Throughout the year we’ve been featuring inspirational females who’ve taken the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship. It’s risky, frightening and takes serious guts but if it pays off, it’s overwhelmingly rewarding. This month, we’re introducing you to Kelsey O’Connell, founder of Belle Force, a new activewear brand creating performance clothing with a ballerina’s aesthetic.
After a 10-year hiatus from fitness, designing activewear seems like an unusual choice of profession. But for Kelsey O’Connell, it was this break from—and reintroduction to—the “sweaty weights room” that gave her the light bulb moment for her business venture.
“I had the initial thoughts around the brand about 4 years ago. I had just rediscovered the power of group fitness classes, after an almost 10-year hiatus. I danced ballet & jazz growing up, and dance team was my “sport” in high school. I was not otherwise particularly athletic, and after going to college, I had a hard time keeping up with fitness without the structure and support of my team and classes. In fact, the concept of fitness for fitness sake was new to me, as dance had always been about so much more.”
“After moving to NYC to continue to pursue my fashion design career, I joined a gym with my husband, and it was mostly more of the same – spaces that reminded me of the sweaty high school weights room, full of muscle-bound bros and intimidating equipment. And then one day, I stumbled upon a tiny little basement room where a retired ballerina was teaching a dance fitness class to adults. Though I was certainly nowhere near as flexible or strong as I had been years before, it felt so good to move with grace and intention, focusing not just on weight or speed but on form. I began to remember why I loved to dance so much, and I was hooked again.”
But herein presented the problem. “My old sorority t-shirts and gym shorts no longer felt appropriate, though neither did my ancient tights and leotards. I was stirred to find something in between. I scoured the market for a product that would provide the functionality of modern activewear with the sophistication and femininity I desired. I was met with a multitude of crazy prints and neon, nothing that matched my aesthetics, certainly nothing that my ballet teacher would have approved of. That’s when I realised that perhaps it didn’t exist, but that I could create it.”
And just like that, Belle Force was born. The name, meaning “beautiful strength” encapsulates the brand. “I stayed true to my original ballet inspiration, as ballerinas are one of the most impactful examples of this concept. Impossibly graceful, yet wildly strong and powerful, they are poised and disciplined … the perfect muse.”
With 10 years experience in apparel design, Kelsey’s reassurance in her ability wasn’t surprising, even admitting it made some of it “seem easy”. That being said, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “The business side of this entrepreneurial venture was new to me, as I have previously worked within large corporate organizations. These companies produce their goods overseas, and I wanted to try a different approach, making our product in New York.” Not an easy feat for anyone who’s starting out. And yet, Kelsey managed to keep the line both local and affordable, with the debut collection ranging from US$85 to $175.
It was only a year ago that she took the leap (pardon the pun) and went full-time. “The brand development continued as my side hustle for a time, until I came to the point when I knew we had something special, and it was time to share it. For the past year, I’ve been living and breathing Belle Force. We’ve expanded on the initial collection I designed, we fine-tuned fit and details, and we ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the purchase of the materials.” They launched the collection in May this year and haven’t looked back.
“While I’m certainly experiencing feelings of excitement and anxiety, I also feel a sense of accomplishment for the brand we’ve built. We’ve fostered a community via social media, and we’ve already connected with so many impressive, inspiring women who share our values and goals. What started out simply as the search for a solution to my inadequate active wardrobe has morphed into a forum for communication and support of other women. We’ve adopted the phrase “be the belle,” a mantra of sorts to remind us to be the best version of ourselves every day and to celebrate those we admire. We’ve created a fitness bow—a symbol of femininity we wear proudly while kicking butt in our workouts. I’m so happy we can be a part of the greater women’s empowerment movement and to have a platform to share our perspective and encouragement.”
Check out the full range at www.belleforceactivewear.com