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Aspiring to the Sporting Life

NEW YORK — Activewear’s prowess is stretching beyond the playing field and challenging casual sportswear as a lifestyle leader.<P>Instead of catering to athletic women working out or competing in various sports, activewear has come to be...

NEW YORK — Activewear’s prowess is stretching beyond the playing field and challenging casual sportswear as a lifestyle leader.

This story first appeared in the May 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Instead of catering to athletic women working out or competing in various sports, activewear has come to be recognized as a sleek choice for women to wear on the weekends, on the job and even in the gym. Not such a stretch considering 80 percent of all activewear purchases are not used for athletic purposes, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Versatility is a major selling point with shoppers, especially time-starved parents struggling to keep pace with their children’s busy schedules. With that in mind, companies such as Nuala and Joia are designing more athletic-inspired styles that can be worn with sportswear. Danskin’s yoga label was launched last year to take advantage of the renewed popularity of that activity.

Yohji Yamamoto’s and Stella McCartney’s design collaborations with Adidas for limited-edition footwear have upped the category’s fashion stake and opened it up to many who used to frown upon active endeavors. Everlast and Agnès b. are cobranding a collection, called b. Everlast, that bows next month in Agnès b. stores.

Even Céline and Salvatore Ferragamo are getting sportier with capsule collections geared for the World Cup of Soccer, which begins this weekend. Marc Jacobs has designed Louis Vuitton’s fourth America’s Cup collection for next year’s race, an event that Prada also ties into.

“Activewear has had a profound effect on other areas,” said Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of the U.S. “It has made people much more adventuresome about colors. In a sense, they have created a new priority for the fashion industry’s sportswear and ready-to-wear designers, which is comfort.”

Consumers are more likely to try out an orange windbreaker before they will buy an orange dress, she explained. In addition, the prevalence of synthetics in activewear has also helped to make them more acceptable in other markets, Walch added.

Monika Tilley, a seasoned activewear designer and CFDA member, said activewear is inheritantly versatile. “It is a question of presentation and retailers making this visually exciting.”

Unlike in the Nineties, when big brands like Nike and Reebok raced to blanket in-store displays with their logos, today’s approach is deliberately understated. Stores, in turn, are looking for more cover-ups and “street pieces” to give women more options.

The average purchase at Danskin’s 28 freestanding and outlet stores has jumped by about $20 in recent months, said Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer.“People like this level of casualness and it’s accepted in a broader range of places,” she said.

Danskin is considering launching another label next year to branch out beyond the yoga set. Everywear, E and Motion are among the labels being considered.

“The question is, ‘How do we extend that without crying ‘yoga’?” Hochman said.

Nuala, a yoga-inspired line backed by Christy Turlington and produced by Puma, has broadened its reach by adding nonyoga items like sweaters and accessories.

“From a city point of view, activewear is everyone — instead of looking like, ‘Hi, I just go to the gym,’” said Antonio Bertone, global brand director of Puma. “The days of everyone looking the same when they get off the train after work at night are definitely slowing down.”

The distinctions between activewear and sportswear will only get “blurrier,” due somewhat to the practicality of athletic-inspired silhouettes like stretch cotton T-shirts and track pants, Americans’ fondness for logos, and teens’ willingness to experiment with sports brands, Bertone said. Daytime clothing is going to have more of a sporty influence, he added.

Puma, which produces Nuala, has seen sales climb for more unusual hues like orange.

“Shoppers like color more than people give them credit for,” Bertone said. “They like to be brash, loud and visible. The safer silhouettes in navy, black, white and gray are not as popular as unique color combinations.”Activewear’s popularity as mainstream sportswear has led to Puma opening freestanding stores is Osaka, Japan, and Boston within the past month.

“We’re selective about who we target and where we target. We don’t have to go muscling with ad dollars,” Bertone said. “We can build great personality with products and distribution.”

Massimo Ferragamo, chairman of Ferragamo USA, said he recognized within his own company how important sports are in people’s lives. But the company prefers to tie into elite sports that are widely followed, such as sailing.Jean-Marc Gallot, president and regional director of Ferragamo USA, added, “With the Ferragamo business, it’s not like sports are the number-one priority. But it’s more of a lifestyle approach. We understand there are some fields where Ferragamo can bring its experience in shoemaking and luxury high-end design.”

Henri Bendel chocks up the success of its active shop to Nuala.

Anna Garner, fashion director for Henri Bendel, said, “Nuala has really been quite the anchor for the active lifestyle. When we brought it in a small order for the first season and everything sold out in a few weeks, that was a sure sign it would be very big. It was a new category that we hadn’t really tested out.”

Interest in its active shop has “accelerated” in the past few seasons. Maurizio Pecoraro’s hooded sweatshirts and Juicy’s warm-up suits in velour or terry cloth are also strong sellers, Garner said. This fall, Marharishi’s loose-fitting, embroidered cargo pants are expected to be a must-have with Bendel shoppers.

Joia by Joi Wildman, another label offered at Bendel’s, has seen more interest in velour warm-ups in nontraditional athletic colors like pink and blue. Wildman noted athletic companies can no longer rely on their sports heritage to resonate with consumers.

“More companies recognize they have to be a total brand to consumers,” she said.

At Nordstrom, more women are looking for athletic apparel that doubles as streetwear, including jogging suits and bootleg pants that are not as restrictive as leggings or bike shorts, said Tonja Kuntz, vice president and corporate merchandise manager. Nike, Puma, Adidas and Fila are favorite brands with Nordstrom shoppers.

“This trend has received increasing coverage in fashion magazines, which always fuels interest among media and style-aware customers,” Kuntz said.

Launched this spring, Oleg Cassini Sport is licensed to Rousso Apparel Group, which also produces the designer’s line of day and evening suits. The logo-driven activewear is based on four key items — hooded sweatshirts, yoga pants, novelty pants with piping and zip-front jackets.It is carried in stores such as Macy’s East, Dillard’s, Rich’s, Proffitts, Carsons and Peebles. For fall, sales goals are set at $5 million to $7 million wholesale, said Amy Taub Kahn, vice president of sales and merchandising at Rousso. Fabrics range from French terry cloth to polyesters and microfibers. Prices wholesale from $10 to $16.

“It’s streetwear active and really geared for the baby-boomer customer that doesn’t want to look like her mother,” said Kahn, adding the target customer is probably 35 to 55. “She’s going from the gym to running her errands. She’s a cool soccer mom — not a frumpy one. For this lady, she’s looking at Juicy Couture, but maybe can’t fit into that.”