Nadine’s fitness wear was a big hit at this pop-up show in New York City in January.

by Grant Moser

Devigi is a fitness apparel line by 43-year-old Chestnut Hill resident Nadine Gelberg, Ph.D., that launched in January of this year with personal savings and assistance from family members. Combining bamboo with cotton, spandex and polyester, the clothes are “form-flattering,” in her words. These are clothes to fit a person, not a hanger; which poses her biggest challenge in selling them.

“Our biggest challenge is still our distribution,” she explained. “We don’t have a wholesale model. We don’t own a retail location. We do have an online presence, but our main asset is how the clothes look on people, so people need to try them on. They don’t sell off the rack well. So what we’ve hit on is a pop-up shop model.”

A pop-up shop refers to a temporary venue, whether at a fair, a vacant storefront or at an event. The store “pops up” for a limited time, normally a day or two, and then is taken down. In the case of start-ups, they provide flexible and changing retail spaces without the overhead of a fixed location.

Gelberg’s pop-up shops provide customers the opportunity to feel the softness of the clothes, see them displayed on mannequins and even try them on to see how well they fit. Her consistent success in terms of revenue at pop-up shops supports her theory that people need to handle the clothes and try them on.

Her apparel is designed to fit and flatter all body types. It might be tight across the chest but is looser around the belly. “These are for the 5-k athlete, not the marathoner,” Nadine pointed out. “For those of us who have a kid and haven’t gotten rid of all the baby belly … Nothing motivates or is more confidence building than knowing we look and feel good in our clothing. There is no reason workout clothes should make us self-conscious by emphasizing unwanted curves.”

When designing the clothes, the idea of fashion was forefront in Gelberg’s mind. Nadine, who herself is only about 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, knew that when people are working out, they’re next to friends, neighbors, clients, even employers. Not to mention stopping at the supermarket on the way home.

When she started Devigi, one aspect she hadn’t thought through was loading and unloading of supplies for the pop-up shops. (The word “Devigi” comes from the universal language Esperanto, meaning “compel” or “drive.”) For her to bring an array of colors, sizes and styles, she fills four full racks. Each rack averages 60 items. Then there’s the matter of the mannequins to show her clothes. “All that does not fit in the Ford Explorer,” she said. “That’s the biggest surprise. It’s a lot of work, and the biggest lesson so far is that I need a bigger vehicle.”

She also had to learn quickly about the production side of the business. Her background is in helping sports technology companies and small business consulting, so she was familiar with the marketing side of the business but not the manufacturing part. She talked to a number of people for advice and finally connected with Steve Levin at CSH Cut & Sew in Port Richmond.

Staying local for production was important to Gelberg because she wanted to be on top of what’s happening. (Examples of her prices are $38 for tank tops, $89 for bottoms and $95 for covers.) She visits the factory often to see how different fabrics look with different patterns and to determine what works before actual production. “I didn’t know how to give specs to someplace in China, and there’s nothing like tweaking something face to face,” she explained.

Another upside to local production that Nadine discovered was that she now had a partner, not just a supplier. Levin introduced her to embroidery and printing businesses, coordinates the production line and even drives samples to her the day she needs them. There’s no worrying when the ship will arrive in port from China with her goods.

To get her clothes in front of people, she is also working with a number of gyms to sell her clothes on consignment. “It’s great for customers to touch and feel the product,” she said. “Also, a lot of these places don’t have a pro shop, so we give them the opportunity to have something to sell to their customers and decorate their lobby and provide another source of revenue. There’s no cost on their part, and they can switch out inventory every few weeks or quarter.”

Between the pop-up shops, consignment stores at gyms and the Internet, Devigi has sold clothes to customers in 40 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. Even though Gelberg, who is essentially a one-woman operation, is pleased with the success her business has had in its first seven months, she admits business is spiky.

Nadine shows off some of her own product line.

After her clothes were featured on The Today Show, she had orders flying in for three days. Then it slowed down. When her business is mentioned in newspaper or Internet articles, she sees a slight bump. Then it evens out again. She does get discouraged sometimes.

“One day I came home and was a bit discouraged, and my husband said, ‘Black Friday is Black Friday for a reason.’ Our price point isn’t high enough that two customers make our day but not low enough that we’re in every store across the country. Figuring out that place in between is really the challenge.”

For the near future, Nadine would like to triple the number of gyms she works with. And, of course, do as many pop-up shops as possible. “The great thing about them is I get to see the customers’ faces when they try the clothes on. People are so happy. It’s the reason I started this.”

Gelberg grew up in center city but has lived in Chestnut Hill for the last seven years. She has one daughter, Haley, 15, who is “integral to the business.” Nadine’s husband, Carl Teter, is “the head car loader.” Otherwise, he is an energy efficiency engineer for a local environmental engineering and energy consulting firm.

Nadine Gelberg has a doctorate degree in sport technology policy from Penn State University and more than 15 years of professional and academic expertise analyzing how technology impacts sports. For more about Devigi, visit devigi.com.