Photograph by Tessa Smucker
Rachel Blumenfeld is CEO and founder of Manifesta.
Women should love their bodies, get eight hours of sleep every night, never shout at their kids or husbands, and have a perfect, Paltrow-esque home. Yeah, right. “We constantly set ourselves up to fail, so much so that sometimes it doesn’t even seem worth trying,” says entrepreneur Rachel Blumenfeld. But, actually, Blumenfeld succeeds at everything she tries. Consider her academic career: an undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College, a law degree from Villanova University and a master of fine arts from Bennington College.
Today, she is CEO and founder of Manifesta, a Wilmington-based company that sells activewear and yoga clothing for curvy women. At 5-foot-9, she is tall and practically Amazonian. But Blumenfeld, who grew up on Pennsylvania’s Main Line, wasn’t always comfortable with her body size. In school, she was heavier than the other girls. “I’d always been overweight and out of shape, even as a child,” she says. “I got made fun of for everything.”
That teasing morphed into a self-destructive soundtrack that played in Blumenfeld’s head for decades. At various times throughout her teens and 20s, Blumenfeld was small, then big and then bigger, she says. But then she met a guy. He was in the U.S. military and a fitness fiend. He was crazy about her and asked her to move to Colorado with him. She did.
But Blumenfeld turned this potential rom-com into a Woody Allen movie. “My boyfriend’s fitness actually inflamed my low self-esteem,” she says. “He was in such good shape that I felt horrible around him. I would think, ‘Why is he with me? Is he really attracted to me?’ I got angry about what I imagined he was thinking, whether he was or not. At the root of it all was my insecurity.”
But being around a fitness nut prompted her to exercise. An overachiever like Blumenfeld doesn’t go for power walking or Zumba. She decided to start with CrossFit, one of the most physically challenging regimens. She soon began to think of her body as healthy and strong. CrossFit was the perfect fit for Blumenfeld. Within two years, she was a certified instructor.
The relationship with her boyfriend turned out not to be a perfect fit, and she came back home. She worked at a Glen Mills, Pa., gym and visited other CrossFit facilities. She noticed the same thing everywhere she went. “People seemed so uncomfortable because of what they were wearing,” she says. “They would hide in the back of the room in clothes that didn’t fit. I knew that feeling. I had been that girl …. I wanted to give those women good-fitting, good-looking workout gear.”
Blumenfeld was aware of the Lululemon controversy when its founder Chip Wilson insinuated that the wear and tear on his company’s yoga pants was because they were designed for women with thin thighs. “Quite frankly, some women’s bodies just actually don’t work,” he told Bloomberg TV. “It’s about the rubbing through the thighs and how much pressure is there.” But his comments did not directly impact her decision to start a line of exercise clothing that would work for thighs of all shapes and sizes, she says. She already knew that most activewear was not designed for women with larger proportions.
Blumenfeld was on a mission. In her Wilmington apartment, she came up with ideas for empire-style tops with narrow waists and roomy middles, and bottoms that were stretchy but supportive in the butt and thighs. She researched special seams that were strong but wouldn’t chafe and found fabric that was thick but breathable. She also wanted the fabric and its manufacturing to be as eco-friendly as possible.
“I tried to hire designers, but they thought my goals were unreachable,” she says. “I tried to work with manufacturers, but I literally couldn’t pay them enough to accomplish what I asked for. They said it couldn’t be done. People thought I was crazy.” But Blumenfeld thrives on challenges. She found a financial investor, a freelance designer in Baltimore and a manufacturer, Greco Apparel, in Ambler, Pa. Every part of Blumenfeld’s company fits with her ethos—even its name. “I was at a restaurant telling my friend who is a brand developer about the idea. He was the first person I confided in. He said, ‘You need a manifesto.’ I said, ‘Actually, it’s a Manifesta.’ He went home and bought the domain name in case I started the company.”
Three years later, in August 2014, Manifesta made its debut. The first line included seven pieces—four bottoms, three tops—and Blumenfeld had 5,000 pieces manufactured. She sold them online via Manifesta’s website. Sales were good, Blumenfeld says, and increased steadily during the holidays. She was also involved in another endeavor. That December, she gave birth to her first child, a baby girl named Dawson Michaela. Now, Blumenfeld is nurturing two things: her daughter and her company.
In January, Blumenfeld added color capris and hoodies to Manifesta’s line. In response to customers requests, she is extending the available sizes from 24 to 28. She plans to sell the clothes in yoga studios in Delaware and on the Main Line. But in addition to selling clothes, Blumenfeld is also selling a message. Learning what amazing things my body can do has reframed my self-image, she says. To finally stop hating my body is to be liberated from years of negative thoughts. Listen, it’s not easy. I’ve had a hard time getting to this place of feeling strong and healthy. But if I can do it, so can other women.
For more information about Manifesta, visit www.mymanifesta.com.