31 Mar 2015 The Vancouver Sun ALEESHA HARRIS
MAKING THE JUMP TO ATHLETIC WEAR
Scion of upscale boutique Leone brings his RYU brand to Vancouver
“This is where my future is, and I think it will leave a legacy behind for a very longtime. MARCELLO LEONE CEO, RESPECT YOUR UNIVERSE
Marcello Leone is taking the leap from high fashion to athletic wear. Just don’t let him hear you call it that. The son of Alberto and Maria Leone, the patriarch and matriarch of “Vancouver’s first family of fashion,” Leone grew up in the luxury retail industry.
Marcello Leone, who grew up in fashion retail at his parents’ upscale Leone boutique in Vancouver, has launched Respect Your Universe, a line of fashionable athletic-tech apparel.
“Being the first importers of European fashions with my mother and father when they started almost 40 years ago, I grew up in the environment since I was basically 13 years old,” he said. “That became the main conversation, always, business and the fashion business.”
Leone worked in all facets of the family’s upscale boutique — Leone — while simultaneously earning a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia, and continued to learn the ropes of the business until he was 41 years old.
Fast forward a few years and Leone is now chief executive officer and chairman of the board at clothing company Respect Your Universe. He is also a shareholder of the publicly traded company.
He is no longer associated with the Leone store, which the family sold last month.
This brings us back to that aforementioned athletic-wear quip. To clarify, it’s not the company Leone has an issue with — it’s the categorization of the brand as strictly athletic wear.
Leone isn’t a fan of labels; at least, not the categorical kind.
So how would he describe RYU?
“We are an athletic tech-style apparel brand engineered for the fitness, training and performance of the multi-discipline athlete,” Leone says. “We are creating game-changing product with intellectual property — exclusive patents and technology that nobody else has seen — completely different.” Got it? Good. When Leone first looked into RYU back in 2011 at the recommendation of a friend, he was impressed with the brand’s gear, but not so much with its message.
“Back then, it was more geared toward (Mixed Martial Arts), but I didn’t hone in on that,” he explains. “I honed in on the quality of the garments that they were using. The organic cottons, the recycled polyesters — the consciousness to having a product that certainly didn’t look like it had no style.”
Armed with a vision of making RYU a go-to brand for a broader fan base of shoppers who live active lifestyles, Leone took off running at the then-Portland, Ore.-based company.
“The connection was immediate with me and RYU: the brand, the product, the category,” he says. “It was a diamond in the rough. It had some really great, special qualities but the blueprint was not established.”
It wasn’t just the product quality that drew Leone in. It was also the allure of jumping head first into the activewear category, a space in the retail industry that he forecasts will be lucrative in the coming years.
“Athletic apparel is the largest growing category in the world,” he says. “I believe it is the only apparel category that will continue to grow at a rapid rate over the next 30, 40, 50 or 60 years as we all need to be more conscious of our health.”
Since stepping into a larger role with RYU, Leone and his team — which includes people with backgrounds from activewear brands such as Nike and Lululemon — have enacted an overhaul of the brand that is set to be fully unveiled in September 2015.
“To get a brand to a certain level, it requires a really clear foundation, an understanding of the customer, and a real culture of what your brand is and what is stands for,” Leone says. “It is no different than when you build a home. The foundation has to be right before you build the structure.”
Leone’s first step was to bring the brand to Vancouver, choosing to adopt a distinctly Canadian element to the previously American operation.
“Coming from the apparel business and knowing Vancouver, being based in Vancouver and having some of the relationships that I have … I said, ‘OK, it’s time to bring this brand (here),’ ” he said. The company shares its offices at 1672 West 2nd Ave. with Leone’s other passion project, Trace, a drink company that sells black Rocky Mountain spring water fortified with electrolytes and minerals, and boasts a staff of 30 people.
Leone plans to open a 5,000-square-foot RYU flagship store at 1745 West 4th Ave. later this year, with a planned expansion of five more stores in 2016, bringing the total number of RYU employees to roughly 120.
While the locations for the five other stores haven’t been finalized, he mentioned Whistler, Victoria and Kelowna as possibilities.
The expansion is all part of Leone’s plan to reintroduce RYU as a lifestyle brand with a Canadian feel. But the company is not cutting all its ties with the U.S.
While RYU finalized the closure of its Portland operations this month, some of its pieces are still manufactured in the U.S. — as well as Asia and various locations in B.C.
“We are now fully a Canadian company, so we are going to operate Canadian,” Leone says.
The move to an already competitive market that boasts Lululemon, Arcteryx and Mountain Equipment Co-op among its retail residents may seem a bit like diving into the deep end for a company undergoing such major shifts, but Leone wouldn’t have it any other way. “I consider Vancouver to have some of the best brainpower in the world,” he says of his hometown. “We see it as a very respectful place in the marketplace to join our colleagues.”
And exactly who are these “colleagues?” That would be Adidas, Lululemon, Under Armour, Nike and Reebok, according to Leone.
“They are my respectful peers,” he says. “(But) we aren’t doing the same types of products that they are doing … I think the category that we were able to create with athletic-tech apparel that takes you into the gym and into your daily life, we have been very clear to identify our own category so we can work very well with our competitors in this space. “We build product as good, if not better.”
It’s this almost haughty confidence — the absolute belief in the RYU product, vision and ability to succeed — that has helped Leone, and his family’s fashion empire, to succeed in a volatile Vancouver marketplace.
“This is where my future is,” he says. “And I think it will leave a legacy behind for a very long time.”
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