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How Jay Parker built Gym King

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Gym King’s Jay Parker has built a thriving athleisure brand in a competitive market before his 30th birthday. He talks to Drapers about keeping the business fighting fit and cracking the US.

When Jay Parker first sat down with Footasylum to see if the retailer would be interested in stocking his new brand, he had a clear vision in mind. Just a few months before, in March 2015, the then 24-year-old had launched Gym King. His urban-inspired athleisure label exploded on to the market with a distinctive aesthetic: smart streetwear on muscular models decorated with heavy tattoos.

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Gym King spring 19

“I told them I wanted to build a global brand that could contend with the likes of Nike, Adidas and Under Armour,” he tells Drapers on an unseasonably sunny spring day in central Leeds. “I’m a strong believer in the law of attraction: you need to see where you’re going to go before you get there.”

Four years on and Parker is well on the way to realising his early ambition. Growth at the Castleford-based brand has been rapid. Turnover hit £16m in the year to 30 June 2018 with an EBITDA of £4.2m, compared with turnover of £10m in the 18-month period from January 2016 to the end of June 2017.

Alongside Footasylum, high-profile stockists now include Asos, sportswear giant JD Sports and Zalando. The brand took home the Drapers Award for Young Fashion Brand of the Year last November, impressing judges with its commitment to customers and healthy financials.

“Gym King has a very neat assortment – it’s very practical and very stylish,” says retail expert and Drapers Awards judge Andrew Jennings, who has held senior positions at Harrods, House of Fraser, Brown Thomas and Saks Fifth Avenue. “It has come from zero and achieved impressive profitability and sales.”

I wanted to build a global brand that could contend with the likes of Nike, Adidas and Under Armour

Confident and driven without being arrogant, the Gym King chief executive is the living embodiment of his brand. Parker is committed to staying in good shape, both physically and mentally. A gym session is up next after his meeting with Drapers and he aims to read two to three books on personal development each month – recent favourites include Ego is the Enemy by American Apparel’s former director of marketing, Ryan Holiday.

Keep it simple

An understanding of its target customer and a simple, but effective, product proposition has helped Gym King prosper in a market once dominated by a handful of wealthy titans.

“Our brand transcends product – it stands for a little bit more,” Parker argues. “People feel something when they wear Gym King – they feel better when they are wearing the brand. We’ve also got longevity. We’re not a brand that follows trends and a lot of our collections are made up of core product. There are seasonal updates, but we don’t go too far from our DNA.”

I saw an opportunity for a new athleisure look, something more urban. That’s how Gym King was born

It is a pivotal time for Gym King, which has been investing in its infrastructure over the past six months to go from bedroom brand to retail heavyweight. The company is poised to move into a 46,000 sq ft custom-built office and warehouse space, near its current 9,000 sq ft home in Castleford, later this year. It is also on the brink of appointing a “very knowledgeable and experienced” non-executive director, although Parker refuses to name names.

Bringing ideas to life is what excites Parker about business and he is a natural entrepreneur. Although Gym King is, as he puts it, his “bread and butter,” he is the co-founder of premium drinks brand III Big Dogs Vodka, marketplace app Market of Mums and health supplement Concussion Pro 1. Last summer he also took a step into the footwear market, launching streetwear-inspired sneaker brand Loyalti with long-time friend and reality TV star Alex Cannon.

Fit bits

Before Gym King, Parker worked as a personal trainer and also owned a York-based beauty salon. Struggling to find gym clothing that both he and his clients wanted to wear, he spotted a gap in the market for an understated, streetwear-inspired athleisure label.

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Womenswear launched in 2017 and now accounts for 10% of sales (spring 19)

“I couldn’t find what I wanted,” he explains. “I’m not someone who is a fan of the fluorescent greens and yellows that were dominating the fitness market at the time. I saw an opportunity for a new athleisure look, something more urban. That’s how Gym King was born. I kept it simple – the first collection came in black, grey marl and khaki. Delivering a premium product at a commercial price point was also key.”

I’m not a believer in luck – you get luckier the harder you work

Gym King has stayed true to its urban aesthetic – current bestsellers include a black sweatshirt with contrast panelling – but has also expanded its offer to include denim and shirting.

It declines to reveal wholesale prices, but retails from £19.99 for bobble hats to £69.99 for a padded jacket. Womenswear launched in 2017 and now accounts for 10% of sales. The women’s collection includes fitted gym clothing, as well as casualwear and swimwear.

Parker used his wages and savings from his beauty salon business to bankroll Gym King in its infancy, find its first suppliers in Pakistan and launch the website.

“People warned me that I was risking a lot by putting my savings into the business and asked what would happen if it didn’t work,” he says. “To me, it [launching the business] was a calculated risk. I’m not a believer in luck – you get luckier the harder you work. I knew that if I worked hard and invested my time, it would pay off.”

Social skills

A natural flair for social media and marketing nous helped Parker propel Gym King into the limelight. He began seeding product to influencers, allowing them to earn commission through any sales they drove via personalised discount codes. A buzz began to build after the label was worn on reality TV programmes The Only Way Is Essex and Geordie Shore.

At the same time, Gym King began to attract its first independent stockists. Early adopters of the brand included Colchester boutique Baccus and Sunderland’s Yakuza.

“I remember seeing the brand and thinking, ‘That will definitely sell,’” explains Rick Prothero, director and buyer at Blackpool independent Fredericks Cleveleys, which has stocked Gym King since 2015. “A lot of our customer base go to the gym and are into their fitness. I knew it would appeal to them.

With business to consumer, you’re in control of your own destiny

“Gym King has its own identity and does things a little differently. Over the years, the quality has definitely improved. Bestsellers vary from season to season – tracksuits are obviously always a good performer, but we’ve also done well with the brand’s denim and smart shirts.”

Drapers independents awards 2019

Are you a champion of independent retail?

Drapers Independents Awards are open for entry. There are 18 categories for brands and retailers to shine a spotlight on their achievements. As well as the best retailer and brand categories, new for 2019 are Bridal Retailer of the Year, Bridal Brand of the Year and Rising Star in the Independent Sector.

The winners will be announced at an inspirational lunchtime ceremony on 11 September at the Brewery in London.

Another independent stockist agrees: “We’ve done continually well with the brand since we started stocking it in 2016. It appeals to a young consumer, who like the fit and shape of the product.”

Parker recalls watching the sales of a bestselling black tracksuit soar during the business’s early days and knowing he was on the cusp of something special: “We’d been working with influencers and then there came a point when the brand just took off overnight. I watched the sales of this tracksuit rolling in and thought, ‘Something is going to change.’ At that point no one else was doing what we were doing.”

Building bulk

Gym King now has more than 1,000 wholesale stockists in the UK and internationally. Wholesale accounts for 80% of overall trade and own ecommerce 20%, although Parker envisages this moving closer to a 60:40 split over the next 12 months as the brand builds its digital proposition.

“We’ve been investing in own ecommerce,” he says. “It is a channel to invest in because with business to consumer, you’re in control of your own destiny. The high street is changing and is facing some difficulties that it will hopefully navigate out of, but online seems to be forever growing.”

We’ve got to make sure we can keep up with demand, and working with big retailers can place stress on a business

Gym King has also been investing in its supply chain to better cope with the demand generated by working with larger players such as JD Sports. The brand, which now sources from China and Turkey, has brought more suppliers on board and is developing close partnerships within its supply base.

“We’ve got to make sure we can keep up with demand, and working with big retailers can place stress on a business if you don’t have the infrastructure in terms of factories. We’ve been investing with the long game in mind.”

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Gym King sponsors MMA world champion Aung La Nsang

International aims

Parker’s ambitions are now global. Gym King is already trading in 18 countries around the world through its ecommerce platform and distributors. Key European markets include Spain, Portugal, Germany and Greece. He is now looking to conquer markets further afield: namely the US and Asia.

To help crack these two large and competitive markets, the brand launched the Gym King Fight Division earlier this year. The programme sponsors top athletes in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) – including Myanmarese world champion Aung La Nsang – in a bid to gain the Gym King brand exposure internationally.

Always be a student – you never know everything and the moment you think you know it all, you’ve lost

Singapore’s One Championship, in which Nsang competes, attracts millions of viewers for each of its sporting events. The fighter himself has more than 60,000 Instagram followers, and he posts pictures of himself wearing clothing with Gym King’s distinctive “GK” logo. The combination of high viewing figures and sponsored athletes’ large social followings gives Gym King the opportunity to get in front of a large, engaged audience. It also taps into a long-held interest of Parker, who has trained in Thai boxing and MMA on and off since he was a teenager.

“Some brands work with music artists, some brands work with footballers – this is my way to reach new consumers,” he explains. “It is a perfect fit for us as a brand and I think it has the potential to make a huge impact on Gym King.”

JD tie-up

Parker also hopes that Gym King’s relationship with JD Sports will further help it crack the US. Last year, the retailer bought US sportswear retailer Finish Line – one of the largest purveyors of multi-branded athletic footwear and clothing in the US – in a deal worth around £396m. JD said it will focus on bringing its “highly differentiated retail proposition to the US market” following the move.

“We had a great launch with JD Sports at the start of this year, and they are making some big moves out in the US,” says Parker. “As a partner working with JD, it gives us a fantastic opportunity to merge some of the exposure from the Gym King Fight Division with what they’re doing in the market.”

There are currently no plans to open Gym King’s first standalone bricks-and-mortar store, although it is not something Parker rules out, telling Drapers it could be something the brand explores in the future. 

Awards, high-profile stockists and ambitious international expansion plans are all a long way from Gym King’s beginnings – not that Parker is becoming complacent.

“You can’t stand still in this game,” he concludes. “You should always be a student – you never know everything and the moment you think you know it all, you’ve lost.”

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