When she was very young, Katie Warner Johnson, the co-founder of online activewear boutique Carbon38, heard the music and started to move. "We grew up with Tchaikovsky and Chopin," says Johnson, 31. "You can't help but dance." At 3, she was twirling through her family's home in Washington, D.C. Johnson recalls her mom finally saying, "Instead of breaking a lamp, let's put you in ballet class."
So Johnson trained at the prestigious Maryland Youth Ballet, where she worked her way up from "hobby" to "life-enveloping regimen." By 13, she was leaving school early to train, and she went on to spend two summers with the Miami City Ballet.
She back-burnered ballet to attend Harvard, but danced on the side with the Harvard Crimson Dance Team ("A great way to meet boys") and an international tour of the musical Cats. She found time to intern at Deutsche Bank as well, and though it netted her a job offer, she chose to pursue her passion in Manhattan--which, she soon discovered, "is a very difficult place to live on a dancer's salary." She took a part-time job teaching the ballet-barre-based workout Physique 57. "It was fun. It kept me in shape. It helped me pay rent," Johnson says. But other injuries piled onto a previously hurt hip. And Johnson realized the boutique fitness craze was taking off--which led her and an old ballet pal, Caroline Gogolak, to decide there was now a market for a one-stop stylish activewear shop. They co-founded Carbon38 in 2013.
The Los Angeles-based company grew 500 percent in 2015, Johnson says, and is tracking to take in more than $20 million this year. And Johnson still dances regularly at the Westside School of Ballet, injuries and all. The practice has prepared her for what's ended up, through many twists and turns, being her professional calling.
"There's a stigma around ballet for eating disorders and ruining your self-confidence," she says. "That's such a simplistic view. I've only been built up by the art form."