How Fashion Brand AYR Stayed Small To Get Big During The Pandemic
The pandemic was a big blow to many businesses—whether because customers disappeared (most of the hospitality industry) or companies grew too fast, leading to layoffs later on (Glossier, Peloton, Casper).
The best strategy for survival and longevity, it seems, is to stay small to get big. That’s what has worked for casual clothing brand AYR.
AYR stands for All Year Round, and founders Maggie Winter and Max Bonbrest—best friends who have known each other for 20 years—approach the fashion business unconventionally from just about every angle. They don’t release clothing seasonally, they don’t do trends, they have doubled down on print catalogs, and they use atypical models including Bonbrest’s granny.
AYR makes versatile clothes that stand the test of time—their goal is for AYR pieces to be the last ones standing after a closet purge.
“AYR believes in creating value for the customer,” Winter said. “Every dollar we make goes back into product. We don’t over-invest in hot models, expensive campaigns, or excessive build outs in our stores.”
Customers appreciate the effort: AYR’s repeat customers tripled in 2021 and make up more than half the brand’s customer base.
With a team of just 6, AYR’s business tripled in 2021 and the company became profitable. With 99% of sales happening online, AYR is on track to double its business in 2022. (AYR launched online in 2014 as the women’s arm of Bonobos, but has since spun off as an independent shop.)
The business has grown tenfold since the same time two years ago. The team has now grown to 12. With growth like that, you might expect many more hires and product launches. But the founders say the path to success is extreme focus and discipline when it comes to brand, business, and team. As a result, the small team is extremely efficient, and has attracted new talent from the industry while staying lean.
“One million in revenue per head is an elite KPI (key performance indicator),” Winter said. “Oil companies are about $2 million per head. AYR is between $4 and $5 million per head.”
DIY is big at AYR. Winter, the brand’s CEO, writes all of AYR’s copy including every email and Instagram post. She also photographs and provides creative direction and copy for the catalog, which features Bonbrest and her granny as models. Surprisingly, in today’s online-dominated shopping landscape, the brand’s print catalog has been a key growth driver.
“It’s a very authentic reflection of the brand and team—taking the intimacy of Instagram and applying it to a traditional (old-school!) channel such as a catalog,” Bonbrest said.
That minimalist philosophy extends to their point-of-view when it comes to fashion. They produce in small batches, making sell-outs and waitlists a key component of their business model.
Though they do the best they can to meet demand, waitlists tend to be in the multi-thousands. The most-waitlisted products include The Secret Sauce jeans, The Deep End striped button down, and The Flex Tank. This season, waitlists for new tops and dresses have driven styles to sell out within a matter of days.
AYR is all about “investment dressing:”splurging on a few solid pieces that can take you from season to season, while sprinkling in new pieces here and there to mix-and-match. A leaner, more thoughtful closet, after all, means less money spent on clothing, less clutter, and less consumption.
Last year as the country faced its second pandemic winter, AYR launched a “Comfy Cozy” category, debuting soft sweats and their version of a power suit built for today’s work-leisure fashion. The Comfy Cozy launch was in part responsible for the brand’s growth in 2021.
“We have a ‘test before we invest’ philosophy, experimenting with new textiles like this Spring’s ribbed knits and Japanese crinkle cotton. These styles tend to sell extra quickly, and serve as research & development as the design team decides what to create for next spring,” Winter said.
Operating with a lean team doesn’t mean skipping sustainability efforts. AYR designs and creates its denim in Los Angeles, and has shifted to using lasers to create their washes instead of hours of water-intensive laundering. The Secret Sauce uses lasers to greatly reduce water consumption and The Plunge Pool is made from ecosilk, a more sustainable alternative to 100% silk because it uses fibers made from wood cellulose, and is 100% bio-based, non-synthetic material. They have also increased their use of recycled fibers.
“We are cognizant that the apparel industry is by nature not the most environmentally friendly, so do our best to contribute to overall sustainability through best practices and keeping a lean profile on the industry.” Bonbrest said.
Ultimately, the touch of magic that perhaps gives AYR an advantage is being led by a best-friend duo that provided their team a clear intention from the beginning.
“I’ve known and admired Max for twenty years,” Winter said. “She and her roommate were the only people I knew in New York City when I moved from college. She showed me the city, welcomed me into her huge group of friends, made me feel at home. When I was first concepting the brand, Max was the ultimate ‘AYR girl’ I had in mind. On all the late nights, beach walks, and road trips, we never imagined we’d own and operate a business together. We think that the best things—our friendship included—are built to last. Getting to share this adventure with an old friend is one of the greatest joys of all time.”