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Beautiful Strength: Q&A with Belle Force Activewear Designer Kelsey O'Connell

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With a background in both dance and design, it was only natural for Kelsey O'Connell to create her own ballet inspired activewear collection. Thus, Belle Force was born. While she stopped seriously dancing a while ago, she is still in love with the art form, and modern dancers are her muses for pieces in her collection. Her collection exemplifies both beauty and strength–and Belle Force is French for "beautiful strength." Read on to learn more about Kelsey and her business.
    
What inspired you to create an activewear line out of all the different categories of clothing you could've gone into?

 The collection was really born out of a personal need. I was having a really difficult time finding functional, modern activewear that suited my personal aesthetic. Everything was neon + wild prints, and I wanted something more feminine, more subtle, more effortless. I couldn't find it in the marketplace, so I decided to make it.
  
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When and how did you start your business?
I first considered the concept for Belle Force about 4 years ago, and when I couldn’t shake the idea, I decided to start putting pen to paper. With my design background, it was natural for me to start with a mood board. It represented the color, aesthetic, and details I had in mind, but also the real essence of the brand. You have to decide who you are and what you stand for, and this informs every single decision you make, from how you present your brand online, to who you work with, to what you make, sell, and provide. It’s important to have something to anchor you to that vision from the beginning and steer you accordingly.
  
From there it was slow and steady. I started sketching the line, really honing in on the most important pieces to launch with. I found the perfect ballet pink. I scoured the market for the best materials, and while I stayed true to the vision, I allowed myself to be flexible and always inspired, making adjustments as I discovered new trims and ideas. I sampled, fit, corrected, wear tested over a number of months, allowing myself the time to really get the product perfect. This all took place on nights and weekends, while I was still in a full-time apparel design position. When I came to the point where I felt that I had built something that demanded and deserved more time is when I made the decision to leave my 9-5 and focus on building the brand. (Though I did still keep a part-time job – for cash flow and sanity). We officially launched the line in the summer of 2017 and just celebrated our first birthday!
   
social sunday belle force activewear
 
Can you tell us about your decision to keep production in the US -- and in New York in particular?
 
I love New York more than I can explain and certainly more than I ever imagined. I’m not a native, but I’ve been here for 8 years, and in that time, I have experienced so much wonder, learning, growth, opportunity, and adversity. It has truly shaped me as an individual and as a designer. The energy is contagious, where you’re surrounded by so many people that are here to chase their dreams.
This city is in our brand DNA. We live here, dream here, build here. We photograph our clothing on dancers from the American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and Juilliard. We buy our trims from mom and pop shops in the garment district, and we work with a decades-old family owned and run factory.

That’s the romantic side of it. From a practical side, working with a factory in the city is much more accessible for a small, bootstrapping company. We don’t have an extravagant budget for overseas travel, but we do have a metrocard! Our factory supports us as a small and growing business, and they allow us to work with smaller production runs (sometimes as small as 25 or 50 pieces!). It does increase the prices of our product, but with that comes higher quality and more attention to detail, and that aligns with our mission to provide something really special.
Lastly, but possibly most importantly, we are glad to have a reduced environmental impact with our development and production. We don’t have that all figured out yet – we do still import some of our materials – but we are able to minimize our footprint by avoiding the overseas travel, frequent international shipments of samples, and more. Again, there’s more we can do, but we feel good about the small impact we’re having.
 
We are looking into expanding our production to include California, as well. As we continue to grow and make these adjustments, we will always make sure they align with our values, and at this time, that means keeping it all as local as possible. 
 

  
What's your favorite item you have for sale right now?

 
Our Gala Bra is the brand’s “firstborn” and still one of my favorite pieces to date. It’s the first piece I imagined as I daydreamed about what we’d build. It’s beautiful, functional, comfortable. It’s pretty and strong, just like our muses and community of women. (We recently sold out of our stock, but are making more very soon!)
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What's your favorite work out class in New York lately?
 
I really believe in a varied approach to fitness, so I love to fit as many different types of workouts into my schedule as possible. The ideal week would include yoga, dance cardio, HIIT, pilates, barre, and maybe a row or boxing class. I do love a studio that combines some of these disciplines, and I’ve taken some great classes lately at Bari, Xtend Tribeca, and Jane Do.
 
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What advice do you have for other women business owners? 
  
I think we’re all looking to strike some sort of balance between our personal and professional commitments. It’s a constant challenge, but I have made some strides lately. One thing that’s really helped me is a shift in perspective to take advantage of opportunities to add balance. Rather than having a black and white work vs play mindset, I get creative with ways to make them coexist in a way that works for you. For me, that might be combining my workout + plans with a friend, and we schedule a class together. When I’m traveling for personal reasons, I try to squeeze in a quick meeting or trunk show, so I can share Belle Force with a new audience. On the flip side, if I’m traveling for a work opportunity, I invite my husband along, and we make a vacation out of it!
   
Shop Belle Force HERE and be sure to follow the brand on Instagram HERE
 

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