Zumba employees like to tell the story of Tanya Beardsley.
Today she's a brand celebrity who appears in Zumba DVDs and videogames. But this was years ago, back when the Latin exercise-dance program was first popping up in New York City. Beardsley decided to audition for a job as an instructor at a New York gym.
Walking into the audition room, she was confronted by dozens of young women almost identically dressed in black yoga pants and black shirts, their hair pulled back in tight ponytails. Beardsley ran out to her car and retrieved a new set of clothes, then hastened to the bathroom where she changed into cargo pants and a loud shirt, attached a long chain to her belt, and pouffed out her hair.
"This is me," Beardsley thought, looking into the mirror. "This is Zumba."
No need to ask whether she got the job.
When contemplating new revenue streams, Zumba Fitness draws inspiration from its instructor community. Its foray into apparel is no exception.
Attending his first instructors convention in 2007, newly hired CFO Roberto Moreno noticed throngs of people dressed like Beardsley and speculated that Zumba could capture their loud, proud, bangly-jangly ethos in a fashion line.
Zumbawear debuted on the company's website that November--one style of T-shirt, one style of cargo pants. The company sold out of 500 of each in six weeks. Today Zumba releases 330 SKUs a year--everything from thongs to shoes to capri pants to hoodies. Last year it moved 1.8 million garments. This year it is on track to sell 3 million through Zumba.com and also through outlets including Harrod's, Princess Cruises, and 24-Hour Fitness. Aside from manufacturing, the entire process is managed in-house by a team of 25.
Zumbawear, like Zumba-everything-else, aims to help instructors make money.
An enthusiast in a supermarket line wearing candy-pink cargo pants with a Zumba logo blazed across the pocket draws attention to the brand, which in turn drives traffic to classes. Instructors can also purchase apparel in bulk at a discount and resell it to students. And under a new affiliate program, they receive commissions whenever their students buy online, using a special code.
"So the instructors don't have to guess what sizes people need or deal with customer care," says Moreno. "They no longer have to deal with inventory. They make money just spreading the word."
The clothing also reinforces the idea that Zumba is not a mere exercise program. Rather, it is an all-encompassing experience: A lifestyle.
"If you think about Rambo, before he goes into battle he is tying up his headband," says Moreno. "Or if you think about an athlete they're chalking up hands or tying up track spikes. It's this ritual that gets you into the mood. For Zumba we do the same thing. We pull on our pink cargo pants and we put on our fluorescent yellow socks and maybe we tease out our hair and we put glitter on our face and we put on our nail stickers and bracelets up our arm and now we're ready for class."
Another Zumbawear ritual involves customization. From the beginning, instructors took scissors, needle and thread to their garments, cutting fringes, and adding tassles. Youtube is home to plenty of DIY videos by Zumba enthusiasts demonstrating how to transform, say, men's shirts into cute feminine tops, or a skirt into a scarf. On dedicated Facebook pages instructors display their creations and share tips. Those videos and photos then influence the company's designs.
"How can we not go deep into this for our collections?" says Moreno. "They are putting it out there for us."
Recently, Zumba hired George Gottl, former creative director of apparel for Nike and now partner in a design firm called UXUS, to help develop the Zumbawear brand. "I think they are well positioned to become a huge market leader," says Gottl, who spent much of a recent instructors convention observing the wildlife in its remarkable plumage.
"Companies like Nike, Adidas, and Puma were born at a time when men dominated sports," Gottl explains. "So they have very male-centric brand values. Competition. Winning. Annihilation. Zumba was born at a time when women are much more empowered. Its values reflect women's values: teamwork, inclusion, and community.
"The future is going to be much more about women's sensibility," says Gottl. "Zumba not only understands what is important to women, but what is important to the 21st century."