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Women Who Inspire: Activewear Pioneer Lorna Jane Clarkson

You likely know Lorna Jane as a fashion-forward activewear brand, but you may not know much about the 53-year-old entrepreneur behind the company that sells a pair of workout leggings every 60 seconds. Together with her husband, Bill Clarkson, Lorna Jane Clarkson heads up Lorna Jane, which includes 14 online stores and a chain of nearly 200 retail stores around the world.

Clarkson started her career as a dental therapist in the ’80s. The aerobics craze was just taking off, and the 20-something began to teach classes at night to earn extra money and get a free gym membership at the same time. She wasn’t impressed by the selection of workout clothes available, however, and began to sew her own. That is how a fashion star — and athleisure wear as we know it today — was born.

Here she shares a bit about that journey and how she feels about aging well and happily.

What year did you start to teach fitness classes? What are the biggest changes you’ve observed in women’s fitness since those early years?

I think it was around 1985 that I started teaching. Women’s fitness has changed so much, but so has women’s health, wellness, and empowerment. Women’s health has grown into an industry far greater than I ever could have imagined, which is exciting, because it’s something I am truly passionate about. 

Before I started my business, it wasn’t just the gym wear that was different. Back then, women generally went to aerobics classes (with hardly a man in sight!) and the focus was weight loss more than being fit, healthy, and strong. You would never be caught going anywhere other than the gym in your “activewear,” and magazines were talking more about beauty and diet rather than booty workouts and smoothies.

How long did it take you to make that first leotard? What did it look like? What were some of your favorite early pieces you designed for yourself?

I can’t recall exactly how long it took me to make my very first leotard or what it looked like, but I do remember that I created the pattern from unpicking one of my go-to swimsuits. I was sad to lose one of my favorite pieces, but in hindsight it was such a small price to pay when you look at where my business is today.

Some of the earlier pieces are still among my favorites and continue to be part of our Essentials range today: the Amy tight, which has had a few updates over the years but is still one of our best-selling tights; the Pammy bra, for its versatility and adjustable bust support; and last but not least the Flashdance trackie, the perfect pant for workouts and weekend.

When and why did you realize that you should make fitnesswear your business?

It was never my intention to start a business. I really just wanted to make workout clothes for myself. I wasn’t happy with what was available at the time, so rather than settle for ordinary, I decided to make my own.

It quickly escalated to taking custom orders from the women in my classes who loved my outfits and convinced me to make some for them to wear as well. Before long, I was spending my evenings and weekends designing, cutting patterns, and sewing on my dining room table. Over time I noticed that the women wearing my activewear were becoming more confident and enthusiastic about their workouts. They told me that they were looking forward to their workouts because they had something they loved to wear.

That’s when I knew that there was so much more to it than just making great activewear. I had the opportunity to inspire, motivate, and empower women to live their happiest and healthiest lives. 

Lorna Jane Clarkson black and white

What challenges did the business face in those early days — before cute workout clothes were a thing?

In the early days the challenges were more the fact that the people around me couldn’t see the opportunity. When I sold my house to buy my first factory, they thought I was crazy; and then when both my husband and I quit our jobs to go on this adventure together, everyone was worried about us losing everything we had already worked so hard for.

There were so many times when we had to borrow money to cover the payroll that I seriously don’t blame them. But we have always had such a strong belief in what we were trying to achieve that we never doubted for a moment that it wouldn’t lead to success. And we knew that all of the challenges and hardship along the way were merely bumps in the road to get to where we wanted to be.

We invented “activewear” as it is known today, so there wasn’t a rulebook or roadmap to follow. We just had to trust in our vision and work really hard to make it a reality.

When did things really start to catch on for the Lorna Jane brand? Where do things stand now?

Lorna Jane was born purely from demand. It was never my plan to open stores or go global — these things happened because the demand has been there.

We’ve been growing since we started, but there was a time during the global financial crisis here in Australia when other businesses were closing stores and being more conservative with their expansion plans. But we decided to keep opening stores and expanding into new markets, and this allowed us to take advantage of opportunities that never would have come our way in a more vibrant economy.  

I think there are still so many opportunities in the wellness industry. Wearing activewear as everyday wear is something that’s here to stay, and when you’re lucky enough to be among the few activewear brands that are truly authentic and passionate about the benefits of health and fitness and changing the way people think about their workouts and how they take care of themselves, then the future is only going to get better.

What advice do you give to women who have a creative dream but hesitate to take the risk to pursue it?

My biggest piece of advice would be to trust and believe in yourself 100 percent. If you don’t believe in yourself, then how can you expect anyone else to? Don’t make the mistake of waiting for the perfect time to start chasing your dream, because there is no better time than right now! Even if you start on a small scale, the most important thing is to do something that will move your life in the direction you want it to go — and then keep moving.

Lorna Jane Clarkson taking a selfie

What’s your current fitness/wellness routine? How has that shifted with the years? 

I think the biggest change for me is that I now understand that it’s not just about how much you work out but more about the combination of things that you do on a day-to-day basis: what you eat, how much sleep you get, the type of workouts you do, and how you manage your stress. 

I believe it’s what you do every day that matters, so I start each day with a big glass of water (usually with lemon juice and a dash of cayenne pepper) to get my metabolism going and a short meditation to start my day centred and clear.

Then I practice yoga (some days I go to class and others I just stretch on my mat at home) and go for a walk with my dog, Roger, and husband, Bill. I strength-train twice a week and go for long beach walks or hikes on the weekend.

I drink lots of water and eat fresh, whole foods that are sourced locally, usually organic and in season. I regularly include gut-friendly foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut in my meals, some supplements (collagen and antioxidants), and I try to drink kombucha most days!

What does “aging gracefully” mean to you?

Aging gracefully for me would be the same as living gracefully. It doesn’t matter what age you are, I believe it’s important to be true to yourself, live authentically, and treat others with the respect and courtesy they deserve. I don’t think that women should have to alter what they do or change their behavior because of their age. Just be true to yourself and avoid comparing yourself to someone else or trying to act in a certain way to fit someone else’s expectations. 

Greatest age-related “pain”?

I hate that I have to wear glasses to read now that I’m in my 50s! I’m always losing them, and the time wasted looking for them drives me crazy.

Greatest age-related “pleasure”? 

I think one of the greatest pleasures of getting older is that you become more confident in your own skin. I’ve found that I now care less about what others think of me and more sure about my decisions and where I’m going with my life.

Name three things you are grateful for and how they fit into your life.

1. My people: my husband, my family, my friends, my dog (because he is a people!), my team, and my customers. They’re daily parts of my life. They are what matters to me the most, and they inspire me in so many ways.

2. My health and happiness. Health is your wealth, and it’s sad that so many people don’t realize that until they get sick or injured. Taking care of my health (both physically and mentally) is of utmost importance to me, and I work on it every day.

3. The opportunities I have been given. I am so grateful that I get to do what I love every single day, that I get to educate, inspire, and empower women toward health and fitness. That I get to design and create amazing activewear that women all over the world actually want to wear. And that I get to share this experience with so many people whom I just like to hang out with every day. It’s a dream come true! 

To shop Lorna Jane, go to lornajane.com. For more wellness inspiration from the Australian fitness guru, follow @ljclarkson@lornajaneactive.

Photos: Courtesy of Lorna Jane

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