Dalia Benjamin may be part of the famous FJ Benjamin family retail empire, but she plans to forge ahead in her active wear business, Athena, on her own terms. Just like the goddess the label is named after, she wants to empower women with wisdom and strength
Dalia Benjamin plays tennis and soccer (and even once coached children under 10), and does pilates. When Singapore was going through the “circuit breaker” early last year, she turned to running as gyms and sports facilities closed. That was what most of us did, too. The difference for Dalia was that she could not find activewear that fit her needs — so, she set out to create one.
She recalls: “A year ago, when I started to run, I realised there was nowhere to keep my things in my athletic wear. So why not create something that can achieve the functionality that everybody needs? I showed my sketches to my mum, she took it to her team, and after a year of research and development, we arrived at the place we are today.”
That was the start of Athena, an active or athleisure wear collection that produces utility leggings and sports bras that were created to give women the combination of functionality and style. The brand is named after the Greek goddess Athena who represents wisdom, courage, strength and inspiration.
“We went through a lot of different names before we landed on this one. We wanted the main goal to be for women to feel empowered when they put on their clothes, we want them to feel ready to attack their day or their workout. We wanted everyone to feel like they are Athena. It really was the perfect name for us,” Dalia says. She adds that she wants women to feel included and that is why her sizes run from small to extra-large. All Dalia wants is to have a product that women want and to reach out to as many women of different shapes and sizes as possible.
At the moment, Athena is sold online at https://athena-athletica.com. There are no plans to open a physical store. Dalia notes that the trend now is online businesses, but she is not ruling out the importance of a brick-and-mortar store: “I think customers still want to feel their items, try on their items. If I have the opportunity to open a store, I would take the opportunity.”
To get Athena off the ground, Dalia had valuable help from her family. Her parents are Odile and Douglas Benjamin who created Raoul, a defunct label dedicated to well-made tailored shirts for men and women, and her granddad is Frank Benjamin, the founder of FJ Benjamin (FJB). I guess you can say that Dalia comes from retail royalty.
Dalia was accompanied by her mum Odile when they met Options for a chat. Odile informs us that she now runs her own company called Estair, a one-stop creative and manufacturing solution for start-up and established fashion brands. In short, it is a 360° outsource solution for fashion companies, specialising in children’s and women’s wear.
“After I decided to retire from FJB, mainly for health reasons, I was approached by a children’s wear company who wanted me to design their children’s line for them for the whole of Asia and the Middle East,” Odile recounts.
With that, Estair was created in 2017. Odile says that her aim is to work with start-ups who don’t have a way of getting into the industry and would need either knowledge or a foot in the door with manufacturers.
“We offer production solutions for these for start-ups, as well as companies who are looking to expand their portfolios without having to necessarily invest in overheads. For example, [fashion label] Badgley Mischka approached us to create a swimwear collection for them,” Odile says.
From start to finish
According to the Business of Fashion website, athleisure wear has become more than “basic t-shirts and trainers — clothing that was practical for exercise, but nothing else. Today, however, fuelled by increasingly casual dress codes and a growing consumer focus on health and wellness, looking like you have an active lifestyle has become cool and athletic wear has become part of the everyday wardrobe”. Dalia understands this. “Markets are saturated with so many products. And with the boom of online, everyone has access to everybody’s products. In order to enter a market space, you need an idea, you need a good idea, something new,” she says. The Athena leggings have a 360° waistband to store all of your essentials without the added inconvenience of a bag or running belt. There is also a key toggle to ensure your keys and headphones never get lost; a loop holder to keep your towel, t-shirt, or water bottle while on the move; and a secret side pocket big enough for one or two credit cards (see box story “The Stress Test”).
“The leggings let you carry some things when you need to exercise. Or even if you’re going to the supermarket and don’t want to take a bag, you keep a credit card in your pocket and you’re good to go. That’s really our niche: our point of difference. I hated carrying my phone in one hand, stuffing my card somewhere. I thought, you know, if nobody’s doing this, then why can’t I do it? So I went for it,” says Dalia.
Athena was launched only this year, with two products on offer: sports bra and leggings. Dalia is looking to grow the collection organically. “We have 100 different ideas for new items that we want. But it’s a step-by-step process,” she explains.
For now, her ideas are mainly for activewear. Without giving away too many details, Dalia is looking at equipment, listening to what customers are saying, and taking their feedback into consideration.
Odile adds that the next logical step would be to expand Athena into other types of bottoms such as cycling shorts, possibly tennis skirts. “And then maybe move into the men’s category such as jogging pants,” she says. “If there is something that’s not out there, then that’s where we will step in,” she adds. “If we’re just going to be offering something that’s already out there in the market, we will be lost in the crowd and our voice may be lost. We want to stay very focused on what our aim is for the brand.”
Growing up in retail
At just 22 years old, Dalia speaks with clarity and confidence. This probably comes from growing up in a family that has retail in their blood. FJB was started in 1959 by Frank to distribute jewellery and handbags. The rest of the fashion world came later. Family members were roped in over the years to grow the business.
Dalia, a law graduate who also holds a masters in marketing, admits to enjoying studying law but it wasn’t the right career path. “I was inspired by fashion and business and marketing. That is what I am passionate about. I thought, why don’t I try and launch this brand and see where it goes,” she says.
To be sure, she has no shortage of family help when she needs it. She recognises the fact that her family helps her get her foot through the door. She is quick to add that only she can walk through that door. In other words, the family can only help her so much, the rest is up to her.
She acknowledges that her biggest advantage is that she is fortunate to be surrounded by the wealth of retail knowledge in the family. “I have so many family members with experience that I can go to for advice. I ask them things like, ‘What do you think I should do with this? How do you think I should market that?’ My siblings would agree, both my older brother and my older sister are also in business,” she says. Dalia’s brother is in the US doing online marketing and her sister has just had her children’s wear collection stocked at Club 21 Kids. Her younger sister is still in school.
When Dalia had the idea to start Athena, she wanted to go full steam ahead. “I just wanted everything to happen super fast. The best advice my parents gave me was that things won’t happen overnight,” she recalls.
One would think that as a teenager, Dalia was bored by business talk over dinner. On the contrary, she relishes those moments. She says: “We’re just like every other family, we joke with each other and poke fun at each other’s stories. Yes, a lot of the conversations were about business. That benefited me because I learned so much and was exposed to a lot from a young age. I always look forward to the business portion of dinner conversations, because it’s when I can learn.”
At this, Odile recounts an anecdote: when Dalia was about 10, she asked her grandfather when he was going to retire because she (Dalia) was ready to become CEO of the company. So, her granddad got her first iPad and had it engraved “Dalia Benjamin, CEO of FJB”.
Perhaps Dalia’s dream will come true one day. But for now, she wants to take the business as far as she possibly can. “My goal is really to see people in all corners of the world wearing my label and feeling empowered, like they finally have the right outfit they were looking for. That would really make me feel like I’ve achieved something amazing,” she says.
The Stress Test
We put the Athena leggings through a rigorous test drive and here are eight reasons why we love it.
- The first thing we did was to pull it and see how far it goes before it becomes thin and see-through. It stayed opaque and it took quite a bit of muscle strength to pull it to the max.
- Sometimes you have to be a contortionist to put on leggings, but Athena’s leggings glide on smoothly.
- The loop holder is great for a small towel. Please do not use a thick fluffy towel; remember you don’t want to add bulk to your waistline.
- Got to love the 360° waistband as the phone slips in nicely. Our tip is to leave the phone in the small of your back. It is comfortable as it doesn’t get in the way of your walk or run.
- The key toggle is exactly what it means — a key or two. No need for a prison warden collection of keys that will pull down the waistband.
- Because it is made of 75% nylon and 25% spandex, the material is breathable and suitable for our humid climate.
- We put the leggings through a few rounds in the washing machine and not once did it go out of shape.
- Our only wish is that more colours will be added in the future. Currently, the colours available are burgundy, rose, shadow and ash.
Main picture by Albert Chua