Has inflation hit boutique fitness, or have workouts reached a new level of exclusivity?
“When I’ve been doing Pilates, it’s always in a class with older women. It wasn’t really attractive to a younger demographic because it was a little bit slower paced. And over the years, as you know, all of these mega reformer studios opened up, which isn’t really considered Pilates. So what I kind of did is I merged classic Pilates and athleticism,” Levi explains. “We stick to the core technique of Pilates. We just make it more athletic. Most places will warm up your body or have a very base-level class. Our method really targets and burns from the moment you start to the moment you finish. And it’s definitely more challenging. It’s really quick transitions and our flows are very unique. You never really take a break unless you need one.”
Credit…Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times
Devaney Devoe, a product marketing manager who lives in the West Village in Manhattan, is desperate to get into a class at Forma Pilates, the Los Angeles Pilates studio that recently opened its first New York outpost, in SoHo. A 55-minute group class at Forma costs $75.
“Hope I get to try a session with you someday,” Ms. Devoe, 26, commented below an Instagram post of the Forma Pilates owner Liana Levi, who requires a referral, through Instagram, text or email, to get into a class at any of her four studios. (In the absence of a referral, Ms. Levi will let someone attend class if they share a few Instagram friends in common.)
“It’s this mysterious, exclusive class that I’m just so intrigued by,” Ms. Devoe said. “There’s something about her.” She hasn’t gotten a referral, nor does she have any mutual friends with Ms. Levi on Instagram. Instead, Ms. Devoe streams online workouts in her studio apartment and goes to a local Pilates studio, which charges $20 per session.
At a time when inclusivity and accessibility have become priorities for so many new businesses, Ms. Levi still places a premium on exclusivity. Forma Pilates is so expensive that it makes the fitness mogul Tracy Anderson’s $45 classes ($50 if you’re in the Hamptons) look like a bargain.
“I don’t cater to the masses, I cater to a demographic,” Ms. Levi, 32, said in an interview at the Holmby Hills house in Los Angeles that she shares with her mother. When asked what demographic that would be, Ms. Levi replied: “not masses.”
In two years, she went from teaching friends on a single reformer in her pool house to amassing a celebrity clientele that includes Hailey Bieber, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande, Kaia Gerber, Addison Rae, Sara Foster and Alexa Demie.
Ms. Levi has three Los Angeles studios — on Melrose Avenue and Melrose Place in West Hollywood and in the original pool house — where two- to four-person classes cost $100. Ms. Levi charges $500 for a private studio session and $650 for a house call. Eight-person reformer classes in SoHo cost $75. Ms. Levi doesn’t give freebies; some people get one complimentary class, but all of her clients pay, no matter how famous they are.
“Boutique fitness changed the game of what people were willing to spend on an exclusive exercise experience,” said Natalia Petrzela, a fitness culture historian and associate professor of history at the New School. “It wasn’t just the money. It was the booking. Now that’s a much more common experience for a certain kind of consumer, so what’s the next level? This referral-only, very expensive program.”
Classes with any of Forma’s nine instructors fill up fast, and ones led by Ms. Levi are impossible to get into. Even those with the FP Studios app, where a login and access are given post-referral, can’t book a class with her. Spots in Ms. Levi’s morning sessions are held for longtime clients or V.I.P.s who book over text message.
Cancellations are the only way in. If a V.I.P. cancels within 24 hours, the class opens to the “public.” (The “public” Ms. Levi refers to is the small community that has been vetted to use the app.)
“I wanted to be a boutique style, private studio — referral-based for only elite,” she said. Ms. Levi is tan, taut and tiny, like an early-aughts heiress, with abdominal muscles so individually defined that they look not quite human. “I wanted to cater to a specific demographic, I didn’t want to compete with all the studios in the area.”
Ms. Levi has her own take on Pilates, which has been around since Joseph Pilates created the method and opened his first New York gym almost 100 years ago. But a resurgence, linked in part to an evolution of his original practice, has led to the rise of studios like Forma Pilates.
Ms. Levi describes her technique as “athletic Pilates,” meaning she incorporates traditional equipment — reformers, boxes, rings and more — but adds more oomph. A bridge may be accompanied by a pink, elastic looped band placed above the knees; a slightly deflated ball on the lower back, and a pair of weighted sand balls (all pink) may accompany a lengthy oblique series. There is emphasis on less weight, or lighter springs, and more repetition of each exercise.
Classes are challenging, but not unmanageably so. In terms of difficulty, Forma falls somewhere between contemporary Pilates and Megaformer classes, the souped-up reformers used by the Lagree Method, SLT and Solidcore, often referred to as “Pilates on steroids.”
Before getting her Pilates certification in 2019, Ms. Levi spent a decade doing fashion-related gigs. She dabbled in personal shopping, closet cleaning and worked for Cristina Ehrlich, a celebrity stylist, and Jacquie Aiche, the jewelry designer who makes Rihanna’s maternity body chains.
Early in the pandemic, when many turned to sourdough starters and puzzles, Ms. Levi bought a reformer. She started to work out with friends, testing out the Pilates sequences she was working on. Soon she was charging friends, and soon, their friends, $50 per session. She got a second reformer, an assistant named Tesla (she’s now a Forma instructor), and by January 2021 she was running a second studio out of her home. (She moved out and closed that studio in January.)
Ms. Levi’s fifth and sixth studios, on the Upper East Side and in Miami, will open later this year.
“I’m trying to be in L.A., New York, Miami, Paris, London — in hot spots where my clients go to,” she said. “I’m not going to Chicago, I’m not going to Atlanta, I’m not going to Canada.”
For those in Chicago or Atlanta who want to try one of Ms. Levi’s workouts, there’s another Forma Pilates app with a library of more than 100 videos (separate from the booking app). Twelve to 15 new workouts are uploaded per month, a combination of reformer and mat Pilates classes. And no referral is necessary; digital classes are available to anyone who pays a monthly fee of $49.99 (or $480 per year).
Lisa Hom, an employee at a live radio app, said she can hold a plank for a “solid minute” from doing two to three on-demand Forma Pilates mat classes a week.
Although it’s nearly double the price of boutique fitness studios in New York City like SoulCycle, which costs $38 per ride, Ms. Hom, 32, is willing to pay a premium for the real-life Forma experience.
Credit…Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times
So far, just from online, I’ve gotten results,” she said. “Imagine what it would be like to go in-studio and make sure my form is completely correct and have the instructor tap on my leg and force me to do it a little bit harder.”
Still, most of the Forma Pilates intrigue comes from the “elite” who take Ms. Levi’s classes, especially Ms. Bieber. She has posted selfies from class and is often photographed going to or from a studio, sometimes with Ms. Jenner. (Bella Hadid joins when she’s in Los Angeles.)
Ms. Rae, the 21-year-old TikTok star turned actress and beauty entrepreneur with 80 million followers, said it was Ms. Bieber who introduced her to Ms. Levi.
“I do Pilates, usually in the morning, and then I’ll do a running slash walking incline workout in the evening,” said Ms. Rae, who feels “a lot longer” since taking up Forma. She’ll take a class at the Melrose Avenue or Melrose Place studio when she’s in Los Angeles.
Ms. Devoe also discovered Forma Pilates because of Ms. Bieber, whom she called “the face of Forma.” But, lacking the celebrity connections, Ms. Devoe may never get that referral.
“Actually,” she said, “I don’t know anyone who’s been able to get in.”