‘Heartbreaking’ fall of $50m Aussie icon

 

Julie Stevanja was the young, glamorous face of a thriving fashion favourite with a $30 million personal fortune in 2017.

But just two years later, Stylerunner - the activewear empire she had poured her "blood, sweat and tears" into - started to crumble.

Last month, customers were stunned after the activewear icon suddenly faced an uncertain future after abruptly going into administration.

It was a shocking fall for the beloved company, which claimed to be turning over $50 million annually as recently as last year and which had attracted a legion of loyal fans, both in Australia and across the globe.

BIRTH OF AN AUSSIE LEGEND

Ms Stevanja founded Stylerunner in 2012 after struggling to find trendy leggings after taking up yoga.

At the time, she was in her "dream job" at a tech start-up in London, but after spotting the gap in the market, she decided to take a gamble on her own fashion business alongside twin Sali, who left the business in 2015.

"I'm a girl who loves to shop and I was living in one of the most fashionable cities in the world - but I realised there was nowhere near the kind of offering for activewear a girl who loves fashion needs," she told news.com.au.

"I never imagined I would start a fashion business, I had never worked in fashion, but I saw a gap in the consumer offering and I thought, 'I've got to give this a go'.

Stylerunner helped cement the activewear trend. Picture: Instagram
Stylerunner helped cement the activewear trend. Picture: Instagram

"I thought that if I was excited by the idea, thousands of other women out there would be too."

She said learning about a brand new industry and starting a business from scratch was "as thrilling as it was terrifying", but Ms Stevanja did her due diligence and started small by attracting emerging international brands.

But soon, major players like Adidas were convinced Stylerunner was the "perfect home" for them, and it started to evolve into a fashion juggernaut.

The activewear trend took off - and Stylerunner helped to cement it as an everyday, fashionable staple and a "casual uniform", taking people from the gym to brunch and everywhere in between.

Ms Stevanja said it had been "incredibly rewarding" to see the public's response to her company right from the beginning.

"I gave up my dream job and invested quite a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it - I was working 18 to 20-hour days, taking naps in the office and then literally getting back to the next shift, so I was running on adrenaline and working around the clock," she said.

"The recognition we got in the first year was an amazing feeling … there's nothing like it, and I had a lot of pinch-me moments that I never expected would happen to me.

"Because of the feedback we were getting form the community, I immediately felt I was onto something."

But Ms Stevanja - a self-confessed "introvert" - said it was tough to get used to suddenly being in the public eye as her business boomed.

"I'm actually an introvert and that was one of the parts I really had to get used to - extroverts might think it sounds amazing (to be the face of a successful company) but I had to learn to get comfortable with interviews and standing on stage," she said.

Stylerunner became a true Aussie success story, and in 2017 Ms Stevanja was enjoying a staggering personal fortune, taking out the 87th place in the coveted AFR Young Rich list with a net worth of $30 million at the age of just 36.

Julie Stevanja made it on the 2017 Young Rich List. Picture: Instagram
Julie Stevanja made it on the 2017 Young Rich List. Picture: Instagram

"It was a privilege to be on the Young Rich List and it still feels surreal - a lot of people who I admire have made the list and for my first-ever business, it's not a bad milestone to achieve," she said.

CRACKS START TO APPEAR

But while the business grew from strength to strength, behind the scenes, trouble was brewing.

"Over the seven years the business continued to grow, improve and show efficiencies year on year - overall, the business fundamentals continued to be strong," Ms Stevanja said.

"While some of that slowed over the last couple of years - because it has been a tough retail climate - we managed to buck the trend."

But in the end, Stylerunner's woes came down to funding.

"What was difficult was finding funding in Australia … which has not been as easy as it might have been in other markets. Australia is really conservative and there is a lot of hesitation to invest, in retail in particular, and I can understand why due to retail headwinds globally," she said.

"But the point I always try to get across is our category has very little comparable competition even globally."

Ms Stevanja said Stylerunner went through several rounds of capital raising this year, but in the end, putting the business into administration was the "best thing to do", although it was a horrific time for her as the founder and face of the company.

"It was definitely heartbreaking and stressful - I have poured a lot into it, but my biggest concern was for the team. As a leader you want to look after people so I was really grateful the deal meant we were able to carry over staff," she said.

As Stylerunner grew, funding became a constant challenge. Picture: Instagram
As Stylerunner grew, funding became a constant challenge. Picture: Instagram

"It was a tough process and I feel I have grown so much going through it, both as a business person and personally.

"It's a stressful position to be in - constantly needing to raise capital to grow the business - and that has happened over years, so there was a real level of responsibility towards shareholders, the team and our partners. A lot of growing needs to happen to be able to continue to show up and fight for that, and it made me into the person I am today."

Months earlier, Ms Stevanja had been invited to be a speaker at the Nurture Her business leadership conference in Fiji - which fell on the weekend before the business went into administration, compounding her stress.

"It was a pretty momentous weekend to reflect on the journey and I felt very conflicted to be sharing my advice when my business was about to go down the path of administration," she said.

"I tried to be as raw and honest and informative as I could but it was a real moment of conflict, although at the same time I felt there was no better place to be, surrounded by 150 other business women.

"It was almost a fateful moment of my life."

NEW BEGINNINGS

On November 12, Stylerunner was saved after being sold to Accent Group Limited for an "undisclosed sum" - a result Ms Stevanja is "stoked" with.

It means staff members will keep their jobs and it will be business as usual for customers, with Ms Stevanja also staying on with the company for the next 12 months "at least".

Stylerunner has been saved from potential collapse.
Stylerunner has been saved from potential collapse.

"My ultimate message is a huge thank you for the support our customers have shown us leading up to and over the period we were in administration," she said.

"Having now landed on our feet, I'm really excited to have found Accent as a partner and as a consumer I'm also really excited about what's to come."

She said Stylerunner was now set to expand into bricks-and-mortar stores and would continue to scale.


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