Meet the Leaders of a New Fitness Aarmy

How the unique skills and experiences of one of the world’s leading ad men, Trey Laird, and his renowned personal trainer, Akin Akman, have united to form Aarmy, a digital fitness community unlocking our physical and mental strength.

Words by Pete Samson
Photography by Kurt Iswarienko
Art Direction by John Pearson

In his three decades as one of the leading creative minds in fashion and beauty advertising, Trey Laird has had his finger on the pulse of the style world, and brought some of its most iconic brands to life on the page and screen.

In the ’90s, he was the creative director at Donna Karan before launching his own fashion-focused creative agency, Laird + Partners, in 2002, which broke new ground in uniting smart advertising strategy with beautiful art direction and storytelling.

But after an illustrious career spent behind the scenes on some of the most iconic campaigns of our times, helping to nurture the identity of brands including Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein and the Gap, Trey felt it was time to bring his own baby into the world.

“I’ve spent my whole career building brands for other people, and it has been incredible to have that experience,” he says.

“But I’ve always been keen to one day take everything that I’ve learned and that I love, and build a brand for myself — to have a hand in the full experience of it, and to really be able to touch it.

“For a long time, I was trying to really figure out what I wanted to do; what were my skills and my passions, and where did they intersect? I didn’t really want to do something in fashion, because I’d done that. So it took me a while to find it.”

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey eventually identified his calling, uniting his professional expertise with his personal passions to create the digital fitness community Aarmy, and it’s perfectly in tune with the wants and needs of so many of us right now.

Aarmy combines physical and mental conditioning, served up with more than a splash of Trey’s keen eye for style. It launched 18 months ago with flagship gyms in New York and then Los Angeles, with Beyoncé and Jay-Z — an investor in the brand — attending their first ever workout session. Then within months the bricks and mortar locations, which were intended to be hubs for their content creation to feed the upcoming online platforms, had to close as lockdown was enforced. But their plan was always for the digital community to be the beating heart of the concept, so the pandemic just accelerated their mission to focus on online fitness classes to find people wherever they are around the world.

But Aarmy is more than a fitness app. It understands the need to make their subscriber’s mental fitness training as important as the physical side. And with the option of joining live sessions where trainers can watch and communicate with us via Zoom, keeping us motivated and correcting our form, it is as close as we’ll get to having the world’s leading coaches alongside us in our homes. It is also incorporating the worlds of fashion and culture, producing beautiful workout gear to deck out its troops, and using cutting-edge soundtracks to orchestrate their march.

With wellness increasingly becoming the new luxury lifestyle choice for conscientious consumers, Trey is perfectly capturing the mood and aspirations of the world once again. And he believes this movement to want to improve our inner and outer style in unison as part of an aspirational, holistic lifestyle choice — a key mission for us too here at Mr Feelgood — is more than just a trend.

Akin Akman and Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Akin Akman and Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

“I think it’s really about being the best you can be,” he says. “It’s beyond just surface goals — whether it’s a six pack, big bicep guns or anything. It’s really just, ‘How do you feel?’

“And with Aarmy, that’s a big part of our philosophy. So much of it is about mental conditioning leading a physical experience, and using the movement to unlock your mind so you can find your purpose. And when you find that, everything starts to make sense, and all of a sudden, you start showing up as a better friend, better father, better boss.

“We rarely talk about weight loss, although there are people that lose tons of weight. That can be a great thing, but it’s not the point — it’s realizing that there’s a bigger purpose. And that’s really where I see a cultural shift.

“On the mental conditioning side, up until a few years ago it wasn’t really accepted in society that you talk about therapy, there was this kind of stigma. Now, every night on TV, Michael Phelps is talking about therapy, and there’s all these sleeping and meditation apps.

“There are tons of workout apps, and on the flip side there are all these therapy, meditation or wellness products. Aarmy brings those two big cultural movements together.”

Trey Laird and Akin Akman // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey Laird and Akin Akman // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Two men were integral in Trey’s personal shift to living a healthier live that would sow the seed for the formation of Aarmy. A decade ago, some words of wisdom from country music star Tim McGraw changed his life. And that led him to meet his personal trainer, Akin Akman, who is now his partner and co-founder at the fitness brand.

He explains, “As a young guy, I was pretty fit. But I launched my own agency, started working like crazy, had two kids and I was flying all over the world. I was just working nonstop, and the last thing I was thinking about was myself. I just felt heavy and sluggish. I wasn’t taking care of myself and making that a priority.

“Then about 10 years ago, I was on a shoot with [photographer] Bruce Weber for a fragrance for the country superstar Tim McGraw. I’d met Tim in the past, and he was a good looking guy, but not in the best shape. And then Tim walks into the shoot and he was totally ripped, and my jaw dropped.

“I said to him, ‘You look like a different person. I only saw you a year ago. What have you done?’ And he’s like, ‘I just got my s*** together. And there are three things that you have to do.’

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

“It was really simple: Number one, find a coach, somebody that pushes you not somebody that just phones it in. Number two, find something cardio that you can really get into above and beyond your workout — running, biking, whatever — and commit to it. And then the third thing is just eat sensibly. No wacky diet, just eat chicken and fish and vegetables and salads, and don’t pig out on fries and candy and all that. He said, ‘Do those three things, and it will take six months to a year.’

“So I literally came back from that shoot, and I started doing it. Within six months, I’d lost about 35 pounds. And within a year, I was just completely transformed and hooked. All of a sudden, instead of feeling like I was tired and I don’t have energy to work out, I started shifting to, ‘If I don’t work out, then I don’t have the energy to do everything else.’

“I saw Tim a couple of years later at an Oscars party, and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but you changed my life.’ He was blown away that he had that effect on somebody.”

Trey Laird and Akin Akman // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey Laird and Akin Akman // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Following Tim’s advice to find the very best personal trainer led Trey to Akin, a former tennis prodigy who had moved into coaching after a back injury at the age of 17 had derailed his path to becoming a pro player.

Akin became Trey’s coach and then one of his closest friends. And Akin began building the foundation for Aarmy, and utilizing his pal’s branding expertise, before suggesting they formally united and launched the company together — giving Trey the nudge he needed to leap into this next chapter.

Trey says, “He kind of made that decision for me, in a great way, because I needed somebody to hold a mirror up to me and say, ‘This is your passion, this is your skill, and this is the perfect opportunity.’”

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Just like Trey, Akin’s whole life has also been building to the launch of Aarmy, and he brings his unique expertise and experience to the brand.

Akin’s training ground was one of the most renowned in the world, Nick Bollettieri’s tennis boarding school in Florida, which also guided the careers of numerous Grand Slam winners including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles.

There he learnt the physical and mental techniques needed to become a champion, and following his injury he became a coach at the academy, where he started to hone his methodology of uniting these two elements in a harmonized training regime which builds the body and mind together.

Akin says, “I trained around six to eight hours a day, every day, since I was five years old. You learn how to play a sport. You learn the grips for the forehand, backhand, volley and serve. You learn how to move your feet, how to get into position. And all of that stuff would be drilled into us, so we could do it on autopilot.

“Then when it came to the mental side, we had to go sit in a classroom and learn how to think like a champion. And that didn’t really click for me. So I thought, ‘As the body’s mastering the skill and is able to go on autopilot, why can’t we free the mind to think about what you’re going to do on the court, and instill that into the movement?’ So when you’re developing a skill, you’re also building habits and rituals around the way you think and how you narrate yourself through obstacles.

“I started coaching group fitness for athletes who, like myself, got hurt and didn’t end up going pro. But then I quickly saw that everyone else was drawn to this technique, from high school kids to 80 year-olds and everyone in between.

“So I wanted to instill this athlete’s mindset, and these mantras, into people so they could go and win their own life’s championships, which could be anything from raising your kids a certain way, to auditioning for a part, to being a lawyer or a doctor or just being the best at whatever you do.”

Akin Akman and Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Akin Akman and Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Akin’s motivational techniques to strengthen the mind while training the body brought him a devoted following — who called themselves Akin’s Army — as his career saw him move to Crunch gym in New York before becoming an instructor at SoulCycle, where his classes were packed with famous faces and sold out in minutes. And now his new brand has created an official home for those devotees, while enlisting thousands of new recruits.

And having overcome the disappointment of not becoming the tennis star he appeared destined to be, but continuing to build his life and career around sports and fitness, Akin can call on his own experiences to help others overcome the challenges in their lives.

He says, “You have obstacles and you can use that as an excuse, or you can use it to make you even better. You get to choose in those moments whether you’re going to be inspired by something that seems impossible, or discouraged.

“I looked at my coach [Bollettieri], and he built an academy that became my family. It was a community that always pushed each other to be better. So I wanted to take that but make it so everyone feels it, whether you’re trying to be a pro athlete or not. And not get too caught up in wanting to lose weight or to be a pro, but more how to build a dream, or values, or be a better person.”

Talking about a company as a community, that can help us build values and fulfill our dreams, has become commonplace in today’s branding language. But Akin and the other six coaches who are offering online personal training for Aarmy — including fellow co-founder and celebrity trainer Angela Davis — are all experts in connection as well as fitness. And from his wealth of experience building brands, Trey knows you cannot phone it in — like those coaches Tim McGraw warned him to avoid — and the mission and delivery must be authentic.

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

Trey Laird // 📸: Kurt Iswarienko

“I think there are so many brands that are trying to do what they think society wants them to do, and show up in the way they think they’re supposed to show up,” Trey says.

“And even though maybe that’s not a bad thing, that things are moving in a better direction, I think some are doing it for the wrong reasons. And ultimately, it feels a little inauthentic versus other brands that organically, that’s just who they are.

“Really, it’s about purpose, authenticity and relevance. We’ve all seen examples of great brands that were super iconic and groundbreaking at one time, and then you look up a few years later, and they’re just not part of the conversation, they’re on the wrong side of society.

“I always think of brands in my career like people. What’s its voice? What’s its personality? What are its habits? What feels authentic for that person? How would that person show up in your life?

“It’s like raising a baby when you start a new brand.”

Learn more about Aarmy and sign up for a free trial at aarmy.com

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring artists and leaders.

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