Inside Forma Pilates, Los Angeles and New York’s Most Exclusive Exercise Class

In an alley off of Los Angeles’s Melrose Avenue, there is a nondescript building that you only notice because of the people walking in. Toned, wearing matching workout sets, and sometimes famous (if she looks like Hailey Bieber, she probably is Hailey Bieber), they head behind a black gate before ducking through a frosted-glass door.

Inside? Forma Pilates.

You may have not heard the name, but you’ve probably unknowingly seen the studio: Perhaps on the Instagram Story of that It girl or influencer who posts selfies in front of a mirror that says “Body by You.” Or perhaps in a Daily Mail article that includes paparazzi photos of Bieber, Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, or Lori Harvey outside a workout class. (That class is—you guessed it—Forma.) On Instagram, Forma’s official account has over 110,000 followers. It’s an impressive number considering that it only has four studios: three in Los Angeles and one in New York, each with only a handful of reformers. And that, well, it takes a referral to get in.

Founder Liana Levi started Forma Pilates during the spring of 2020 in her mom’s Little Holmby pool house. Bored and looking for ways to workout, she ordered a reformer, set it up in the semi-outdoor space, and began posting her routine to Instagram. Her friends slid into her DMs, asking if they could try it too. Levi, a jewelry consultant who got certified as a Pilates instructor years prior on a whim, agreed. (“I never thought I would use [my certification],” Levi says. “I thought it was very long, tedious. I was like, I’d just rather be a student.”) From a CDC-approved distance, she gave her friends lessons. “I threw myself into it. I would write down the series on my phone. I’d time it. I would do all of the things that I would want to do in a class.”

She quickly realized a couple of things. The first was that despite many of her friends practicing pilates for years, they didn’t really know what they were doing—so she explained the technique to them, in-depth and with an individualized approach.

The second realization? That she was good at this.

The texting started as soon as the pandemic began to ebb: Can I bring my sister? Can I bring my sister-in-law? Sensing that this hobby could be a side hustle, Levi started charging. She continued to keep the circle small, personally approving everyone who came in. “I didn’t want to get sick, so I made it referral only. I wanted to make sure people weren’t partying,or seeing too many people—not really with the intention of creating this like, you’ve got to know someone who knows someone.”

Liana Levi in Forma’s Little Holmby, Los Angeles, studio. 

It didn’t stay under the radar for long. One day, Levi’s childhood friend brought along a celebrity. Then “it just blew up.”

Two years later, Forma has transformed from a pool-house pilates class into a bicoastal boutique business. The clients embraced its exclusivity: many have found the classes to be a social experience, knowing that everyone only had a few degrees of separation from each other. “People network, they get to know each other,” Levi says. (Indeed, when I attended Forma in New York and Los Angeles, many of my fellow attendees hung around to chat and drink canned oat lattes after class.) The small, semiprivate size also means more personalized instruction. This prevents injury and, as any Pilates aficionado knows, also makes it a lot more difficult. “That has been the hardest Pilates that I think I’ve ever taken in my life,” Lori Harvey told E News! about Forma. (I agree with that sentiment.) So, for now, Levi is keeping the approval-only attendance method: “I know that we have a big presence, but we’re a small business and we’re boutique style,” she says.

“That has been the hardest Pilates that I think I’ve ever taken in my life,” Lori Harvey has said of the class. Here, she’s pictured attending in November 2021. Getty Images

Kendall Jenner spotted outside Forma Pilates. Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, Forma Pilates is expensive. A class in New York costs $75. In Los Angeles, it costs $100. A private lesson will run you $250. An online subscription (which does not require a referral) is $49.99 a month.

People are prepared to pay. Yes, in part for Forma’s exclusivity and privacy (studio addresses aren’t posted online but rather texted to attendees by a concierge), but its popularity isn’t something solitary: Pilates as a whole is having a moment. According to Google Trends, searches for the exercise moment are at a five-year high. TikTok is flooded with “Pilates Girlies” posting about their workout. (The hashtag #pilates has over 1.6 billion views alone.)

Pilates is a low-impact workout that has the potential for transformational results—and it’s a welcome reprieve from prepandemic fitness movements that were all about grueling, bootcamp-style classes. (“Push it—you’re an athlete!” a fitness instructor once shouted at me as I flailed around a pitch-black room, their voice straining against a Swedish DJ’s pounding house music. No, I’m not, I thought back. It was an internal commentary I’d previously directed at my JV soccer and lacrosse coaches. I quit both teams as soon as my high school allowed. I didn’t want to be a competitive physical performer. I just wanted to be healthy and feel confident.)

Amid the global pandemic, these hyper-intense gyms and studios shuttered across the country. Suddenly popular workouts of choice switched, by necessity, to walking and streamed classes. As the world crashed down around us, we gained a newfound appreciation for workouts that challenged the body yet calmed the mind. Is it any surprise that Forma—a class where the music plays at a fixed level, no one yells, an instructor is on hand to help you out, and you leave looking a lot stronger—has caught on?

Forma is among a cohort of high-end, privatized offerings that are changing the fitness landscape. A 10-minute car ride away from Forma’s Melrose Avenue studio is Heimat, a members-only gym and lifestyle space with carefully designed studio spaces, a rooftop pool, and a restaurant by Martin Brudnizki. Soho House, the umbrella organization which includes Soho House and The Ned, is including wellness spaces along with workout classes in its new houses. As the wellness movement increasingly seems like more of a societal shift, people are accepting a higher price tag for fitness, especially if it means personalization and socialization. “Most of our classes, they’re all regulars. We know them, we know their weaknesses, we know their strengths. and we know what they want to work on,” Levi says. “It’s an experience.”


November 13, 2023
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