Actively pursuing success

June 7, 2021

A year of lockdowns has had a major impact on all businesses. And it’s been particularly difficult for those who created their own companies just before COVID-19 first hit in March 2020. Some did not even move from the start-up grid. Sisters Charlotte and Sophie Wilson have certainly had their fair share of setbacks after setting up a new high-end activewear brand for women in Newcastle in May 2018. But now, their company YANA Active is preparing for a second pop-up store at John Lewis in the city and, after a rocky and challenging 18 months, which would test any start-up partnership, they are going from strength-to-strength. As they prepare for this next phase, Colin Young finds out more.

It started by the side of a pool in Ibiza. Celebrating their latest successful house renovation, with its considerable rewards, sisters Charlotte and Sophie Wilson began formulating ideas for their ultimate dream; setting up their own business together while pursuing their creative hobby.

Lounging on their sunbeds in the Balearic heat, and with fellow sun worshippers in their eyeline, women’s swimwear seemed the most obvious, initial, target.

But it was just the beginning…

As ever, it would appear, with the Wilson siblings, one idea turned into several.

By the time they hit the island’s famous Hard Rock Cafe later that night – not for the first nor the last time – they had identified a severe gap in the activewear market for women.

Over the following months, ideas grew between the pair, who are originally from Skelton, in east Cleveland, that led to the birth of YANA Active.

They both graduated from university in Newcastle at that stage, and even now, are working for engineering companies at other ends of the country.

A name, inspired by an Amazonian tribe of women, a tagline – ‘Everyday Warriors’ – and innovative designs from Charlotte’s own hand and their collective brainstorming, all developed.

And sustainability, British-made, eco- friendly, recyclable materials have all remained on the checklist too.

As they set the wheels in motion to bring their visions and designs to life, they collaborated with Newcastle agency Altogether Creative to create the ‘Everyday Warriors’ motto and hashtag, which will be an integral part of their philosophy as they strive to spread their brand, and message, from their new home in Jesmond.

“Activewear was becoming more popular,” explains Sophie.

“People were wearing it for everyday things but there was not a brand that people were loyal to and we could see there was a gap for high-end British-made activewear.

“We were sick of seeing gym brands popping up, slapping their logo on clothes and bulk-buying from China or India; it gets thrown away and goes out of fashion very quickly.

“Big companies have created this culture where people need to have a new garment every week and we wanted to change that and make timeless garments as part of a large community.

“Made in Britain, for example, is a big selling point for us. When people see that, they’re really interested,” continues Sophie.

“And our manufacturer is the only company in the UK using anti-cellulite technology knitted into yarn – everything is designed and made there.

“We’re conscious there’s nothing wrong with cellulite but if you ask the majority of women, they don’t like it.

“If they can wear something that helps reduce that while going about their everyday tasks then this is a unique selling benefit, rather than unique selling point. “The wearer of the leggings gets the benefit out of the leggings.

“We are sisters, and sisterhood and empowering other females are big things for us.

“When we were pulling everything together, we came across the Amazonian tribes who are very strong sisterhoods and fierce warriors.”

“We really liked that,” says Charlotte in seamless continuation.

“We wanted the brand to come across as this really supportive, tight, connected group of women who support each other to achieve their goals and were fearless in protecting their tribe.

“We worked it all into the brief with Altogether Creative and they came up with logos that fitted with YANA and brought it together to become a tribe.

“We have YANA patches all over the house and it still makes us smile every time we see them.”

We’re talking in the living room of the townhouse overlooking Jesmond Dene, which has been the sisters’ base and another focus of their hardworking attention since August.

Their fourth renovation project has reached the ‘finishing touches’ phase and shows no sign of the rubble, reconstruction, sweat and tears that comes with a major rebuild.

It follows successes in Beamish and Heaton but is the first that will be theirs to keep, own, live and work in and, for now, store and distribute merchandise.

Surrounded by the aforementioned patches and large cardboard boxes containing kitchen equipment that will complete the bright new extension at the back, there are some signs a new business flourishes here.

Two laptops sit open on a desk at the front window, and a whiteboard with a lengthy ‘to-do-list’ leans against the wall. Sophie brings in a similar sized photo-board that tells the story of YANA so far.

They will use it for presentations, company launches and pop-ups.

It’s covered in the smiling faces of the Wilson family and its extended YANA family, including beaming images of proud parents Neil and Susan, at work of course. Their energy, passion and enthusiasm for their latest project, and for life, bounces off the board and around the room.

Today, Sophie leads the way and Charlotte not only naturally completes the odd sentence but can provide the same words at the same time, and vice versa.

It adds an unexpected and entertaining edge to transcribing the interview.

The Wilsons’ venture into business has not been without its challenges, and tears, especially in the stop-start-stop-stop-start year of COVID-19.

The sisters’ bond, and their inspiring friendship and ambitions, have kept their dream, and their relationship, alive.

The first real test came as they were preparing for their launch and second photoshoot in December 2019.

Their chosen local manufacturer failed to deliver the quantities and qualities of their unique printed leggings and bras and vests with signature neckline, which were required in the run-up to Christmas – and you can guess the rest…

Charlotte says: “On Boxing Day, I said ‘we need to sort this or it’s all going to be over before we’ve even started.”

“And I went back to London,’ Sophie interjects, “where I was still living and working, going to fashion shows, building contacts…’

“While I was having a mental breakdown,” adds Charlotte.

There is laughter in the room, but the reality and gravity of the situation, and the perilous future of the business, has not quite been buried with the debris from their latest rebuild and the handiwork of dad Neil, who is a retired builder.

“There were quite a few tears at that point, weren’t there, Sophie?” says Charlotte.

“It was very stressful.

“That was when we started to wonder if it was ever going to happen, but we decided we just had to go for it.”

“We had to leave it and move on,” Sophie adds. “But it’s not just the financial side but the mental side too.

“Our mental health at that time really suffered.

“We were just sick with worry all the time and because you are so passionate about something, when something like that happens, you think you might as well give up. But we kept going.”

“Luckily, we had each other,” they say in unison, recognising too the significant support they have received from Northumbria University Entrepreneurs’ Hub. Charlotte, 33, who now works for Siemens Energy, was previously named one of the designers to watch in Italian Vogue and worked for Carlin International, in Paris, after completing her fashion marketing degree at Northumbria University.

Sophie, 26, graduated from Newcastle University seven years later with a business leadership and corporate management degree after a two-year placement at Nissan.

She is now head of STEM at a global defence company in Essex and was named one of TechWomen100’s top women in technology last year.

Sophie adds: “There are a lot of business support schemes out there and we have done more than enough but genuinely Northumbria University have really helped us.

“They said only recently, ‘we want to give you more support, what is your wishlist? Even if we cannot find it, we will eventually’.

“It’s another little community in itself.”

To keep a complicated story of let- downs, loose stitching and lawyers brief, £10,000 and several lost months, including a Christmas later, a locally- based manufacturer took over the manufacturing contract.

The only beneficiary from the debacle was Women’s Aid in Newcastle, which received the useable garments.

“I’d been talking to the manufacturer as things started to unravel and as soon as we met, we felt at ease,” says Charlotte.

“They’ve worked for big companies for more than 40 years and really know their stuff and they’d recently opened a new factory to help bring manufacturing back to the UK.”

Sophie adds: “It was hugely important to us to use a British manufacturer for sustainability and quality, and to support the local economy and keep our supply chain in the North East and UK, which is something we have always championed.

“And the good thing is you have a high level of control too.

“You’re not shipping your designs off to the Far East where there’s no guarantee you’re protecting them.

“If we want to tweak a design, we can send it off or head down the road.

“You have a high level of control over the product when you are closer to it and speak the same language.”

“And there’s a cost as well,” says Charlotte.

“People say it’s more expensive to produce in Britain but by the time you’ve paid taxes and shipping, especially post- Brexit, it works out cheaper.

“We knew people would start coming back to Britain to manufacture after Brexit and we wanted to be one of the first.”

The sisters’ manufacturing partner specialises in minimum orders and has provided the hi-tech activewear that will fill the shelves of their John Lewis pop-up shop and, for now at least, hangs in a beautifully renovated bedroom on the second floor of the property.

That’s because of COVID-19.

Lockdown may have added to their problems, but they could also be the making of the company.

Working from home has transformed the business from corporate to comfortable.

Charlotte and Sophie have created outfits for the home, the gym, the office and the pub and will continue to help develop work and leisure for their ever- increasing tribe.

It has also allowed them time to build their on-line presence, promoting YANA with make-up and vegan cooking tutorials, live workouts, meditation and yoga therapy sessions in videos and promotions with carefully-selected influencers and other local businesses on Instagram.

“March. The dreaded month,” says Sophie, who had the foresight to move into her sister’s Quayside apartment just days before the first lockdown.

The pair bought the Jesmond house and started work with Neil, as he gained his own following through the ‘house’ Instagram account (@jesmondtownhouse), while mum Sue, Skelton’s former district nurse, cared for a relative at home.

“We planned launches at two really big fitness events.

“We’d spent all of the business loan and had to apply for a new one, which was touch and go.

“Things were getting better, we were quite happy, moving forward and then COVID-19 hit and everything went into a spiral again.”

“We still had all the stock,” says Charlotte.

“We spent a lot of money on stock, and we didn’t know what to do. No one thought it would last so long.

“The idea was to use 2020 to get on the road, meet as many people as possible, get them seeing the garments, touching them, feeling them and then obviously we had to put the foot on the brakes again.”

“It is hard work, but it is just fun,” says Sophie.

“Life is hard, but we make light of it and have fun.

“We like to be busy, otherwise what else would we be doing?

“We tend to see the positives rather than negatives. We are positive people, so if something goes wrong it is, ‘right, how do we get over that?’

“There might be tears along the way, I won’t say there aren’t, but we tend to just crack on.

“And I think a lot of that comes from mum and dad.

“They tend to just get on with things, they get stuff done.

“And they’ve always worked hard, and our work ethic massively comes from them, and the caring side from mum, being a nurse.

“People think we are crazy taking on this house, the new business, working full-time.

“They are more like…”

“What are you doing next?” they say together.

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