Sports bras and T-shirts designed by Stephen Liu will set you back about $159 a piece, topping the prices commanded by Lululemon and other high-end activewear brands. And though the orthopedic surgeon did not initially target them, his products are gaining popularity with workout enthusiasts and others looking to improve their posture and body mechanics.
“We weren’t trying to develop an apparel or fitness brand; we’re trying to build product that combines fashion and science, that’s also sleek, and stylish, and that affects the body in a way that was not seen before in any other clothing,” Liu said. “Now, two years after (going to market), we’re profitable.”
He founded IFGFit Inc., doing business as Forme, in 2015, and spent the next four years developing the technology behind garments’ structure and honing the production methods with his contract manufacturing partners in Orange County and East Los Angeles. Forme imports about 70% of its fabrics but keeps all of its manufacturing local to protect the company’s 25 patents and keep a close eye on quality.
“Our bra is made of six different fabrics and eight panels that are put together,” Liu said, adding that “every panel has two layers of fabric, so there are two different tensions — on the outside and on the inside layer. And then on the back … there’s a nice mesh and a little tension band.”
Liu likened the detailed process to “making a jigsaw puzzle” that required numerous trial runs.
“It took us almost a year to get to the perfect product,” he said. “We had to make sure that different factories can do different things. We have one factory that just makes bras and shorts and leggings, and then we have another factory that makes our shirts and some of the men’s products. We also have a manufacturer that’s doing our arch boosters socks that we’re going to be launching this month.”
Liu’s mother’s battle with cancer provided him with insight into lesser-known complications from chemotherapy and eventually served as the driving force behind Forme.
“It basically puts you in a very poor posture — hunching over, compressing your lungs — and as an orthopedic surgeon, the only thing I could do for it was to pull her shoulders back so she can sit up better, breathe better,” he said. “After she passed away, I decided to dedicate myself to building a product that would help a lot of cancer patients, and not only that, but would help a lot of people in the society because most of us have a habitual, chronic poor posture from our jobs, and daily living. … And that’s what is the devastation of our health care costs, over a $100 billion every year.”
Liu added that wearing a strap or a back brace is not comfortable and can cause muscle atrophy in some cases. Forme products on other hand were engineered to allow the shoulders to rotate back and down over time and help the wearer develop muscle memory for good posture.
For example, Forme’s T-shirt has an “inner layer that that people can’t see that has a very strong effect on pulling the shoulder back because it brings the scapula, which is the wing of the shoulder down and back,” Liu said.
“When it does that, your shoulders are balanced and you look taller, and the chest is open, and you’re able to breathe better and it engages the muscle to do all that,” he said. “So, you’re actually elongating the body, not compressing the body.”
Providing a comfortable solution also tends to soften the blow that comes from fairly steep product price, Liu said, adding that once the consumers “figure out they don’t have to go to the doctor as often, or physical therapist or chiropractor, it’s really a big time-saving for their productivity and for their health.”
Building on this effort, Liu registered Forme offerings with the Food and Drug Administration as medical devices. The classification enables consumers to use funds from their flexible spending accounts or health savings accounts to buy Forme products.
Forme started selling its first activewear collection in May 2019. Its product lineup now includes sports bras, T-shirts, shorts and leggings for women, as well as T-shirts, polo shirts and shorts for men. About 95% of the merchandise is sold via ecommerce, and the rest reaches consumers via a handful golf shops throughout the country.
“We have gained over 100,000 clients through just digital marketing,” Liu said.
While ecommerce is working, Liu added that a brick-and-mortar store “on the West side of L.A.,” where consumers can stop by try the product and feel the fabrics would help boost Forme’s visibility.
“Right now, a lot of the high-performance golf shops are our retail places where people go and try it out,” he said. “But I see ourselves having a nice store, probably sometime next year when we expand our brand. Because it does require trying out a product to really feel the body transformation, and that’s what people don’t appreciate when they see an ad. … Unless you wear it, you really not going to appreciate this.”
Forme has raised $8 million to date and is in a middle of another fundraising round. The company’s early supporters included doctors, dentists and entrepreneurs. Because the business is cash flow positive, Liu said he’s now fielding offers from strategic investors only.
Prior to Forme, Liu said, he has built and sold several small medical device companies. He is also involved in a medical technology fund that has 23 ventures in its portfolio.
“I’ve seen a lot of failures and a lot of success, and it’s not all rosy — you have to have a good vision, and you really have to put your energy, passion and your money into the company,” he said. “Otherwise, taking people’s money is really not a lot of fun. Every company I’m involved with, I put a lot more money into it myself than other people. And it’s not only about (retaining) control. You want to show people that you are really passionate, and you have skin in the game.”
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