The Major Leaguers

The Rejuvenation Room at the recent Outdoor Retailer show was symbolic of the seismic shift occurring in the $16.2 billion activewear market. Instead of swilling coffee between appointments, buyers and vendors — whose brands and stores cater to...

The Rejuvenation Room at the recent Outdoor Retailer show was symbolic of the seismic shift occurring in the $16.2 billion activewear market. Instead of swilling coffee between appointments, buyers and vendors — whose brands and stores cater to athletic types who thrive on rugged, hearty fitness activities — refreshed themselves with free yoga and meditation classes.

This story first appeared in the February 13, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

To a large extent, that snapshot captures the changing face of sports: A core group of people is still seeking thrills and another portion is winding down a bit. Not such a stretch considering 82 percent of all activewear is used for nonathletic purposes, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers’ Association.

“For fitness, it used to be the heavy-duty, flailing-arms-aerobics thing in dance classes. Now women will do group dance classes, but in their own right,” said Everlast designer Ivy Mamet. “Yoga and meditation have been around for ages. It’s probably become popular because movie stars are doing it.”

Madonna’s muscular biceps have certainly gotten their share of snapshots and ditto for Gwyneth Paltrow’s post-yoga attire. Many gym-goers are checking out these looks as they exercise on Internet-equipped elliptical trainers and other stationary equipment. Even the YMCA, one of the more affordable places to exercise, offers members Internet access, TV viewing and music while working out on stationary machines.

In addition to having a keener eye on fashion trends, consumers also have a better understanding of technical fabrics, and they are willing to spend more money for them. That’s why companies like Everlast are stepping up performance-oriented items and are offering them in more colors and stylish silhouettes, with hopes of gaining more market share, which is only expected to increase slightly in the next year or so.

For the brand long favored by boxers, that means more styles made of its proprietary moisture-management fabrics, Everflex and Everdri.

“People see what everyone else is wearing. They want to be comfortable, especially baby boomers,” Mamet said. “If you’ve got to concentrate in a yoga class, you don’t want to be thinking about your waistband that’s digging into you.”

Along with Everlast, Danskin, Nike and Fila are designing more looser-fitting garments to give wearers more room to stretch. Their aim is that more women will wear those hoodies, tanks and yoga pants beyond the gym. Versatility isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it is more palatable in soft hues favored by the wellness set.

The flip side of the low-impact movement is interest in nontraditional action sports like snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing.

ESPN2’s X-Games has electrified individualism in sports. Originally called the Extreme Games when it was founded seven years ago, ESPN organizers renamed the event X Games to gain a wider audience beyond daredevil teens. Last month’s Winter X Games in Aspen, Col., reached 110 million homes in 145 countries and was broadcast in 10 languages.

Many athletic brands are aware of the action sport trends, but Salomon is seriously pursuing it. Surfing and climbing are opportunities, said Kim Speed, senior product category manager. To gain credibility through authenticity, the company has developed a proprietary technology for surfboards now being sold to makers. Every month, Salomon ships a box of apparel to professional climber and party promoter Ivan Greene, who then doles out the goods to his stylish friends. Later this month, the company will sponsor the second annual Climber’s Cup at Chelsea Piers, where Greene oversees the climbing wall.

Salomon also is outfitting street teams in New York, Denver and San Francisco, including some Manhattan bike messengers. Another marketing pitch is the development of a DVD featuring Salomon-sponsored athletes skiing with limited reference to product. The company plans to distribute 400,000 copies through store promotions.

Adidas-Salomon AG saw net earnings grow 10 percent to $247.8 million and sales rise 7 percent to $7 billion in 2002, according to preliminary figures released last week. Salomon and Bonfire, another label owned by Adidas-Salomon AG, are now using Arcetyrx’s prototype factory in Annecy, France, for apparel development. In 2001, Adidas acquired Arcetyrx, a technical brand popular with climbers. On the whole, women’s apparel is more of a priority for Salomon and Bonfire, and should account for 55 percent of all apparel offerings next year, Speed said.

“We’ve made a giant leap because we’ve joined forces and are sharing factories,” she said.

Bogner, another skiwear maker, is also seeing changes in apparel trends. Willy Bogner, president and chief executive officer, said, “It’s not the one-piece overall anymore, but combinations of streetwear and activewear. We have variations of really functional active skiwear and styles that you can wear from slopes to the city.”

Known for his action sports films, Bogner said the company is developing film clips of skiers to be shown on flat-screen TVs in store windows and in airport lounges.

Puma is counting on its worldwide employees, especially in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and New York, to identify emerging athletic trends, said Barney Waters, director of marketing for Puma North America.

“We’re not an ivory tower kind of company,” Waters said. “We’re part of the culture we sell to. Our employees are in the clubs, on the streets, in the gyms and at the shows our consumers are at. We’re amongst them and staying with them.”

The company is focusing more on grassroots marketing, which tends to resonate with fans of skateboarding, BMX biking, motocross and other similar types of activities. Puma reps are seeding product on skateboarders and spending time at skateboard parks to get a better understanding of that culture, Waters said. An extension of that lifestyle will be Puma’s first ski line, which bows this fall.

“That consumer is very savvy to marketing to the point where they tune it out and hate being sold to. You have to be credible. They want to see real athletes in real places wearing the apparel in real situations,” he said. “They can tell when a company thinks they can write a check to try to enter a category.”

Puma aims to sponsor pleasant athletes who personify the brand, such as Serena Williams and April Lawyer, a downhill mountain bike racer and snowboarder. “We try to pick athletes based on personality first,” Waters said.

On the softer side, Puma will introduce Maha Nuala, an extension of its yoga-inspired line backed by Christy Turlington. The 12-piece fall group will be more technical-oriented for mind, body and spirit activities.

Fila expects more people to turn toward yoga-type activities instead of hardcore team sports, weightlifting and aerobic classes, said Diane Shiviskis McCaffrey, director of merchandising. Given that, the brand is designing more lifestyle pieces with fashionable details like satin cargo pants and one-shoulder, athletic jersey-inspired tops for fall. Women’s accounts for 35 percent of the brand’s apparel sales.

Lacking prospects for short-term profitability or even assurances of funding from its principal owner, Holding Partecipazioni Industriali SpA, Fila is turning to the equity markets to generate sorely needed funds, as reported. The company, warning that it doesn’t expect a profit until 2005, is offering up to 25.7 million new shares priced at $1.73 each, for a potential capital increase of $44.6 million, as reported.

Fila’s spring advertising campaign, which features stylish women dressed in athleticwear as clubwear, is another example of how the company is trying to bend with the changing times. Merkley, Newman & Harty developed the print campaign, which runs in such magazines as Jane.

Last night, Fila teamed up with Stuff magazine to invite the fashion crowd to an opening party at Show, a midtown nightclub, and it will host another bash with The Source magazine in Las Vegas during the WWDMAGIC trade show. At the Sundance Film Festival, the brand threw a shindig with Details.

Last month, Fila and Ducati Corse signed a two-year partnership for a cobranded line of sportswear and footwear, and to sponsor Ducati’s Superbike and MotoG teams. The line debuts at Ducati dealers, Fila stores and specialty stores, and at their respective Web sites this fall.

Brook Sports aims to capture more adventure racers by upping its Muddy Buddy race series to nine locations, with Washington, D.C., being this year’s newcomer. Sponsoring such an event, which involves teams running and cycling in the mud, helps give the brand authenticity with multisport fans, said Parker Karan, director of apparel sales.

“It’s Eco Challenge for the masses,” he said.

For the first time, Brooks Sports showed at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City last month and opened more than 10 accounts, Karan said. Well known among runners, the company is reaching out beyond its core base of consumers. A lightweight, breathable, soft-shell jacket can also be used for fast packing and day hiking.

Stan Mavis, who joined the company as senior vice president of apparel and accessories in November, and Andrew Coutant, recently named director of research and development for apparel, are leading the charge to attract more outdoor enthusiasts. Part of their plan involves doubling its “brand warrior” marketing team to eight. They show up at races, events and specialty stores that cater to runners and find out the desires of consumers.

In that same mode, Nike executives are relying on a team of marketers in various cities to keep them up to speed about what women are wearing and doing in health clubs and yoga studios, especially in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and San Francisco. Staffers are known to travel frequently, but they are realistic about their home base.

“We travel a lot, but it’s hard to know what’s happening in the world from Beaverton, Ore.,” said Jackie Thomas, brand director of the women’s business.

For the second quarter ended Nov. 30, Nike earnings rose 9 percent to $129 million. In the U.S., apparel sales increased 10 percent to $381 million against a year ago.

The company is trying to fine-tune its marketing on a few different levels. To try to get its message out about catering to female consumers, Nike now has “fitness experts” helping online customers with their purchases at Nikegoddess.com. Look for Nike advertising in Jane, Cosmo, Essence, Lucky, Vanity Fair and other nonathletic magazines, as well as fitness-oriented books.

Developing lighter-weight fabrics is an objective for Nike, and compression garments will be featured prominently in the fall, said Thomas Kennedy, general manager of apparel for women’s business. The brand is at work on such items for the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Danskin remains committed to yoga-inspired looks, with a greater emphasis on lighter-weight fabrics with a soft hand, such as cotton terry with a stretch feel, said Philip Davis, vice president and general manager. The company is counting on low-impact activities to help drive sales, he said, adding, “We see the ‘athleisure’ trend continuing.”

Reebok International divides its women’s apparel business into two groups, training for sport and training for life. Well aware of the shifts under way in terms of health club classes, the sneaker giant is designing less-restrictive activewear for yoga fans, said Jan Sharkansky, vice president and general manager of the women’s business. For the quarter ended Dec. 31, total worldwide Reebok apparel sales for the quarter rose 31.7 percent to $281.8 million. Apparel sales in the U.S. jumped 48.1 percent to $145.4 million.

Running, walking and training are three areas of focus for the brand, with the emphasis being on performance-oriented fabrics like its proprietary PlayDri moisture-management fabric. On the other side of the spectrum, Reebok is playing up its Classics business, no-frills retro designs, to appeal to teenage consumers. Lady Foot Locker is carrying the group, which includes such nonathletic looks as a stretch terry low-rise skirt.

Reebok is trying to have some of its trendier looks, like a NFL-inspired sleeveless dress, in such magazines as Teen People, Teen Vogue, Jane, Nylon and Elle Girl. Shakira, who signed an endorsement deal with the company last year, is helping to make the brand more visible among teenagers, Sharkansky said.