Robb Reader: Marcello Leone

Having invested in the apparel line back in 2011, then acquired it fully in 2015, Marcello Leone has turned RYU (Respect Your Universe) from being a mixed martial arts brand into an urban athletic clothing outfitters which, as he puts it, “takes [the wearer] from a workout to a sophisticated urban environment”. They’ve now clocked up 11 successive quarters of growth – so what are Leone and his team doing right?

How did you come up with the name Respect Your Universe?
Respect is something that has resonated with me for as long as I can remember. I learned about its importance through my life experiences, from days at school through to building my own business. I came across Respect Your Universe as the name stood out to me – I was an investor in the business for a while but, being an MMA (mixed martial arts) brand, there was a sort of disconnection with the concept of respect – that’s why we transformed it from a mixed martial arts brand based in Portland to an urban athletic apparel brand headquartered in Vancouver.

When we made the first Respect Your Universe sweatshirt, I realised just how meaningful and powerful the message of respect is, and how it is our purpose to spread that message beyond the sweatshirts and pants.

What is it about athleisure, you feel, that appeals to modern consumers?
Athleisure essentially offers you the comfort of living between sport and fashion. People now fit in workouts around their daily activities and working life – comfort and functionality was needed in fashion. However, athleisure is now seen as apparel that takes you from the gym to the coffee shop. With RYU, I saw an opportunity to create something more sophisticated than athleisure, something that would transcend the category – RYU takes you from a workout to a sophisticated urban environment, such as the office or to a restaurant. Yes, there is a place for casual athleisure wear, but we wanted to establish a smarter line of sports apparel better suited to urban life.

Why is it so important for you to become a community-focused brand?
Community has never been more important. As we continue to grow as a globalised economy, the power of community is often overlooked, but it gives people a sense of belonging and brings people together to achieve something greater than they could do alone. This is an ethos we wanted to incorporate as part of the company’s DNA. Being a community-focused brand enables us to directly engage with our communities in-store. Experiential retail, for us, is developing a meaningful connection with the customers rather than just a “Hi, how are you?”. To date, RYU has hosted over 3,000 community activations and events, which is uncommon in today’s world of retail. People want to be a part of something bigger – nobody needs another store: people want to feel part of something.

What can you tell us about your global expansion plans?
We opened the first RYU store in my hometown of Vancouver, which is also the home of my family business, the renowned luxury retailer, Leone. Since then, we’ve opened a further five stores in Canada across British Colombia and Ontario. It was important to me to open stores on a local scale first before looking to expand globally. With the success of our Canadian stores, our next step was to take on the US – here we saw a global platform for RYU to reach a much wider, more diverse audience. We have two California stores in Venice Beach and Newport Beach and one in Williamsburg, New York. While we plan to continue our global expansion, it is imperative that we keep our communities as our focus, rather than follow the trends of global retailers.

In what situations do you get your strongest creative ideas?
We get the best ideas from the world around us: we spend most of our time out of our houses, between offices, buildings, gyms, restaurants, coffee bars, indoors, outdoors, cycling, walking, in an Uber. We need clothes that work for all of these requirements, clothes that are versatile for the world we live in. No one needs “another t-shirt” – we need quality clothes that make us feel good and look good, wherever the day takes us.

Who is the biggest inspiration to you and why?
My grandmother, one of the kindest and most respectful individuals I grew up with.

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