At a time when healthy lifestyles and keeping fit are very much in vogue, it seems unlikely that in the late 90s female activewear was very much an afterthought for sports retailers.
But for Tamara Hill-Norton it was the `bleak landscape for women's activewear' that inspired her to found Sweaty Betty, opening the first boutique in 1998 in Notting Hill selling brands such as Nike and Adidas.
“I wanted to reach out to women who had an active lifestyle and provide products that could be part of every woman's wardrobe,” she says.
From that first boutique Sweaty Betty now has over 45 stores in the UK and is growing its presence in the US. It has been an impressive growth story but one that certainly tested Hill-Norton's passion for the brand in the early days.
“The beginning was very stressful,” she says. “I opened the first shop in November and my only staff member decided to quit, so I had to run the entire store on my own over Christmas.
“I was working seven days a week and put myself under pressure to deal with any problems on my own. I was very proud of what I had started and wanted to do everything independently.”
If the early days of Sweaty Betty were a challenge, the real step change for the company came in 2009 when Hill-Norton decided to implement a significant shift in the direction and model of the company. While the growth to date had been based on selling other brands from the company's stores around the UK, Hill-Norton saw greater potential in designing and manufacturing products under the Sweaty Betty brand.
“It was a tough decision at the time because there was real risk in doing our own manufacturing but our own label was demonstrably more profitable than selling other people's brands,” she explains.
“Starting our own label certainly added a layer of complexity to the business, and finding the right fabrics and good technical suppliers that would produce small quantities at the beginning was not easy.”
Perseverance and a passion to develop the brand and encourage women to take up active lifestyles have played a key role in the success of the business which holds ambitions to grow its presence in the US market.
“Even in a new market like the US, we're not going to change our concept,” says Hill-Norton. “We've still got the same customer, who we know really well and want to be able to follow wherever she is.”
With a target of some 60 stores in the UK, domestic growth is also very much on the agenda as Hill-Norton seeks to fulfil the ambition that saw the birth of Sweaty Betty 19 years ago.
“I am extremely proud of our growth to date and what we have accomplished,” she says. “Sweaty Betty started off as my project so it never felt just like a business and never will be.”