Beijing gym opened by Singaporean wins top award

Zwyn picks up prestigious international Red Dot design prize for its zen-like interior

A gym opened by a Singaporean in Beijing has been awarded a top design prize for its zen-like interior.

The fitness centre, Zwyn, won the Red Dot Award for product design last month - the first commercial gym to be given this distinction.

The annual award is among the most prestigious design accolades in the world, and is given by an international jury from Germany.

Zwyn is only the second gym to win a Red Dot Award, after sportswear giant adidas won in 2014 with a fitness centre at its corporate headquarters in Germany.

The two winners could not be more different. Instead of adidas' bright lights, primary colours and oversized letters papering the walls, Zwyn's glass-and-concrete interior is a cool, industrial grey which is awash with sunlight.

Co-founder Mervin Ho, a former Singapore national rugby player and sprinter, said the 1,200 sq m space located in Beijing's swanky Sanlitun entertainment area is the realisation of his dream to open "a true urban gym".

"As an athlete, I've tried countless gyms, cross-fit studios, spin studios and boot camps, and have always envisaged a space that combines design, art and music with a focus on back-to-basics strength training," Mr Ho, 36, told The Straits Times.

The opportunity came when, in his previous job as a manager with serviced-residence company The Ascott in Beijing, he met Mr Yang Yang, also 36, the creative director of an advertising agency.

The two hit it off, and decided to start their own fitness brand to capitalise on China's booming middle class and its growing health-consciousness (see other story). Mr Yang oversees daily operations, while Mr Ho is based in Hong Kong.

After four years of planning and a 12 million yuan (S$2.4 million) investment, Zwyn finally opened for business in May last year.

But it opened in an increasingly saturated health and fitness environment, where the number of gyms and clubs sprouting up in China's first-tier cities has outstripped paying demand for workout spaces.

A Beijing Morning News report in June found that at least 20 gyms in Beijing had closed within the March to May three-month period alone. Many of the closures were sudden, leaving members, landlords and even staff out of pocket.

Market analysts said the high start-up cost of exercise equipment, rising rents for space and increasing competition - issues associated with running a gym - have rendered some of these operations unsustainable.

Add to this the rampant poaching of trainers, whose clients often follow them when they move, and a gym's monthly revenue can fall precipitously, said one gym owner, who gave his name only as Mr Liu.

But the duo behind Zwyn are confident they have what it takes to stand out in the current crowded market, although they declined to discuss profitability.

Zwyn is positioned to cater to a high-end clientele, and all its equipment is from Technogym, an upscale Italian company that sells $30,000 treadmills.

Unlike the competition, there are no spin classes or mixed martial arts sessions at Zwyn, which is focused on what Mr Yang calls "functional, strength-based training".

"China's fitness market is overly trendy, and too many gyms here try to ride the fads instead of focusing on the basics, which are evergreen," he said.

Mr Yang is also unfazed that at least six Zwyn clones - gyms that copy its look and feel, down to its equipment - have sprung up in cities like Nanjing and Shenyang.

He is already working on transforming Zwyn from a fitness centre to a full-fledged fitness brand, and plans to launch a nutrition line by the end of the year.

A Zwyn sportswear label is also in the works, with partners such as Nike, fashion house Trussardi and streetwear brand Bathing Ape.

"To us, Zwyn is not the name of a physical venue, but a new urban lifestyle," said Mr Yang. "We're not selling a gym membership, but a tribe and a mindset."