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Jennifer James Throws a Curve into the Activewear Market

The athleisure designs won approval with the Dallas Wings and entertainer Tamela Mann.

Jennifer James prepares a pattern for her athleisure wear on a cutting table at the Sharon Young Group, which manufactures her Active Ego line. The brand is under her Jennifer James Collection umbrella. Photo by Robert W. Hart

Jennifer James Throws a Curve into the Activewear Market

The athleisure designs won approval with the Dallas Wings and entertainer Tamela Mann.

As a student of movement science and kinesiology at TCU, Jennifer Coleman James ’09 pictured herself working as a physical therapist. Instead, the Dallas native ventured onto an unexpected path in the fashion industry.

James has built an acclaimed clothing brand by catering to an underrepresented segment of the women’s apparel market. Her entrepreneurial journey began after her second pregnancy, with daughter Riley, now 3.

Jennifer James with one of her Active Ego activewear tops. Photo by Robert W. Hart

Jennifer James with one of her Active Ego activewear tops. Photo by Robert W. Hart

“I wanted to get back to the gym but discovered I was now considered plus size,” James said. “The problem was the workout clothes for women like me were not what I wanted.”

James decided to create her own athleisure wardrobe. At the core were versatile staples such as leggings that do double duty for the gym as well as for the rest of her day.

She spent months deliberating on options in colors, quality and fit. Next, she employed a freelance designer to execute her vision.

“It was a fun hobby,” said James, who was working as a business consultant at the time.

When her husband, Joe, encouraged her to try the fashion market, she hired a project management company based in Chicago. “They would send me swatches in the mail and helped me find a factory in Los Angeles that would do small product runs,” James said.

In 2016, James tested the online retail waters by offering a T-shirt printed with the logo of Active Ego, the athleisure brand under the umbrella of the fledgling Jennifer James Collection. “I sold 40 shirts in two days for $35 apiece and was driving around the [Dallas-Fort Worth] area delivering them or shipping them out of state,” she recalled. “That was when I thought I might actually have a chance.”

Jennifer James talks with her team at the Sharon Young Group at their Dallas, TX facility about the high-quality fabric used in her active wear line Active Ego. Photo by Robert W. Hart

Jennifer James talks with her team at the Sharon Young Group at their Dallas, Texas, facility about the high-quality fabric used in her activewear line Active Ego. Photo by Robert W. Hart

A few months later, James hit a crossroads when her consulting job ended. “I decided to step out in faith and apply what I’d learned,” she said.

Her market research confirmed what she knew from personal experience. There were few options for activewear, workout gear and athleisure apparel in larger sizes, presenting an opportunity. Research firm Marketdata, for example, says that the plus-size market is growing more than 4 percent a year, with annual sales expected to top $25 billion by 2020. 

Now she and her husband, who owns a logistics company, are juggling two busy careers along with their daughter and son, Nathan, 7. “He and I try not to travel at the same time for the sake of our kids, and he understands what it’s like to sacrifice for a dream,” she said. “I fail a lot in trying to be a mom, a wife and a business owner. People talk about work-life balance, but I am not sure
it exists.”

“Jennifer’s vision and drive are what impress me most about her,” said Gabriel Williams ’14 MBA, who left Nike in 2017 to create a footwear brand named Davi. “For all the ups and downs, Jennifer is consistent and persistent in driving her business forward.”

Jennifer James, left, describes her vision to her Sharon Young Group team, which includes Kay Fries, director of private brands, and Ed Vierling, CEO. Photo by Robert W. Hart

Jennifer James, left, describes her vision to her Sharon Young Group team, which includes Kay Fries, director of private brands, and Ed Vierling, CEO. Photo by Robert W. Hart

One of the “downs” was discovering that without a well-paying, full-time job, she could not afford the Chicago-based project managers anymore. After cutting the company loose, James sought mentors like Williams and continued her self-education in the fashion business.

She also seized business opportunities such as an invitation from The Curvy Magazine to participate in its New York Fashion Week show. The online publication had discovered her through social media. Six weeks after that pivotal invite, James was in a Manhattan hotel room, steaming clothes and praying that the samples she brought would fit the runway models.

“The theme of the show was body image, and at the last minute organizers asked me to stand up in front of everyone to introduce my designs and tell them about Active Ego,” James said. “It was a huge moment for me. After the show, people were waiting for the website to launch, which we did quickly. I almost couldn’t believe we had 100 orders in one hour.” 

In planning her business, James knew she wanted her collections in retail stores but also wanted private-label and licensed apparel. She pursued the latter by contacting Nicole Smith, then the chief marketing officer of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.

Jennifer James works on a pattern on a cutting table at the Sharon Young Group where her clothing line Active Ego is manufactured. Photo by Robert W. Hart

Jennifer James works on a pattern on a cutting table at the Sharon Young Group where her clothing line Active Ego is manufactured. Photo by Robert W. Hart

“What she brought us genuinely solved a problem for plus-size customers who did not just want to wear a men’s boxy T,” said Smith, now a business consultant. “The fabrics were amazing, and the fit was awesome. I could tell by working with Jennifer that she has a level of perfectionism about everything she does.”

James won approval to manufacture apparel for the Wings.

Today, James employs designers, a production team, a chief operating officer and a business developer. Her public relations and marketing people are based in New York City.

“Jennifer has always pushed herself and is willing to take professional risks,” said LaTrice Ponton Loche ’09, one of James’ sorority sisters in Delta Sigma Theta. “The fact that she has been willing to step out on her own has enabled her company to grow tremendously in such a short time.”

Childhood friend Rachel Lindsay, an attorney who starred in the 13th season of ABC’s The Bachelorette in 2017, said James’ positivity accounts for much of her success. “She’s really a beacon of hope in her own right, and a lot of people can relate to her because she is so real.

“Jennifer has become an influencer in a wider community in part because she has never been just about herself,” Lindsay said. “She’s a great encourager and wants others to do well, too.”

Jennifer James shows off one of her clothing designs on a running path. Photo by Robert W. Hart

Jennifer James shows off one of her clothing designs on a running path. Photo by Robert W. Hart

As for current goals, James prioritizes “being physically, mentally and spiritually in shape.” Most days, she squeezes in a run on a track near her home in Grand Prairie, Texas. (“That’s my hour.”)

Under her parent company, James plans to launch two more labels soon: Every1, a lower-price clothing line, and Mann Family, a private-label partnership with entertainer Tamela Mann.

The time has come, James said, to bring aboard outside investors.

“We haven’t borrowed any money yet, but I’ve come to the point where I need to pursue that,” she said. “Outside money will take us to the next level.”

To achieve that end, James envisions a men’s collection, a maternity collection and a line of sports bras for cup sizes DD and up. “We’re working on it,” she said of the latter, “but the underwire is tricky” because some women prefer it and others don’t.

As her company expands, James is pushing for better business strategies and pursuing tactical publicity opportunities for her fashion-forward designs.

“As an entrepreneur, I have gotten so much great advice, but something I took to heart early on is that not every opportunity is a good opportunity,” she said. “It is sometimes hard to say no, but I have learned to stay focused and true to what I am.”