In a sea of black and gray leggings, Emily Hsu Design’s tropical blooms, dreamy celestial skies, and kimono-inspired prints instantly catch your eye. Awash with color and texture, her pieces are not meant for wallflowers—and that’s the point.
Like so many entrepreneurs, Hsu never set out to create an activewear company—or even to own a business. Five years ago, circumstance helped the Chinese-American designer stumble upon the idea. Born in Rhode Island and raised in Michigan, Hsu originally envisioned a stage career with her name in lights. “After I graduated from Harvard, I moved to New York City to pursue my dream of acting and performing on Broadway,” she explains. “I took classes, trained, and auditioned. Within a year, I was cast in my first Broadway show, Miss Saigon.” Hsu went on to perform in 12 Broadway shows, in addition to appearing on television and film and traveling with national and international touring shows. When she eventually became a mother with two daughters, it became more difficult to perform. “I didn’t want to go out of town or travel, and I was much more selective about shows I wanted to do,” she says. “I was doing a lot of yoga and couldn’t really find anything I wanted to wear.”
Enter the ubiquitous black and gray leggings seen in every gym, yoga studio, and boxing class—many of which boasted hefty price tags to boot. “There weren’t a lot of great prints out there and everything was also very expensive,” Hsu says. “The most popular brands at the time didn’t really appeal to me or fit properly.” So Hsu channeled her creativity—and sewing skills passed down from her mom—to whip up her own designs. “I bought a new sewing machine, went to a local fabric store, bought some stretch fabrics, and decided to make myself and my daughters some leggings,” she says. “I kind of made up a pattern, and through a lot of trial and error, found a fit that I liked for myself: a seamless high waist that is smooth and holds you in.” Once Hsu started wearing her own designs, her network—which included yoga studio friends, fitness instructors, and other dancers in New York like the Rockettes—began to ask if she could make them a few things as well. “They all started wearing my clothes and posting on social media,” recalls Hsu. “The word spread. It just really grew organically from there.”
Hsu’s leggings are a brilliant intersection of style, affordability, and a flattering fit. She personally wear-tests everything, both in class and in the wash, to make sure each piece holds up. Obsessed with even the tiniest details, she’s also perfected her signature high waist, which has no top seam or elastic in order to create a smooth line and stay up during workouts. “The legs are cut to hug your body, yet stretch and move,” she says. “We test every fabric for stretch and adjust the patterns, sometimes by millimeters, to try and achieve the most consistent fit possible.” Prints are thoughtfully considered as well. “Mine are chosen to be flattering on the body,” she explains. “They’re sexy and bold. Sometimes, you want to be sporty in a camouflage print; other times, sparkly like a mermaid. Another day, you might feel urban and edgy in one of our black-based prints. But everything has a special little touch added to bring it beyond ordinary—it might be sparkle or a unique color or a mesh detail.”
In fact, Hsu’s dynamic, one-of-a-kind prints are credited with truly setting the brand apart—and they reflect the designer’s ethos that fashion should serve as a playful way to express your mood and personality. “Your clothing should make you feel special and confident,” she says. “Our customers constantly tell us how they get stopped by strangers every time they wear our leggings. We’re really known for our sophisticated and pretty sparkle prints.” She’s already anticipating new treatments and ways of manipulating fabric with foil, laser cuts, and textures.
As far as Hsu is concerned, this is where the future of activewear lies: bold colors, sophisticated prints, luxe textures. “I’m hoping more people will start to branch out beyond the basic black begging into prints,” she says. “I think people are surprised when they wear prints and realize how flattering they are. You shouldn’t hide—you should wear your personality and your spirit in your clothing.” So the next time you slip into your black leggings, think twice—for Hsu’s sake!