When Alan Scanlan first walked into Coastal Fitness in August 2017 after moving to Hong Kong from Ireland, the goal was simple.
"I just wanted to get fit," said the 35-year-old Irish expat.
With a background in manufacturing sourcing from China, Scanlan chose the North Point gym simply because it was the closest CrossFit "box" to his place in Tai Hang. It turns out his choice laid the groundwork for a fitness apparel brand looking to capitalise on two of the least tapped markets in the fashion world: CrossFit and China's growing love for workout clothes.
"It makes sense in terms of trends," said Scanlan. "You look at the growth of CrossFit, and then the growth of CrossFit in China with all the (CrossFit gyms), they are going hand in hand."
Coastal Fitness is the home base of Ant Haynes, China's two-time defending CrossFit champion. CrossFit, which counts Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of China under its jurisdictional boundaries, instituted national champions two years ago and Haynes has won the Open back to back.
CrossFit uses the CrossFit Open, a five-week online competition in which users submit videos of workouts chosen by CrossFit, to give invitations to the CrossFit Games, which are held every August in Madison in the US state of Wisconsin, and also to crown country champions. Haynes, 30, previously a Hong Kong sevens national rugby player, headed to the CrossFit Games last year, and is now considered the 27th "fittest man on the planet".
In December 2018 Scanlan, who runs his own Chinese manufacturing sourcing company out of Hong Kong, spoke to Haynes' brother, Ed, who runs Coastal Fitness and is also a former Hong Kong national rugby player.
"Alan just approached me one day and asked if I was interested in getting into clothing and apparel," said Ed Haynes, who is also his brother's coach. "Straight away, I thought it would be a really fun experiment."
The result is Asia's first clothing line to target CrossFit followers, Earned Athletic, which Scanlan says is zeroed in on its niche market. "The goal is CrossFit apparel. We may branch out after, but that is the market we are after right now, in Hong Kong specifically, and then China."
CrossFit now has an estimated 15,000 affiliate gyms in some 160 countries. The branded workout regime, started in 2000 by Greg Glassman in his Santa Cruz, California garage, has defied many critics with its unrelenting staying power in the cutthroat world of health and fitness, which has exploded into a US$100 billion industry in a matter of years.
CrossFit's top athletes, who compete in the Games and 26 sanctional events on several continents, have been largely ignored by the mainstream media; instead they turned to social media and caught a new wave of online marketing.
The sport's heavyweights, such as Mat Fraser, Rich Froning and Tia-Clair Toomey, have amassed millions of followers on multiple social media platforms, helping them secure sponsorship from brands such as Nike and Reebok. Ant Haynes has close to 30,000 Instagram followers and a YouTube channel.
He was signed to Reebok last year and says he is regularly approached by companies looking to cash in on a world becoming more obsessed with health and fitness by the minute.
"Literally every day, brands are reaching out to me," says Haynes, who is also a coach at Coastal Fitness and an Earned Athletic ambassador and business partner. "Whether it be supplements, apparel, shoes, there are so many new brands trying to get into the market. But you also see them crumbling and failing after six to 12 months."
Earned Athletics' fragile fate as a clothing start-up amid a sea of competitors rests in the hands of Scanlan, whose family business has long ties to Chinese manufacturers. He said a network of contacts in places such as Xiamen, a port city on China's southeast coast, and a deep knowledge of the country's manufacturing landscape could give the company a leg-up.
"It's all about the relationships with the factories," he said. "Lots of long lunches and long dinners and meeting their families, which I've already done with our clothing factory. They are a family business with five brothers and sisters, like my family, who have all worked in the company - and the dad started the business exactly like our company."
China's emerging middle class has an insatiable appetite for brands such as Nike and Reebok, as well as newcomers like Lululemon - once a niche Canadian "athleisure" clothing company which focused on yoga pants but which has since grown to become an international brand with five stores in Hong Kong.
Scanlan said in an ever-changing marketplace, where trends come and go at breakneck speed, the key is to stay true to their brand's ideals. He and the Haynes brothers all put their own money into launching the business, and have recouped their investments since launching in December.
"We just made back the cost of our initial mass production order, in a little over a month," he said. "Being a start-up and not having all the money in the world, though, we have to be very careful in what we do. We can't create something like a male crop top and have it be sitting there in stock and not selling."
Haynes, who could build on his 27th place finish at this year's CrossFit Games, said the idea was to offer clothing that people would wear to the gym and which could stand up to the grind of the barbell, kettlebell and high-intensity workouts that CrossFit puts its followers through on a daily basis.
"Obviously, people wear some crazy things," he said. "I don't think we're going to be doing male crop tops. We'll try to keep it classy as much as possible."
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