NEW YORK -- Activewear is mixing it up more and more with fashion, blurring definitions and crossing departmental lines in stores.
Wherever it lands, though, activewear -- or anything that looks like it -- has become one of the hottest categories in several top stores this spring, according to retailers and vendors.
Executives noted that the concept of outerwear has evolved into multipurpose lifestyle dressing suited for a variety of different activities -- in and out of the gym.
The multipurpose uses of items such as bike shorts, T-shirts, unitards, and two-piece jogging sets are what consumers find appealing at a time when discretionary income continues to be at a premium, say executives.
They point out that the growing interest in active looks -- including those being appropriated by fashion lines -- has also been fueled by the popularity of fitness and health, as well as by the growing acceptance of stretch apparel, especially high-tech blends of performance fabrics such as Supplex nylon and Lycra spandex, and Lycra with Micromattique and CoolMax.
With that idea in mind, Neiman Marcus is expanding its active looks this summer, primarily with fashion lines, while Bloomingdale's is mixing fashion and activewear in a promotion with several new vendors.
The promotion will be built around a new department -- called Exercist -- to open in the flagship store Friday. A spokeswoman for Bloomingdale's said Tuesday that plans to advertise the promotion were not yet complete, but noted that an ad for Adidas will run May 12 in the New York Times.
"We have a very broad-based definition of activewear at the moment," said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. "This spring, we began making several statements about armchair athlete clothes in both newspapers and in our windows. These clothes are perfect for weekends or casual wear, but not for performance."
Ruttenstein said activewear-inspired items by DKNY will be the "centerpiece" of the flagship's Lexington Avenue windows during this month's promotion.
Meanwhile, the Exercist shop will be installed on the second floor next to contemporary juniors. It will also be near a separate Adidas shop. Ruttenstein noted that business with active looks and activewear began taking off in January, while reorders grew in February and March."We think the clothes have to be multipurpose these days," said Ruttenstein, noting that new activewear vendors in the area will be Everlast, Infusion and Pleasure Swell, while active looks will be culled from such fashion lines as Living Doll and Anna Sui. Private label reflective T-shirts that glow in the dark will part of the package, he said.
"Activewear looks," agreed Joan Kaner, vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, "are a very strong influence right now. Look at Donna Karan and DKNY -- DKNY is terrific and is very activewear-looking with the bike shorts, leggings and unitards of Lycra satin, even though it's really meant to be streetwear."
Neiman's, she said, will emphasize active looks in three lines: DKNY, OMO Gym by Norma Kamali and Tapemeasure.
"Exercise and the clothes that come with it have become a way of life these days," continued Kaner. "The cotton and Lycra looks will be very body-conscious -- clothing that can be used for exercise or as ready-to-wear."
Some retailers add that activewear is still generally segmented into two areas: performance wear worn by people who actively participate in sports, and active looks in cotton fleece or knits that can be worn for spectator sports -- or, as some retailers put it, simply to look "cool."
Pam Kraus, merchandise manager of activewear and swimwear at Federated Merchandising, the merchandising arm of Federated Department Stores said activewear business generally has been "terrific." She explained: "Activewear no longer is a jogging suit or a nylon running short. It's evolved from being sports-related to sports streetwear.
"I think it's cool to look like that right now, and people are wearing the active looks to bars and out at night to give the impression they've just exerted themselves and exercised," said Krauss.
Some retailers, though, say the lines between activewear and active looks could be sharpened.
"I see a need for casual weekend wear and for real workout wear," said Benny Lin, fashion director of Macy's East. "I think the activewear market needs to reevaluate what activities consumers are wearing the apparel for."Barbara Giangrossi, divisional merchandise manager for the department store division of Dayton Hudson Corp., agreeing that activewear has been changing with the advent of more active lifestyles but noted: "I think confusion lies among consumers as to where to shop for these items at stores.
"A customer knows she will find aerobicwear in the bodywear department, but where does she go to find bodywear items that will take her to and from the gym?"
As divisional merchandiser for accessories, Giangrossi oversees bodywear and related coverups. She said that in the Dayton Hudson stores, bodywear retains its traditional spot in the hosiery departments, while activewear lines are housed near sportswear.
From the manufacturer's point of view, Anne Wiper, divisional merchandise manager of women's apparel at Nike Inc., Beaverton, Ore., stated: "I don't know if there is a term right now that addresses the category, but we call it fitness wear. We avoid the term activewear, especially because department store buyers see it in a different light -- as a little missy."
"A lot of people don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about what to call what they're wearing," said Deannie Janowitz, general marketing manager for Reebok apparel, Stoughton, Mass. Janowitz said she likes to use the term "performance lifestyle dressing."
"People have less discretionary income and they've become a lot more involved with fitness," she said. "With every purchase they make, they ask how many things can I wear this for?" "
"Activewear is strange," said Iris LeBron, fashion director for intimate apparel and activewear at DuPont, "because people generally don't know the difference between performance wear and active-looking items for spectator sports. Retailers have to know who their customer is, and many are learning.
"Some major specialty chains will be getting into real performance wear for the first time next spring," added LeBron, who declined to name names. "They see how important it's becoming and they have to prepare for the next millennium."