Meet the founder who built a multimillion-dollar athleisure brand in the US from scratch

Denise Lee, founder and CEO of Alala, shares her journey of establishing a successful fashion business beloved by celebrities and fitness enthusiasts.

By SGN | 4 Jul 2023

As a child in Singapore, Denise grew up around a family business that manufactured clothing for global brands. This exposure to entrepreneurship at a young age seeded in her a desire to one day start a company of her own.

After graduating from Northwestern University in Chicago, Denise moved to New York City. “I knew I wanted to be in the fashion industry, so New York was an obvious choice for me,” she says.

Later, she obtained an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business, then spent three years at Burch Creative Capital – the storied investment firm by billionaire Christopher Burch, which invested in and launched successful labels such as Staud, Danielle Guizio and Tory Burch. There, she learned the ropes of building a fashion brand, from visiting factories and retail spaces to managing marketing and ecommerce.

In 2013, inspiration for a business idea struck unexpectedly. While preparing for a triathlon, Denise scoured New York’s activewear brands only to find that there was no gear that reflected her sense of style while supporting her training regime effectively. “I craved for a brand that was fashion-forward and also something I could wear all day. This was how the idea for Alala came about.”

Naivety was an asset

“The challenges of getting a business off the ground are endless!” Denise laughs. “Being naive at the start was probably an asset. If I had known how difficult it would be, I probably would not have started.”

Nurturing your network is vital, she notes, adding that social media is an excellent way to keep in touch with a wide range of people. In the eight years of working and studying in New York prior to starting Alala, Denise always made sure to preserve good relationships.

“People underestimate how important the likeability factor is when you are running a business,” she says. “Always come at it with the mindset of giving, without the expectation of a return. If you look at your network through a purely transactional lens, you will find that people are less likely to want to help you.”

Behind the scenes of one of Alala’s first seasons and its accompanying lookbook.
Early days: (left) Alala’s window display at Bloomingdale’s 59th Street in 2014; (right) Denise lugging samples to magazine editors in New York City.

Denise’s choice of industry turned out to be a huge boon. Over the last ten years, activewear has experienced explosive growth and demonstrated huge market potential. To break out and be successful amid the stiff competition, however, she has had to be laser-focused on the customer she serves and the problem being solved for that customer.

This poses a bigger challenge for overseas businesses breaking into the American market. “If you are a Singapore-based entrepreneur looking to launch in the US, spend some time studying and observing the trends, the language, the cultural references that your ideal client has,” she advises.

“Growing up in Singapore, we are taught to listen to our elders. As an entrepreneur, it’s much more important to develop your own gut instinct and intuition, and not to defer to other people’s opinions just because they’re older than you. This is something that I regret not doing sooner.”

From zero to multimillions

In the decade since its launch, Alala has grown into a multimillion-dollar business with a global fanbase, a leader in the premium activewear space that produces functional yet fashion-forward garments for women.

“We’ve established ourselves as a brand for quality, sophisticated pieces that you’ll want to wear year after year,” Denise explains, “not just trendy designs that fall apart after two to three washes or go out of style after a season.”

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Alala is a premium activewear brand for women producing pieces that are functional and fashion-forward.

Alala worn by celebrities over the years: (left) Jessica Alba in a white Alala top on the cover of Women’s Health magazine; (right) Chrissy Teigen in Alala’s chartreuse set at Disneyland with her family.

Denise proudly leads a staff of all women – a circumstance that came about naturally as she hired people who aligned with the company’s mission. As a result, the team is collectively able to deeply understand customers’ needs and develop thoughtful, well-fitted designs that set Alala apart from other brands.

“With an all-female team, we can speak freely about how certain designs suit or flatter our own bodies. We’ve always invested in fitting to produce the best products for our customers,” she says.

Alala’s products are currently sold online (shipping internationally, including to Singapore) as well as at dozens of US retailers such as Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Revolve and Equinox. The most highly sought-after items include Serena tennis dresses and the highly versatile Barre Seamless range. Beyond activewear, their catalogue also offers lightweight cashmere tops and elegant mock-neck pieces that may be worn to work.

Alala’s all-female team is able to understand and cater to their customers’ wants and needs.

Remembering her roots

As a seasoned entrepreneur, Denise now hopes to pass her knowledge on as an advisor to younger female founders. “Coming up in the business, I did not have a lot of female role models,” she says. “It’s my hope that, by sharing my experiences and my mistakes with others, they can go further and faster.” She also sits on the board of Take the Lead, an organisation that nurtures and propels female leaders.

Through communities such as Singapore Global Network and The Breakfast Club – which was started by a fellow Singaporean in New York City – Denise gets to connect with other Asians and entrepreneurs. During the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in May this year, Alala’s marketing platforms were used to raise awareness of Asian female-led businesses.

Recently, Alala collaborated with Love, Bonito – a Singapore fashion brand that operates a store in SoHo – to organise a doggy day out for their customers. “Thanks to a hotpot dinner with some other NYC-based Singaporeans, I connected with the Love, Bonito team here, then was invited to speak on a panel when [co-founder] Rachel was in town,” Denise recalls. “From there, we kept the friendship going and were finally able to find an opportunity to collab!”

Looking back, Denise says that living in the US for over two decades has helped reinforce her Singaporean identity. “It has made me prouder to be Singaporean. I don’t take it for granted, especially seeing some of the instability and inequality here in the US over the last few years.

“My heart will always be with Singapore, and I hope to spend more time back home as my business grows and matures.”

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About Denise

Denise is the founder and CEO of Alala, a premium activewear brand for vibrant women with sophisticated style. A Singaporean based in New York City, she holds an MBA from NYU’s Stern School of Business.

Connect with her here.

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