How athleisure became the star of the apparel industry

  • News
  • April 21, 2016
  • Elly Strang
How athleisure became the star of the apparel industry

It truly is athleisure’s time to shine. Clothes that can transition from the gym to the street are the current big thing in fashion, with every company clawing to get a piece of the pie.

Yoga brand Lululemon’s shares rose 20 percent in the last couple of months and Beyonce released an athleisure range in collaboration with Topshop, while fast fashion retailers like H&M and Zara are rolling out activewear lines.

The luxury end of the market is also brimming with brands like Louis Vuitton and Alexander Wang eagerly looking to attract consumers to its athletic-yet-fashionable lines.

Nike CEO Mark Parker even made a bold declaration that “Leggings are the new denim”.

It’s gotten to the point that now the word ‘athleisure’ has been added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines athleisure as “casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use”.

The below graph chart its rise in global sales from 2008 onwards. Sales climbed from around $197 billion in 2007 to $267 billion in 2014.

One of the most interesting aspects to the word ‘athleisure’ is the paradox its two root words represent. Leisurely relaxation and athletic activities don’t exactly go hand-in-hand.

This is part of the reason why many have mocked the notion of athleisure or ‘activewear’ for the absurdity of people wearing it, yet doing nothing.

Even Alexander Wang told the New York Times he lives in gym clothes, but only works out “sometimes” and is not an athlete.

But Icebreaker’s Tsveti Enlow is less critical of the trend.

“One of the reasons it’s gained such popularity is that it filled a gap in the marketplace. In the past, companies would make the clothing functional but wouldn’t stress on making it stylish,” she says.

“What’s great about is you can go to gym, you can go the studio, then to the store and you feel like you don’t need to change clothes because you still look good.”

Outdoor brands like Icebreaker have had to adapt to this and incorporate more fashion into their functional lines.

Enlow says the number one thing consumers love about Icebreaker’s clothing is its versatility.

“We’re constantly get emails or comments on the website like ‘this tshirt went on a 30-day trip, I wore it hiking then to dinner at night,’” she says.

The driving force behind athleisure

Enlow believes Millennials are ultimately the ones behind the popularity of athleisure, as they’re disrupting retail with behaviour that’s different to their predecessors.

One factor at play is their obsession with healthy living and working out, while another is their influence in the growing experience economy, she says.

Research by market research firm Harris Poll found more than three quarters of Millennials (78 percent) would choose to spend money on a desirable experience or event over buying something desirable.

Another factor driving the experience trend is the craving to detach from the highly connected world of the internet and be immersed in nature, Enlow says.

Seeing as athleisure clothing is typically worn for an experience – and often an outdoor experience –  like working out or going on a hike, they’re keen to spend their money on it.

“When we look at this and overlay it with athleisure, the consumer is looking for apparel that can enhance their experience and one garment that can do it all, in a sense. The consumer is living such an active life. I call it ‘activity blending’, as they’re not doing just one thing, they’re doing yoga, running, biking. They don’t want to pack 30 garments, they’re looking for few pieces to do more.”

It also ties into the ‘conscious consumer’ trend, with consumers becoming more environmentally conscious and wanting to own less, she says.

Looking to the future

But as the market for athleisure booms, some are asking whether it’s on the brink of saturation.

A recent article by Bloomberg posed the question, “Has the active fashion fad run its course?”

It argued the overload of cheap, middle-market and luxury brands all entering the athleisure market has made it hit its ‘peak’.

Part of its evidence was the quarter-on-quarter sales decline of a staple in any activewear lovers’ wardrobe: tights and capris.

Enlow says the crowded market is on the verge of a change, but it doesn’t mean athleisure has hit its peak yet.

“There is a demand for it from not just the Millennials, but the next generation. There’s going to be a lot of price polarisation between cheap and luxury brands, but its here to stay – it’s a billion-dollar industry.”

She says athleisure is part of the “healthy living” lifestyle trend, rather than being a standalone fashion trend.

Because of this, Enlow reckons the rise of athleisure bigger than the industry itself and it will live on for a while yet.

As retail analyst Deborah Weinswig summarised in Forbes: “Retailers are going to have to adjust, be more sensitive to trends within the athleisure space and embrace innovation in material (think stretch, breathability and water resistance).”

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