By Allan Brettman The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
Lululemon gets credit for starting the trend. It didn't take long for Nike, Adidas and Under Armour to seize on the vast potential of selling sports attire to women, too.
Good thing competition doesn't scare Lynn Le.
Le is in the early stages of starting Society Nine, a women's apparel and equipment brand taking aim at the mixed martial arts market.
In that niche, the big, mainstream apparel names aren't even among the 16 mixed martial arts brands Le calls most dominant.
The Portland woman has partnered with a product designer, selected a Los Angeles apparel cut-and-sew factory and found a boxing-gloves manufacturer in Pakistan. Society Nine has a slick website, with glossy photos featuring everyday women working out in gritty surroundings.
Now all Society Nine needs is money to back up the brand's premise.
Le is about 70 percent of the way toward hitting her $50,000 Kickstarter goal she says will be essential to establishing a production schedule with the contract manufacturers and lining up retail partners. Le also would use the money to display product the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas, the Ultimate Fighting Championship event in July.
Le is aware that she is wading into a tough, competitive market with seasoned players. There's Adidas Combat Sports. There's supermodel Giselle Bundchen beating the stuffing of a heavy bag on behalf of Under Armour. There's Adidas subsidiary Reebok announcing that it's jumping into women's mixed martial arts.
There's room for a tiny start-up to tap into a community of women who will be drawn the smaller upstart, says Le, a onetime kickboxing instructor with a brown belt in the combat sport of Krav Maga.
"We wanted to make a statement that this is a brand for female fighters," Le said from Los Angeles, where she is working with the cut-and-sew factory and handling other details in developing Society Nine. "We want to represent all bad-ass women... under the banner of strength and empowerment."
Le, 26, a University of Portland graduate in global business, became familiar with start-up funding in part through her work for a year-and-a-half as a fund associate with the Portland Seed Fund.
Last year, she was named one of six winners in the Portland Development Commission's PDX Startup Challenge. That $15,000 helped Le officially launch Society Nine -- a name that is an homage to Title IX -- last August.
Le has cultivated allies as she wades through the formative stages for Society Nine.
"Lynn has clearly identified a niche in the market and is solving a real consumer need," said Emma McIlroy, chief executive of women's clothing retailer Wildfang.
"Lynn has clearly identified a niche in the market and is solving a real consumer need. Not to mention she's relentless in her vision," said Scott Hamlin, co-founder of Portland-based LooptWorks, which turns recycled materials into bags and other products.
"Lynn's simply relentless -- she has more drive and diligence than any other young entrepreneur I've worked with," said Todd Silverstein, chief executive and co-founder of Portland-based social media company Vizify, which was acquired by Yahoo last year.
"Before Society Nine, she worked a job to specifically learn more about the apparel-manufacturing process. She was impressively scrappy in pulling together and testing her first prototypes. I keep watching her set goals and then power through them."
One of the first products Le targeted for redesign was the fight glove. Bigger brands' gloves were case studies of the sports apparel industry's historic approach to turning gear and clothing designed for men into something that could be marketed to women -- derisively known as "shrink it and pink it."
Society Nine's gloves have been contoured and curved to more naturally fit a woman's hand, Le said. The brand's apparel has also been designed specifically for women.
While plenty of bigger brands also have items that have been designed for women, Le says Society Nine's grassroots approach -- from forming early retail partnerships with gyms to forming a mixed martial arts community through social media -- should help distinguish the company.
The size of the mixed martial arts market for women in the United States is not easily quantifiable. Le prefers to point to industry figures that say women make up a quarter of all money spent on mixed martial arts, from equipment to gym memberships to entertainment.
She's also aware that Portland was not long ago home to Ryu, a mixed martial arts clothing brand that failed to find a sustainable niche in the market and last year moved its headquarters out of the city.
Ryu spent too much money too quickly on marketing and didn't have a clear customer focus, Le says. Sports Nine won't make the same mistakes, she said.
It also won't have the resources that Ryu had.
"Our focus at this time is on Kickstarter," Le said of the campaign scheduled to conclude at 8:25 a.m. Feb. 25, "and the effective use of capital."