. Everything is produced as a limited edition in small runs. This is directly reflected in the retail price.

MC: How did your collaboration with 1Rebel, the luxurious new gym in the City, come about? Does the collection resemble your previous collections at all?

CC: 1Rebel approached me about designing for them last year and it all moved very quickly from there. They’re selling a lifestyle and fashion is very much part of that – so it made perfect brand sense to have their own exclusive line. The designs for the womenswear capsule are taken directly from my second collection in an exclusive colour way for 1Rebel. The menswear capsule is completely new, but very much in line with the CC aesthetic - I loved having the opportunity to design for men!

MC: Why do you think that fitness has become such an important and integral part of the fashion industry?

CC: How we look – whether that’s body shape and size, your skin, your apparent age – has always been especially emphasised in the fashion industry. In the past couple of years, the solution to achieving that has started to become much healthier and holistic, which has been helped along by the fashion press, who have started to introduce fitness and wellbeing pages. The fitness brands themselves have adopted far more fashion-led branding – especially the boutique workout classes, juice companies and healthy food delivery companies. Fitness brands are specifically targeting a more fashion-conscious audience, while at the same time that audience is being told that health and fitness is something they should be prioritising.

MC: Do you think women’s increased interest in fitness is a trend in itself?

CC: It’s a trend in that it’s come about quickly and it’s everywhere, but at the same time, because it’s rooted in sustainable health and wellbeing, I don’t see it going away. I think it will only become more widespread, which is great!

MC: How would you reply to those who argue that women caring about what they wear in the gym is shallow and indicates that they don’t care as much about their workout?

CC: I think it’s a ridiculous argument. How is it wrong to care about how you look? It’s a completely personal thing and if you feel better in some awesome new gear, that’s your decision. You’re not forcing everyone else to do the same. Would these people suggest that dressing well for work means that you don’t care about your job as much as you should?

MC: Do you think that wanting to look stylish in the gym distracts women from their workouts?

I think it’s the opposite. From my own experience – and a fair bit of research that seems to be popping up – looking good in the gym and having more exciting options out there for gym wear seems to be really motivational for a lot of women. I describe it as The Superhero Effect – if you look badass, you’ll feel more confident and you’ll train harder!

MC: How do you feel about brands using supermodels for fitness campaigns, such as Nike’s campaign featuring Karlie Kloss?

CC: It’s really exciting to see fitness campaigns becoming much more in line with fashion. CC is all about the crossover between the two industries and this type of imagery and association really epitomises how that’s starting to happen.

MC: What are your thoughts about brands such as Missguided, H&M and Forever 21 creating fitness lines for customers?

I think it makes total sense for the high street to capitalise on the trend. It ultimately increases awareness and demand, which has a knock on benefit for all brands in the activewear space. I think the consumer also understands that they may not get the same level of performance and technology for the lower price point.
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