Gliding, floating and twirling ballerinas carve delicate shapes in the air, creating magical characters or rich abstract visions with their grace. But all dancers—and dance lovers—know, it’s unbelievable strength that underpins that elegance.
Kelsey O’Connell loves this exact combination, and always has. As a kid, she moved around, living in places including Cambridge, England and Madison, WI. Taking ballet classes in her various hometowns linked the diverse locations in her mind, and while she never made a career of the art, she always looked to it for inspiration and motivation.
Eventually she found her niche in the fashion industry, designing for heritage and newer brands alike. Now, she’s taking her lifelong adoration of ballet and combining it with her fashion prowess to bring Belle Force, an athleisure line combining form, function, beauty and strength, to fitness enthusiasts. Read on for more.
SBS: What types of different fashion brands did you work at?
Kelsey O’Connell: 10 years ago I started working in fashion, and since then I’ve worked at a whole slew of different places. Lands’ End in Wisconsin was where I started right out of school. I learned so much about staying true to your inspiration, classic clothing and looking back at archives. I learned how to reference that type of history and bring it into a modern setting in a fresh way.
In contrast, C. Wonder was a startup with a fair amount of funding. In the first couple of years, it expanded to 30 stores. The company grew before we were able to figure out what it was. There was a lot of freedom because it was new, and there weren’t the same systems and procedures in place of an established place. It was a great place to try things and experience new options. These two environments specifically helped me understand the full spectrum of fashion.
SBS: Why do you love fashion?
KOC: Fashion is something everybody experiences. We all have to be dressed and present ourselves in some way. It’s a way to express yourself and reference inspirations from other places and time.
I also have this urge to always be creating something. Often I’ll see something and think of different ways to wear it or outfits that are perfect for a certain event. For prom, I envisioned one I couldn’t find, so my mom and I made it. It’s an art form!
SBS: What was the moment you decided going into fashion was right for you?
KOC: I quickly realized I didn’t want to go into engineering as I had originally thought in college. I was thinking about interior design. But I decided to take a fashion class, and I was learning more about internships.
Somewhere in my mind, I thought fashion was starving artists making couture items in a cramped apartment somewhere. But there’s so much more of a business available.
Once I dove in, it felt right. It can be hectic late nights, and there are often tons of changes because it’s subjective. It’s hard to know for sure if you’re doing the right things. But I love what I’m doing. The gratifying moments keep you going.
SBS: When did Belle Force pop into your mind?
KOC: About two years ago I was starting to go back to ballet and workout classes. I was looking for functional fitness pieces that were also chic and sophisticated. I couldn’t find anything that fit my ideas of what I wanted. That exact line of clothing kept coming back to my mind. I thought I’d give it a shot!
SBS: Where does the name Belle Force come from?
KOC: It’s French, the language of ballet, for ‘beautiful strength.’ Our inspiration comes from ballerinas and dancers. Onstage in sparkly tutus they appear delicate and gentle. But, they’re incredible athletes, strong and powerful. The company is about that idea: You don’t have to choose one or the other. You can like a pink bow and kick ass in your boxing class. That’s empowering. We encourage that duality.
SBS: How did Belle Force turn from an idea into a reality?
KOC: I started thinking about what it would look like, and I pulled together the mood board first. I did all the fun things to start! I thought about what perspective I’d offer that’s different. At first, I developed the bra, tank and pants.
I didn’t really know anything! All those years at other companies, someone else did the material sourcing. So I had to learn about managing all that myself.
I had to figure out the hustle of cold calling to find fabrics and running around the Garment District. I had to be scrappy and figure out a way to get things done. Luckily, we’re in NY, and I was able to complete most parts locally. Everything is made in New York.
We also started with social media pretty early on, and I can’t imagine the company without it. It gives you a platform to get feedback and communicate with customers immediately.
SBS: When did you take the plunge to focus fully on Belle Force?
KOC: At first I was still working full-time in fashion. Then, as Belle Force started to become something I could fully go for, I decide to focus more on it. I knew it would be an adventure to take on something new.
Now, we just finished the first round of production, and we’re working on sales, the next collection, events and pop-ups.
SBS: What are the functional aspects of Belle Force that you were intent on creating?
KOC: Everything we've made uses a poly spandex blend that dries quickly. I noticed a lot of actual ballet wear, like leotards, aren’t made with functional fabric. And on the flip side, our aesthetic was missing from functional products. We wanted to blend the two worlds.
We also designed them to be great quality and last for a long time. All of the seams are strong and comfortable on the skin. Everything is wear-tested, so nothing digs in to your back doing crunches, for example!
SBS: What’s your fitness routine now?
KOC: In the past four years, I’ve become introduced to so many fitness classes. In New York, we’re so lucky to have so many options. Barre is one of my favorites. We are all so busy, and it's so efficient. It leaves you feeling like jelly all over. You’ve worked everything to the max! While you’re getting that great workout, you can also be graceful and focus on form. You’re not flinging your body around. It’s intentional.
Boxing is also really fun!
SBS: What’s your wellness routine to stay centered while running a business?
KOC: I just recently discovered yoga, and I love that for chilling out. Also, I’ve been trying to cultivate a morning routine. We live a block away from a tiny park, and
I love getting outside early. I wake up, do a few stretches, read something and then complete some laps around the park. It makes me feel amazing!
SBS: You’ve had such diverse experiences. How have they played into your current work?
KOC: From all of my experiences, I know no day is the same. You have to figure out everything. Starting a brand, it can be one day packing boxes and then another day figuring out what all my shipping materials are or completing taxes. That’s made me more comfortable with trying something I’ve never done.
I can be a dreamer. It’s a good thing, but that’s hard when I have to be focused on something like business taxes. Now, I give myself a structured to-do list to help me focus.
Kelsey’s Tri-State Faves:
Healthy Restaurant: Tidal Poke
Splurge Restaurant: Levain Bakery and Café Lalo
Calming Activity: Visiting our upstate home in Hillsdale, NY
Nightlife Spot: Roxy Hotel
Fun Activity: Tennis
Athleticwear: Tory Burch's Tory Sport
Athletic Shoes: New Balance
Yoga studio: Sky Ting
Fitness Studio: Xtend Barre
Kelsey’s SBS Mantra: Be Happy. There’s a choice in how you choose to approach a situation. It goes along with be grateful: Be thankful for your situation. There’s always the chance to look at everything with the right perspective…and be happy!
The best, zaniest part of being Kelsey: I’m a dreamer through and through. That’s why I’m happy! I can get lost in my thoughts and in the clouds.