By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire
⏰ 6-minute read
Inspired by a lifetime of dance and a passion for design, former professional dancer Kady Zinke created the female activewear brand Kadyluxe.
With minimal funding, the three-person business has secured licensing deals with over 50 colleges and a handful of professional sports teams.
Zinke credits her brand’s growth to a deep understanding of customer needs and an elevated product offering.
At the Kadyluxe offices in Denver, boxes of leggings, tanks and activewear rise from floor to ceiling. Beside the rows of clothing are a massive wooden display wall and three mannequins that have just returned from a trade show. Through the front door comes Kady Zinke, a professional dancer turned company founder and fashion designer. She’s the one-woman powerhouse behind the Kadyluxe brand.
Carrying a wave of energy and a confident smile, Zinke sits down, and we begin to chat. She introduces me first to her father, a man with salt-and-peppered hair who handles sales from a desk near the window, and another woman, Sam, a former dancer who helps with company operations. Zinke rounds out the three-person Kadyluxe team as founder, designer and CEO.
It’s hard to imagine that with such a small team, Kadyluxe has inked contracts to create licensed apparel for female dance teams and sports fans at some of the most prestigious colleges in the country including Georgetown, Vanderbilt and Yale. It also makes licensed gear for dancers and fans of professional sports teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kadyluxe is in its startup phase and hasn’t had access to costly PR firms or large marketing campaigns. Instead, the brand has been challenged to bring the next great female activewear brand to market on its own merits: the entrepreneurial tenacity of its founder and the quality of its products.
Founded by a former professional dancer, Kadyluxe makes women’s activewear for
dance teams, sports fans and everyday athletes. (credit: Kadyluxe)
From dancer to fashion entrepreneur
Zinke grew up in Colorado, dancing ballet five to six hours a day. After college, she spent time in Los Angeles pursuing dancing and acting. She stayed connected to the business world by working side gigs in restaurants, fashion PR and as an assistant for an IndyCar racer. During that time, she received lots of praise for her business prowess. She also got her first idea for a dance-inspired activewear product.
“I wanted to create a knee-padded pant for dance,” Zinke said.
To fund the initiative, Zinke looked to Kickstarter, which was just gaining popularity in 2013. Her campaign succeeded, raising more than $23,000 for her product idea.
With the money, Zinke hired a product engineer to design the padded-knee pant. She then learned her first hard lesson in entrepreneurship when this product engineer left the country with her funds and those of some other entrepreneurs.
With the padded-knee pant on hold, Zinke began designing a full line of dance-inspired clothing and activewear. She bought fabric from overseas and hired cut and sew manufacturers in Downtown L.A. to create samples that would become the inspiration for what is now Kadyluxe. She funded this second go-round with her own money and small investments from friends and family.
This time, under her control and direction, the products turned out. Then they began to sell, catching the attention of large online retailers such as Carbon38. The progress encouraged Zinke to quit her job and commit full-time to building the Kadyluxe brand. She launched its first complete collection in January 2018.
Kadyluxe products include leggings, tops and sports bras for women. (credit: Kadyluxe.com)
Do what you know
As a sports fan and former dancer at the collegiate and professional levels, Zinke designed her products for women with similar interests.
“My first love is dance. My second love is fashion. Marrying the two, I created Kadyluxe,” the company site states.
The brand makes custom designs for professional dance and cheer teams, and it has licensing deals with schools that also include the University of Michigan, Clemson University and the University of Alabama. It also offers private labeling, in which Kadyluxe logos are removed and the apparel is branded with logos for the Hawks, Bulls, Penguins and more.
Among other offerings, Kadyluxe makes branded women’s apparel for college
dance teams and college sports fans. (credit: Instagram/kadyluxe)
A singular focus
Early in her company’s life, Zinke crafted and executed a plan to push into the college and professional sports markets. She began approaching colleges for licensing contracts and scored her first deal in 2016 at her alma mater, the University of Arizona, using samples and design sketches. The second deal came from her hometown college, the University of Colorado Boulder.
To capitalize on the success of these two orders, Zinke set her sights on Camex, a trade show for college bookstores.
A hole in the market
At the show, buyers were hungry for the Kadyluxe collection. The brand was “a huge hit,” Zinke said, and acquired 23 more college accounts as a result.
The buyers’ reactions at Camex told Zinke there was a hole in the women’s activewear market. Retail stockists, especially those from college bookstores, were looking for products that were high-quality, came in a variety of styles and had licensing capabilities. It seemed no one was answering the call.
“Even Nike, Adidas and other women’s brands didn’t deliver much women’s activewear," Zinke said.
Buyers were drawn to the fact that Kadyluxe could add their school or team logo to its apparel. And other women’s activewear brands didn’t have the sheer number of SKUs that Kadyluxe offered, nor the quality of fabric and fit. In short, the brand stood out on the trade show circuit by offering a differentiated product that satisfied buyers’ unmet needs, Zinke said.
With nationwide distribution on its resume, Kadyluxe caught the attention of independent sales reps, who helped open doors to professional sports leagues. Today, Kadyluxe has eight licenses with the NBA and five with the NHL. (These are "local licenses," which pertain only to the local cities in which the teams play.) Kadyluxe also has an “internal license” with the NFL, which allows it to develop products for “internal” use, like cheer squad uniforms and clothing used for promotions.
Kadyluxe made jerseys for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheer squad. (credit: Instagram/kadyluxe)
The company’s largest licensing partnerships are still in the collegiate space, with over 50 deals in place as of February 2019. The largest retail account carrying branded Kadyluxe products is Pure Barre fitness studios.
Quality comes first
While thousands of brands fight for the retail space at college campuses across the country, Kadyluxe has opened these doors with ease. Zinke believes the quality of her product is a huge component.
“We were the Lululemon in [the college bookstore] market,” said Zinke of the brand’s early success in 2016. “No one was selling nice leggings.”
To get this competitive advantage, Zinke hopped a plane to Shanghai in 2017 to establish relationships with fabric producers and manufacturers. The move led to higher-quality products and lower pricing, which made Kadyluxe more appealing to customers. Zinke said that strong manufacturing relationships were and are essential for Kadyluxe to compete with large activewear brands like Nike, Lululemon and Adidas, all of which manufacture at least some of their products overseas.
Kadyluxe leggings are both comfortable and favorably priced thanks
to overseas manufacturing, said founder Zinke. (credit: Instagram/kadyluxe)
Commitment, with tradeoffs
Zinke has a certain willingness to leave the beaten path in search of partnerships and solutions for her business, whether self-funding through Kickstarter, flying to China to build manufacturing relationships or contacting materials engineers to better understand the product.
She recommends other entrepreneurs commit fully to their dreams.
“You cannot have a job--full-time or part-time--and think you’re going to start and run a business,” Zinke said.
This concept can be difficult for entrepreneurs to accept, especially when their peers are living more traditional, “stable” lives, she added.
"My other friends own homes and have invested their money in things," said Zinke. “My investment and my asset is my business.”
Zinke (L) credits her business success to going all-in. (credit: Kadyluxe)
The future of Kadyluxe
Now entering the trade show circuit as a two-year-old business, Kadyluxe is no longer the new kid on the block. The company holds significant distribution and licensing contracts, and women and professional dancers are wearing Kadyluxe apparel across the country.
The future of Kadyluxe is continued growth, Zinke said. Her two current goals are fundraising and a push into the direct-to-consumer space. She aspires to later take the brand to China and sell on WeChat.
“China is just catching on to the fitness culture and the idea of wearing workout clothes,” said Zinke. “The sheer size of that market is exciting.”
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