Fitness means business in Charleston 

Sweat is sexy

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Instagram introduces you – the natural light, the bright colors, the beautiful bodies.

When you walk in the door, it comes to life. The welcoming faces behind the desk, poster-size portraits of toned instructors, the chalkboard that lists your workout options. A month unlimited for $125? Not bad, considering there's free street parking. You'll take it.

It's a fitness studio, sure. There are lockers and showers, mats and towels (for rent), and energy drinks (for sale). There's also a rack of shorts, leggings, and neon bras ($65). The artwork (local) adds a nice touch.

And then there's the mirrored, heated room — the main event — pulsating with energy. It's hot. It's full. You squeeze your yoga mat between two strangers, each one happily making space. Twinkling lights reflect in the full-length mirrors.

Your instructor walks in. She's a force to be reckoned with: muscles visible through leopard print pants, words that encourage you — and push you to your edge. She's here to make you feel as powerful as she looks.

The music turns on. You start moving. You sweat. The mirrors steam.

This is a daily fitness ritual in Charleston, 2019. And people are here for it.

Convenience is chic, baby

"I can't live here without hot yoga."

Vedrana Gjivoje moved to Charleston last year. A yoga teacher and frequent practitioner at Power Flow Yoga in New Jersey, Gjivoje tried out several yoga studios in the area, but realized none had exactly what she was looking for.

click to enlarge Vedrana Gjivoje opens two yoga studios in Mt. Pleasant this year - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Vedrana Gjivoje opens two yoga studios in Mt. Pleasant this year

Her wish list was simple enough: a studio within 20 minutes of her house in Mt. Pleasant that offered hot yoga and had showers. When she didn't find it, she did what any reasonable yogi would do: She built her own. Two, actually. Today, Power Flow Yoga is open at its Seaside Farms location, retrofitted in an old fitness studio. The Park West location, built from the ground up, opens later this month.

"My husband and I were like, we can't sit around and wait for someone to do it, and we had the wherewithal to do it," she says. "They're each going to have at least two showers, changing rooms, filtered water, infrared heat, a great sound system, and be as aesthetically pleasing as possible."

Mt. Pleasant is growing faster than Seattle, Austin, and Denver. And like these hip cities, the area's fitness offerings are growing to fit the needs of new residents.

"I think once people sample the offerings, they will be able to see the difference," says Gjivoje. "People in Dunes West are not driving to the tip of Mt. Pleasant to do hot yoga." The goal, of course, is that people will be looking for the convenience of a studio close to home. And that studio will have everything they need.

Just as Gjivoje looks for the convenience of location when it comes to yoga, many people decide based on choice and affordability. That's where ClassPass, an international membership to gyms and studios around the world, comes in. ClassPass launched in Charleston in November 2018.

When we spoke to a director at ClassPass last month they offered some insight into how the company, which has been recognized as one of Forbes' "Next Billion-Dollar Startups," works. "We decided to launch in Charleston after thorough analyses that included an increased demand from local studios, interest from customers, and a truly robust fitness scene in Charleston," says Kinsey Livingston, ClassPass' senior director of partner development.

With over 30 partner gyms and studios in the surrounding area, ClassPass makes it easy for users to bop from one studio to another — getting their fill of yoga, cycling, strength training, you get the idea. This concept of mixing up workouts has bled into local studios, too.

"You find people want diversity, but still want the community-minded approach," says Jennie Brooks, owner of Longevity Fitness. Brooks responds to the needs of her clientele by offering a variety of classes in Longevity's downtown Rutledge Avenue penthouse space in a modern building near the medical district. Prices for packages at Longevity start at $250 a month for unlimited group classes. You can take classic Pilates on a Wednesday night and head back on a Thursday morning for Sweat Therapy, a Brooks specialty that combines HIIT, strength training, cardio, and Pilates.

But Brooks will be the first to tell you — fitness is just a small part of what she wants to offer Charleston.

Concierge service

"What we're trying to do is combine more hospitality with clients," says Brooks. "We're very service oriented. It's like a boutique hotel experience. You feel very catered to. We want to go above and beyond what our clients want or expect."

Alan Shaw and Trinity Wheeler, owners of Rhapsody CrossFit, are also looking to create a service-oriented gym — and yes, that is possible in a CrossFit gym. Rhapsody opened off King Street (next to Graft wine shop) last summer. Former members of CrossFit NYC, Shaw and Wheeler are proponents of CrossFit, sure, but they also understand that gyms have changed.

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"We're answering the evolution of gyms," says Wheeler. "Our whole thing was, when CrossFit started out it was in warehouses without A/C. It was an incredible method, but over time that model has changed. It's the same great programming that we believe in, but the expectation is that it comes with a top of the line facility, A/C, showers." Rhapsody even keeps Springbok Coffee cold brew on tap.

"I want the mom to be able to drop her kids off and then come into a well-maintained, clean facility where she knows she can beast mode it," says Shaw, who is also Rhapsody's head coach. Wheeler and Shaw want to offer members "absolutely the best experience as far as fitness."

That experience has become crucial to these boutique gyms. At Rhapsody, your $180/month unlimited includes access to the gym's "brain trust," a group of fitness folks the gym has on hand for advice at any time. This includes a wellness coach, nutritionist, and physical therapist. Rhapsody's ultimate goal is to take a broader look at health and fitness. "CrossFit is our brand," says Shaw, "but it's about making everyone a better human inside and outside the gym as well."

That whole body experience is nothing new to another Charleston boutique gym owner, Sarah Frick, whose "sweat studio," The Works, opens in its permanent location on Meeting Street this spring. Currently operating out of the former Bikram, and later Redux Yoga, space on Spring Street, The Works ($125/month unlimited) is my drug of choice. Sweaty, hot, loud, and always super full, this space checks the boxes of everything boutique fitness wants to be.

Frick understands that. "The way I thought about The Works was, if I didn't do it, somebody from New York was coming down to do it in a skinny."

The co-founder of Charleston Power Yoga (CPY), which opened its King Street location over a decade ago, Frick knows her way around the fitness world in Charleston. And she's grown with the city.

"When I opened CPY, I was under the umbrella of Charleston Power Yoga," she says. "Now, I'm under the umbrella of me. You yourself become a brand. You push harder, do better, and bring it home to the people."

Frick's energy is palpable, and her business savvy — with some help from sexy marketing from the Randolph Company, specifically Carter Foxworth — has made it possible for her to build a gorgeous new studio in The Guild, a mixed use building in downtown Charleston where top floor studio apartments rent for $3,000 a month. The Works is working.

"We have become a destination," says Frick. "We've been asked to bring The Works to other cities. You're selling a feeling too. All that goes hand in hand — how you feel, how you look."

Selling a feeling comes with all the accessories, too, from coconut water to pop-ups pushing crop tops and pleather yoga pants. It is an experience, after all. "I've worked out a lot in New York and L.A.," says Foxworth. "And it's just the level we want to be. If you're paying the premium price, the studio is going to be really nice and you're getting what you need."

"It's concierge service," says Frick. "It's not cheap to do what we do and we want to give people the respect they deserve and when they're giving you their undivided attention and buying a pass, we respond to that."

Selling on social

Before anyone walks through the doors of one of these chic sweat spaces, though, they've got to know the place even exists. "It's time consuming," admits Brooks from Longevity, when talking about branding and social media. "We're delivering a certain message. And what a wonderful opportunity to have who you want to target and build a sense of community. It's a wonderful trend, you kind of have to embrace it."

Online platforms have become major forces in the way fitness studios sell themselves to new customers while also keeping loyal customers coming back for more.

Rhapsody's Shaw says social media is a place for gym members to connect outside of the four walls of their workout space. "It's about showing people's stories and focusing on people interacting with each other," he says. "We found early on that showing people lifting weights or doing exercises didn't perform nearly as well as two members hugging."

For most organizations, social media is the life force that drives interaction with current and potential customers. Take Oblique Magazine, for example, a local print publication that has been steadily pumping out fitness content for 13 years. In the past year Oblique has stepped up their online presence, largely thanks to consultant and sales manager, Susan "Q" Patterson.

click to enlarge Susan “Q” Patterson teaches yoga at Urban Yoga on King Street and at local O2 locations - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Susan “Q” Patterson teaches yoga at Urban Yoga on King Street and at local O2 locations

"There are so many untapped markets and potential for this magazine, it's incredible," says Patterson, who is also a local yoga, spin, and barre instructor. Yes, a print publication that is expanding in 2019.

"Social media is based off of the concept of storytelling," says Patterson. Just look at Instagram Stories — people want more than a picture. "It's such a cool platform for people to be entrepreneurial and creative," she says. "You can build a business and a company, but how do you let people know what you're doing?"

Oblique uses their social media to push pop-up events, which often take place at a bar or restaurant and feature a workout with food and drink specials, giveaways, and pop-up gear selections. Led by the "Oblique Fit Gurls," these pop-ups have featured glow in the dark hip-hop cardio, live DJs, and most recently, a Mad Hatter-themed brunch party at the Grand Bohemian Hotel.

"It's very community based," says Patterson of the workouts Oblique is hosting around town. "Women go there to hang out and escape. It's their release, their special place to be social and healthy and fit. Wellness is the new black. Women are taking care of themselves. They're empowered and they're supporting other women."

Fitness pop-ups — especially ones centered around social events like dancing or drinking — are everywhere these days, and people are noticing. Two local women interested in fitness, Margaret Godowns and Langley Altman, noticed so many of the impromptu workouts that they decided to create an Instagram dedicated entirely to the phenomenon.

click to enlarge Margaret Godowns and Langley Altman noticed a lot of fitness pop-ups around town — so they started an instagram to spread the good news - BEN JACK
  • Ben Jack
  • Margaret Godowns and Langley Altman noticed a lot of fitness pop-ups around town — so they started an instagram to spread the good news

"We both did dry January and were super committed," Godowns says, describing how this whole Instagram thing started. They quickly realized that they'd need to fill their time on the weekends with activities that weren't centered around booze — not always an easy feat in Charleston. Turns out though, it was easier than they'd expected.

"It seemed like every single weekend there was so much workout stuff to do," says Godowns. She and Altman found that there wasn't a local Instagram account or website dedicated solely to advertising these pop-up events, so they created one, Pop Hop Chs. "The shift is definitely real in Charleston," says Godowns. "It feels kind of like a wellness hub, like in New York or L.A. or Austin."

It's a workout. It's social. And more often than not, it's a chance for you to rock your best athletic clothes. This rise in boutique fitness has given way to a new kind of fashion altogether. Yes, we're talking about athleisure.

Oh girl your silhouette

Last month, Levi Strauss & Co. started trading publicly, big news for a 165-year-old company founded during the California Gold Rush. But getting there required more than just selling a bunch of denim; as the New York Times writes, "The listing is a milestone for Levi's, which has experienced a resurgence in the past decade, overhauling its image, operations, and the stretch in its jeans to resonate with today's shoppers who are increasingly disposed to athleisure wear."

That's right, even Levi's is competing with yoga pants.

Yoga pants are comfortable — the stretch! — and generally flattering. And the options for what to wear are forever growing; area companies are catching on to the trend.

You can walk into any local fitness studio and shop branded tees and tanks, gear and healthy snacks. At The Works, shop cute clothes from Fit Atelier, a Charlotte-based "experiential retail concept" that sees workouts as the new form of entertainment and their clothes as the "new going out outfits."

And it's not just fitness-focused studios selling athleisure and athletic-geared clothing.

Patterson has called in high-end local women's boutiques like Hampden Clothing and Gwynn's of Mt. Pleasant for photo spreads in Oblique. A recent shoot featured model Jackie McKelvey, a spin instructor at Revolution, wearing top-of-the-line leggings, sneakers, and a bralette — an outfit that would cost just over $700. That's where athleisure is headed: We're no longer dressing for work-to-happy hour transitions. Now it's all about moving from workout to happy hour, and looking good while doing it.

Patterson has worked with digital content producer and former Miss South Carolina, Megan Pinckney, on some of Oblique's photo spreads. Pinckney has over 17,000 Instagram followers and knows a thing or two about where fashion trends are headed, especially those in the fitness world.

"This is a classic example of the market conforming to fit the consumer's needs," says Pinckney. "I remember growing up as a dancer, I would leave practice late at night and be so embarrassed to walk into a restaurant for dinner in my sweats and workout clothes. Today, there's an entire industry that exists for those moments where you have to proceed with life immediately following your workouts."

Life in between workouts — what does that look like for you? For me it looks like work, time at home, and drinks with friends. But then it's back to my mat, chasing the feeling of getting stronger, faster, better all the time. I'm lucky — I've found workouts that work for me. Not everyone has that luxury.

But social media, young and ambitious fitness leaders, and accessible, affordable workouts are making fitness easier to find all the time. You've just got to know where to look.

"I want to help these women"

Timesha Moody ran track on scholarship at College of Charleston until her junior year of college. When she stopped running, she kept working out — it's all she knew — and she started to notice that what felt like second nature to her didn't come nearly as easily to other women.

click to enlarge Timesha Moody started a group at CofC, Pretty Active, to educate and empower women about fitness
  • Timesha Moody started a group at CofC, Pretty Active, to educate and empower women about fitness

"My friends would say, 'Hey can you work out with me, can you put me through a workout?' and they would tell me how intimidated they are to go into a gym and be judged and looked at differently," says Moody. "That was a problem I was hearing a lot. This really is a thing, where women aren't as confident as I thought."

Moody realized that if she hadn't had years of sports and training under her belt, she'd probably be pretty lost in the gym, too. So, in the spring of 2018, Moody's final semester at CofC, she started Pretty Active, an organization which seeks to "educate, empower, and diversify young women through fitness in an effort to redefine the ideal image of the female body."

While Moody is out of school now, Pretty Active is still going strong, hosting events on campus that include workouts and info on nutrition, offering a healthy perspective that Moody says the campus is lacking. Moody is now a full-time personal trainer, picking up a lot of clients from her social media presence, and from hosting pop-up events with other local fitness instructors.

Moody, along with trainer Davon Gilliard and yoga teacher Ashley Limehouse, host Flyy Fitness Meet-Ups at Exemplar Fitness as part of a collaboration with the Charleston Activist Network (the meet-ups took a break this spring but return this summer). The workouts are geared towards minority women.

"There are not a lot of girls that look like me in this field," says Moody. "It's the best of both worlds. I could be one of the faces for this, but I still don't have anybody that can relate. I have to be the one who pushes myself." As a young entrepreneur, Moody is also finding the line between making a profit, and making workouts affordable for her clients.

Fitness is a business, after all. "You can't depend on one thing," laughs Moody. "You have to have multiple sources of income. You're capitalizing on what your niche is. You also don't want to have a niche! You want to be diverse and be able to teach different types of people."

That may sound exhausting, but these instructors aren't in it for the immediate payoff or the easy work days. In all the hours, the sweat, the social media posts, there's a lot of joy, too.

"It's an experience," says Moody, echoing the words of so many other fitness instructors and boutique gym owners. "People leave your class and they're like, 'I had fun even though she kicked my butt.'" Moody was impressed with the number of people who came to the Flyy Fitness meet-ups, even when she and Gilliard were putting them through tough workouts. "If you really put your all in something, it can grow really fast."

Like Moody, Frick acknowledges some of the pitfalls of owning your own fitness business — "I'm a glorified janitor therapist," she says. But she's also bringing a workout she believes in to people who want it. She's joined by Moody, Shaw and Wheeler, Brooks, Patterson, Gjivoje. Fitness fiends who believe in what they're offering, and know they're in the right place at the right time.

"There's something really powerful, there's a vibration in the crowded room," says Frick. "The sweat movement is big and important and I'm a big proponent of it. Charleston does have a lot to offer. There will definitely be more coming and getting picked up. And people are noticing."


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