How Kelly Brabants Conquered the Booming Business of Booty
Brabants went from fitness classes to an athleisure empire.
It’s a Wednesday night at Equinox in the Seaport, and Kelly Brabants is making a full house of fresh-faced twenty-and thirtysomething women (and me) feel the pain. This is “Booty by Brabants,” a 50-minute, high-intensity mix of squats, burpees, and lunges with a side of hip-hop meant to target—well, you know. Booty by Brabants is also the name of Kelly’s four-year-old line of textured leggings, and it’s impossible not to notice, even under the studio’s clubby-dim lighting, that nearly every woman in the room is wearing a pair. Kelly’s are black. My neighbor’s are red.
Still, the women are here tonight, as they are every week, for fitness more than fashion. As promised, the 29-year-old delivers a kick-ass workout, choreographing mini routines to the beat of an Ariana Grande–heavy playlist, unable to resist occasionally singing along. In between sit-ups and high kicks, she weaves through the crowd, waving her long coral fingernails in the air like a cloud of confetti, cheering on students by name, and constantly reminding them that no one is watching, no one is judging, no one cares—just move however feels good and “if you can’t do something, just shake your booty.”
Booty is, of course, the cornerstone of Kelly’s business—as much a philosophy and an identity as cheeky anatomical slang. It’s what brings 400 people to her sold-out classes on Seaport Common in summer and at the Park Plaza in winter. It’s what helped launch her wildly popular line of leggings, later expanded to include tops and jackets. And it’s certainly what has earned her a hyper-devoted following among fellow millennials and Generation Z, for whom she is something of a local celebrity. Recently she was at the Seaport club the Grand when she saw a young guy a few tables over wearing a BBB baseball cap. “He knew who I was right away,” she says. “He was like, ‘You’re Booty!’”
It turns out the “fitness guru” mantle Jane Fonda made famous during the ’80s is still alive and well—even if these days, Instagram has replaced VHS as the medium of choice and the gurus in question are selling more than just the promise of a teeny-tiny waist. Like the Venezuelan model Michelle Lewin, who uses the app to peddle ab routines to her 13.3 million followers, and Australian Kayla Itsines, who parlayed her enormous social media following and app into an estimated $77 million in 2018, much of Kelly’s success has come from selling her lifestyle—and, by extension, herself—online. Her Instagram feed, @bootybybrabants, is a colorful mash-up of Caribbean vacations, BBB-clad backsides, pre–girls’ night selfies in her bedroom, family time, and the occasional inspirational saying. She wears more makeup than your traditional fitness guru might, sending the message that the “natural” beauty so often hyped by the wellness world isn’t the only acceptable beauty. She eats Italian food (#carbs!) and goes clubbing. For her brand’s fourth anniversary, she threw herself and 30 of her closest girlfriends a party at Tuscan Kitchen Seaport, where uniformly attractive women in BBB leggings, faux-fur coats, statement earrings, and lash extensions drank vodka sodas until nearly midnight before heading to the Grand down the block. Kelly, of course, Instagrammed the hell out of it.
She carries that fun, every-girl persona into her classes, where all are welcome and she’s just there to cheer you on—in a pair of high-waisted, skin-tight booty pants bearing her name, of course. In that way, she’s turning the influencer format on its head, selling the promise of belonging over finding an idol to emulate, and banking on the notion that working out shouldn’t be a punishment; it should be a party. And if that party should include selling hundreds of thousands of BBB leggings? Even better.
How do you get Boston’s millennials to work out? Make it fun. Bend the rules. Be their friend. And never pretend you’re better than they are, even if it’s your job to be. As an instructor, Kelly, who describes herself as a person who’s always wanted to be liked, someone who’s never had enemies, plays this part instinctively. “She was born a performer,” says her father, Don, who describes his daughter as a classic middle child (she’s one of seven). “When she was three or four years old, she was on the stage with a microphone. She used to use my pool table as a stage to do Britney Spears. She just puts herself out there.” Kelly began taking dance classes as soon as she could walk, eventually competing around the country. Dance instilled in her a serious work ethic; while the rest of her family took vacations to Aruba, Kelly stayed home and perfected her routines. Still, when she announced she was dropping out of her Manhattan performing arts college in her first year and moving to Los Angeles to “become a star,” says Don, he and his wife, Neiva, did everything they could to talk her out of it, to no avail. When she moved back home a year later, Don was relieved—not because his daughter had failed to make it big in Hollywood, of course, but because to the Brabantses, family is everything. (“I like to keep my kids in a small radius,” he says.)
After L.A., Kelly lived with her parents in North Easton and took classes to become a personal trainer. She landed a gig at Equinox on Franklin Street, where she worked long hours for not a lot of money to build a clientele, quickly learning that in fitness, like in dance, positivity sells (also that, like in dance, your smile can never be big enough). But she missed the stage, and working with people her own age, for whom personal training was generally unaffordable. She began looking around for classes she might want to teach and couldn’t find any. At the time, workouts that focused on building the booty were all the rage, and butt augmentation—the “Brazilian butt lift”—had become a thing people paid for. Kelly, who is half-Brazilian on her mother’s side and “probably the most Brazilian-shaped” of all her sisters, says she researched “booty everything” and found that while other cities around the country had classes specializing in the posterior, there were none in Boston. The name “Booty by Brabants” just came to her. She thought it was catchy. It said what it meant. “I wanted my own brand,” she says. “And I wanted it to be my name and something that had never been done before.”
Kelly developed a class, practiced it over and over again in front of the mirror by herself, and, even before she felt she was ready, set out to find her audience. She posted to Instagram as @bootybybrabants for the first time in October 2013, advertising $5 cash-only classes at a studio she rented in Chinatown. That first night it was filled with mostly friends, and she remembers it as “pretty much my worst class ever,” but she kept practicing and posting, and women kept showing up. Her younger sister Liz, a publicist with Regan Communications (which also represents Boston magazine), helped her get press hits and eventually she became popular enough to get time slots teaching at the Seaport Hotel and EverybodyFights, a gym opened by George Foreman III.
The workout itself was less groundbreaking than the vibe Kelly created—even she readily admits that “you can’t copyright squats.” But you can’t fake camaraderie. Many of the students showed up in pairs or groups—friendships were maintained, and many were formed, through BBB. A lot of what they liked about Kelly was that she was one of them, in appearance and in attitude. She wasn’t barking orders or overly preoccupied with adjusting anyone’s alignment; she was down on the ground doing burpees, too, calling students out on their hangovers, but with love, no judgment, because she’s been there, lady, and it’s no fun! How about one more push-up? After class, students would linger, many of them waiting around to hug her goodbye. “Kelly teaches in a way that is very much about the people taking the classes,” says Sarah Veilleux, who was a BBB devotee before becoming one of Kelly’s closest friends. “So many instructors are kind of like, ‘Look at me, copy me.’ She’s like, ‘Sure, you can copy me if you want,’ but she’s also goofy and silly and in that way, she gives you permission to be yourself.”
At first, Kelly thought she’d keep building her following until eventually she could open a studio of her own. The students were coming, and they were coming in droves; her Instagram following was growing, too. “But I’ve never been content with just one thing,” she says. “Like, nothing’s ever big enough.”
Don was sitting at the bar in his North Easton basement when his daughter pitched the idea—the one that would, if all went according to plan, put the good Brabants name on the backsides of tens of thousands of women. Don, a Southie guy who built, ran, and then sold the ADAP Auto Parts chain before investing in commercial real estate in and around North Easton, knew how to spot an opportunity. But as he looked at the logo his daughter had sketched onto the bar napkin that now lay before him—Booty by Brabants, an upside-down heart forming the double O’s to mimic a Kardashian-esque rear end, which, in Kelly’s vision, would be stitched in white onto every pair of women’s leggings she was hoping Don would help her sell—he had some reservations. “Let’s put it this way,” Don says now. “Would you want to see your name on a hundred thousand rear ends?”
But Kelly was already obsessed—with the idea and the logo. Not long before, Neiva had returned from a trip to see family in Brazil with some leggings she’d bought for Kelly and her sisters. They were unlike any Kelly had seen at home—bright green and textured, both flattering and cute—and Kelly loved them instantly. So did her students. Everyone wanted to know where she got them. The next time Neiva went to Rio, Kelly asked her to bring home 30 pairs, which she unloaded after class one night without much effort. She priced them at $85, knowing that women would be willing to pay for good leggings, while undercutting established brands such as Lululemon, where tights regularly sell for more than $100.
That’s when she asked her father if he would help her get some more—a lot more. “I said, ‘I’m going to make leggings and everyone in the world is going to wear them,’” she recalls. “‘Dad, you just have to trust me. I literally think if you just help me get the first couple pairs, I will sell them and I will not stop.’”
They began researching Brazilian seamstresses and factories that could custom-make textured leggings under the Booty by Brabants name. Don had plenty of experience importing from Brazil from his ADAP days, when he’d lease a 747 cargo plane to bring back sheepskin seat covers for cars by the hundreds. Kelly had one non-negotiable: She wanted everything to be one-size-fits-all—accessible, like her class, to everybody. Growing up, she had always been traumatized by shopping for jeans with her sisters, who were relatively more petite. “I grew to not like sizes,” she says. “So the one-size-fits-all thing was really easing for me. I know I work out every day, I’m healthy. This is my body type and I’m so confident in it. But I never liked that I was held to the numbers.”
At first, Kelly sold the leggings on Instagram and by word of mouth, posting photos of herself and her friends wearing BBB in class, on the StairMaster, and running around town. She hand-delivered orders to customers who made requests through Instagram or after class. Then one day, Don called and said, There’s a better way. How about a website? A shipping center that’s not my basement? The investment capital, and the fatherly support, were the buy-in she needed. Don cleared out space in one of his commercial buildings to use as a warehouse and brought on Kelly’s older brother Joey to help with shipping and customer service; Neiva quit her job as an interpreter to devote more time to trunk shows, events, and accompanying Kelly to Brazil for design meetings. “I’ll be honest: At first I really didn’t think it was going to be anything,” Don says now, sitting in the 3,500-square-foot warehouse, where a rainbow of Booty by Brabants leggings and their matching tops and jackets lines the walls. “But today I’m [bringing in] 15,000, 20,000 pairs a month.”
For her part, Kelly says she approaches the label like everything else in her life: If you’re not obsessed, what’s the point? She wears, teaches in, sleeps in, washes, dries, and, of course, Instagrams new styles for months before greenlighting them, and is on the phone with her design team several times a week to make adjustments. She knows that customers these days, and millennials especially, would rather buy from a person than a corporation, which is her advantage, but also her burden. “With a new product, I would never be like, ‘Oh, that’s cute, let’s just sell it,’” she says. “It’s not like I’m Lululemon or any other brand where they have no face. Who is Lululemon? Who is that? Booty by Brabants: It’s Kelly. I teach classes. I have to be in front of these girls. I don’t want to give my girls a shit product. I’m not going to put a piece of shit on and teach my classes in it and be like, ‘Everyone buy this,’ because that’s not genuine.”
On a sunny day in early December, Kelly is working the desk at the Booty by Brabants Seaport pop-up store wearing, as she does most days, head-to-toe BBB: a pair of black leggings with a matching crop top and fitted jacket, her long black ponytail pulled through a BBB baseball cap. When she spots a brown streak down the front of her jacket, she breaks out in husky laughter and launches into a story that serves to represent a typical Kelly Brabants morning of multitasking: She was strolling down the street while talking on the phone with her billboard designer when the chocolate-coffee smoothie she’d gone six blocks to Kwench to get exploded. “Protein everywhere!” she says. “She’s like, ‘What happened?’ and I’m like, ‘I gotta keep walking! I got someplace to be!’” Kelly talks very quickly, her long, glossy fingernails waving emphatically, resting only to straighten the bill of her BBB cap as needed, a habit she indulges often in class.
Ironically, her pop-up store was born out of a desire to slow down. A year and a half ago, Kelly was teaching some 22 classes a week all around town, and feeling it. One day, after moving to the Seaport, she looked out onto the Public Green, its well-manicured expanse empty, a studio in waiting. Inspiration struck. What if there was a more efficient way to teach, and reach, even more people at once—and right in her own neighborhood? She went to Guitar Center and bought some speakers and a headset, and a few weeks later launched a series of public classes on the green in partnership with the restaurant Strega Waterfront. That first week attracted more than 200, and the crowds only got bigger from there. She directed students to Strega afterward, where Neiva sold leggings, bartenders made mimosas, and everyone left happy.
A year later, she was leading an outdoor class on Seaport Common as part of Seaport Sweat, the free neighborhood workout series arguably inspired by her Strega stunt, when WS Development president Jeremy Sclar, the mastermind behind such developments at the Street in Chestnut Hill and Dedham’s Legacy Place, happened by. He had never seen anything like it: 400 women, and a few men, engaged in an hourlong booty shake, and in matching pants to boot. “He walked up to me after class, and was like, ‘Who are you?’” Kelly says. The next week, Sclar offered her a spot in the Seaport’s She-Village, a micro-neighborhood of women-owned pop-up shops. Deciding to say yes to the pop-up opportunity was one of the first times—maybe the only time, she says—that Kelly didn’t call her father for advice. When she finally told him, she remembers, “He was very mad, but I said, ‘It’s done. I’m doing it.’”
Don did not buy into the idea of the pop-up, largely because it would require significant financial capital—building out the space, hiring staff, and, as part of the contract, giving a cut of the profits to WS Development—but also because as a commercial landlord he’d seen the demise of retail firsthand. He didn’t believe anyone would go, not when they could just buy online from the comfort of their couch. But he admits that he and Joey had fun constructing the interiors of the space to Kelly’s very exact specifications, including accommodating her request that the BBB logo be applied in a particular gold metallic foil spray paint that required her sister Michelle to drive to several hardware stores across the state to find. Don also admits that Kelly was entirely right in saying yes to the pop-up. “It’s been a great success,” he says.
Because, of course, people did come. Kelly calls the pop-up “career-changing,” with the exposure, and resulting revenues, helping to almost double her Instagram following and pay for multiple billboards around Boston. That may be because, more than just a store, the pop-up is an IRL manifestation of the community-based approach Kelly has built—and proof that it’s working. The leggings are fun and unique—the textured fabric, of which there are now two variations, makes them unlike most others on the market—and almost universally flattering. But as with the classes, the magic is in Kelly herself, and what she represents: going after your dreams, taking chances, putting yourself out there no matter what, and doing it all with integrity and fun. “Kelly inspires me to be better and to do something I love,” says Toria Bianco, who estimates she owns 40 pairs of BBB leggings. “I started my business because that’s what she taught me.” Many shoppers ask to take their pictures with Kelly.
It’s also why BBB fans are evangelists, doing as much to sell her products as any billboard ever could. Customers come in after seeing others wearing them at the gym, on the T, or while out to dinner. Although Kelly’s sold more than 60,000 pairs of leggings, the brand retains the aura of a best-kept secret, and devotees love to let others in. “People have started friendships over [the brand],” Kelly says. “They take their time out of their day to explain the product even when they’re not getting anything out of it. It’s so awesome.”
As a result, when the Seaport pop-ups return for their second iteration in the spring, so, says Kelly, will Booty by Brabants. In the meantime, she has another pop-up opening this month in a 2,000-square-foot space at Legacy Place.
Don, of course, is happy the pop-up worked out. If he could have one wish, though, it would be that Kelly slows down and teaches even less, because if she gets hurt, then what? “What I’ve always said to Joey is, ‘She’s Tom Brady; we just sell her shirts,’” he says. “And if Tom Brady is off for the next few months, we’re not selling any shirts!” He wants Kelly to travel to Tokyo, Munich, and London to get ideas for the line so she can stay ahead of potential competition, and to take more-frequent trips to Brazil for quality control and design. “But I can’t tell her what to do,” he says. After all, Booty by Brabants may be a family affair, but everyone knows that Kelly is the boss.