Anne Kelly, founder and president of JunoActive in Mendota Heights, describes her company as a niche of a niche. It offers plus-size activewear for women at higher-than-average prices. The former catalog business, now online, sells swimwear, activewear, intimates and athletic shoes for women size 14 to 6x. Dresses, suitcoats and blouses have never been part of the mix, despite customers’ requests. Since she started the company in 1995, Kelly has resisted opening a retail store because the profit margins were better online. But more than a week ago, she opened Juno’s first foray into bricks and mortar at Mall of America. It’s on the first floor in the athleisure wing that includes Athleta, Lululemon and Fabletics. Kelly, 64, talked to the Star Tribune about why she decided to open her first retail store when so many apparel stores are closing and even athleisure star Lululemon appears to be lagging.
Q: Why venture into retail when bricks and mortar is so beleaguered?
A: Growth in e-commerce is getting more and more expensive. We wanted another channel to be less dependent on e-commerce. As a small company we think to be contrarian is a huge opportunity.
Q: What appealed to you about Mall of America?
A: There’s more people aware of our brand at Mall of America. About 98 percent of our customers live outside of Minnesota, and we wanted a place with as many tourists as Mall of America. We’re in a beautiful spot in the heart of the fashion front. We’re close to the Apple and Microsoft stores too, so we’re hoping for good traffic counts. The mall can expand our visibility and reach.
Q: The store has been open only 10 days, but what have you already learned?
A: Customers coming into the store give very specific advice. They tell us they want more stomach control in active pants and more high-control sport bras. We’re small enough that we can get our director of merchandise and sales on it within three days.
Q: How long of a lease did you sign?
A: It’s a 12-month lease, part of the mall’s temporary leasing program.
Q: What should plus-size women unfamiliar with JunoActive know about the brand?
A: We pay a lot of attention to fit. We spend a lot of time shaping arm holes and determining the neckline on a swimsuit and making sure the back is cute and sexy. We want women to enjoy wearing our clothes and collect compliments. We use really good fabrics because we want the clothes to last.
Q: Many of your items have a high-tech element.
A: We take a functional approach, so we’ll look at the same fabrics that marathoners use. Fabrics that stretch, reduce chafing and reduce moisture. Our SoftWik collection is very popular. The fabric is so yummy you just want to pet it. We make leggings, capris and T-shirts out of it. QuikWik is a heavier fabric that’s made domestically. We make bottoms and bra tops out of it. We’re working with an Italian swimwear company on a fabric they use for competitive swimmers. I keep an eye on the high-tech market.
Q: I’m guessing these are not inexpensive fabrics.
A: We’re upper moderate. Women can always find a cheaper legging, but I challenge them to find one that lasts as long and feels as good. There are a lot of plus-size women out there, but not all of them are looking for quality at a higher price point. We’re not Wal-Mart or Target.
Q: Shoes are a recent addition. What’s your thinking about shoes?
A: We brought in Altra shoes from Icon that focus on the runner’s market. They have a wider toe box and no raised heel. They’re extremely comfortable. I don’t think anyone else at the mall sells them.
Q: Your company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2012. What happened?
A: After the recession our customers just quit buying. The plus-size customer cut back even more. She puts herself last. We did a reorganization not because of the fundamentals, but mostly because an old warehouse partner threatened a large lawsuit.
Q: You don’t mail out catalogs anymore. How has it affected the business to be strictly e-commerce?
A: Revenues used to be much higher with the catalog, about $12 million in 2001-2002. We’re in the $3 million to $5 million range after we stopped selling national brands like Danskin, but with control of our own label, profits are much better. With the catalog, we had to have a ton of stuff in the warehouse, but with e-commerce we can bring things in more slowly. We’re seeing growth in the 5 to 15 percent range in the past two years.
Q: Your company was originally called Junonia. In 2012, you renamed it JunoActive. Why did you choose Juno, the Roman goddess of love?
A: From the beginning, it was a way to name the company after a woman who’s powerful and supreme. In art, she’s always represented as a large woman but one who’s also body positive.