#edGY: Taking on Lorna Jane

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THE first Lorna Jane concept store in Malaysia received an overwhelming response on its opening day, much to the surprise of founders Daphne Sim and Christine Mah. They are responsible for bringing one of Australia’s biggest home-grown fitness brands to the country and opening its first concept store in Asia.

Lorna Jane, which commenced operations in mid-September at Bangsar Village II, offers fitness apparel for women that are fashionable, comfortable and of high quality. The collection includes sports bras and jackets, with prices ranging from RM100 to RM500.

“The response has been quite overwhelming. We actually exceeded our targeted sales on opening day,” co-founder Mah smiles. “There is a niche market for people who appreciate quality stuff, but it’s so hard to find quality [fitness wear] in Malaysia. We figured this is the potential gap that we can come in and fill.”

Lorna Jane was founded 25 years ago by fitness instructor Lorna Jane Clarkson. It is an award-winning, multi-million-dollar business empire with 156 stores worldwide. According to Euromonitor International, the activewear brand has the third largest sportswear market share in Australia behind Nike and Adidas. The Courier-Mail reports that Lorna Jane posted a 52% profit growth to A$19.2 million last year.

This is the first time workout buddies Sim and Mah have gone into business together. They come from different working backgrounds but each brought her unique set of skills to the business. Sim, 27, is a former chartered accountant turned fitness junkie while Mah, 32, works as a marketing manager at a fitness studio.

They first met at a fitness convention two years ago and shared a similar desire to start a lifestyle and fitness business. Together, they formed Believe Active, a fitness company that offers quality and affordable health products online. Now, the firm is the exclusive distributor of Lorna Jane activewear in Malaysia.

Sim says although the price may be a bit hefty for some, consumers should give the apparel a try. She is confident that they will return and be addicted to the brand’s range of products.

Both Sim and Mah live and breathe the brand’s values as the apparel provides women with a sense of comfort and confidence. Sim adds that she proudly wears Lorna Jane products everywhere she goes as “they fit like a dream”. Moisture-wicking and fade-resistant materials are used to make Lorna Jane activewear.

“I would definitely say our products are superior to everything else in the market. It’s not comparable because of the cut, quality and design. Our stuff are more of a premium range and after customers try our products, they will never look back. It’s just different than what you can find in the market nowadays,” she says earnestly.

Mah concurs: “Our neon collection is different from the other brands. Women who come here want something different. They want to trade their old baggy gym attire for something that fits them comfortably and they can still look good exercising.”

Bringing the brand to Malaysia

Before their bricks-and-mortar presence, Sim and Mah were selling Lorna Jane apparel online. They say it wasn’t easy getting the approval to bring the brand to Malaysia as the requirements are strict.

“When I went to see Lorna Jane Clarkson in person, I brought a lot of money because you have to be prepared to spend a few million in order to bring the brand in. I showed the market size, the market growth ability and all the relevant data to prove how serious I was. And from there, we just worked it out,” says Sim.

“You have to slowly gain their trust. I had to spend at least six months training and after I passed the training, everything was good to go,” she explains.

The wait was worth it, they say. It took them nearly a year to get the green light from the company’s headquarters in Australia. Sim and Mah decline to disclose the exact amount needed to set up the concept store.

Mah emphasises that this business is not a franchise but they do welcome stockists, who are required to seek approval from the Lorna Jane head office.

“They can still talk to us. We can act as the middle person and help connect them with the headquarters. The standards of opening up a store are really strict. It doesn’t mean that if you have the money, you can bring the brand in,” Mah explains.

“For the Lorna Jane company, money is not the main thing. They want to ensure that the image and quality are intact and the business must be running smoothly to avoid tarnishing the brand’s reputation.”

Sim and Mah chose to open their first bricks-and-mortar store in Bangsar Village because of its strategic location. They believe the mall provides them with the right clientele.

“When we told them [the leasing department] we wanted to open Lorna Jane’s first store, they were excited because it works as branding for them. It gives them a chance to let people know that they have the first Lorna Jane store. We are not specifically targeting the expatriates, we want to share this amazing brand with the local women here,” says Mah.

She adds that they are planning to open two more outlets next year. The bubbly entrepreneurs have expressed an interest in bringing more fitness brands to Malaysia but at present, they are aggressively working on building a stronger Lorna Jane presence in the country.

They plan to host events similar to Active Nation Day, which was initiated by Clarkson herself, to inspire women to be more active.

This article first appeared in #edGY, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 3 - 9, 2014.