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Going Strong: Athletic Gear Is Working Overtime

The category is booming thanks to more fashion and the spread of boutique fitness studios.

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Last week Karl Lagerfeld and Raf Simons chose to accessorize their haute couture collections for Chanel and Dior, respectively, with sneakers. Just over a week before came news of Riccardo Tisci’s collaboration with Nike on four styles based on the Air Force 1. All three are examples of the trickle-up effect of the sporty uniform — sweatshirts, performance leggings and trainers — that has staged a streetwear takeover.

This story first appeared in the January 31, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Athletic apparel didn’t need high fashion to legitimize it. The look is thriving stylistically in and out of the gym. “It used to be that you’d get a gym bag, you’d stuff your stuff in there and you’d put on street clothes. Then you’d go to the gym, work out, put the gym clothes back and stuff them in the bag,” said Kelly Tweeden, Nike’s vice president of Global Design for Women’s Training. “Now we’re seeing that women don’t really have that commitment to changing three times a day. As long as it fits their style criteria, they don’t feel bad about wearing the product on the street.”

Nike should know. In October, the company said that its branded apparel sales had increased 40 percent in the last three years and it expects to add $10 billion more in annual sales in the next three years. Nor is it the only company experiencing generous upticks. On Thursday Under Armour’s stock spiked 22.9 percent after the company reported that in 2013 revenues expanded 27.1 percent to $2.33 billion.

Wellness, for lack of a better word, has become an aspirational lifestyle look of its own, born out of the symbiosis of a pop cultural health obsession — juicing, boutique fitness, gluten-free diets, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop — and the fashion associated with it. To wear it is to be in the club, much in the same way carrying a designer handbag suggests “in-ness.” Except instead of belonging to team Chanel, it’s team SoulCycle, for example.

That’s been great for the athletic market. The NPD Group reports that for 2013, activewear apparel sales in the U.S. were up 9 percent, while total apparel was up just 1 percent. “The consumer is telling the market they want athletic-inspired, casual clothing,” said Marshal Cohen, NPD’s chief industry analyst. ‘It’s been to the benefit of the athletic market because the sportswear market ignored [this growing demand] and now they’re figuring it out.”

Many factors play into this market surge, not least of which is that fitness and health is one of the few areas where Millennial and baby boomer spending intersect. Another driving force is the rise of boutique fitness studios SoulCycle, Flywheel and Barry’s Bootcamp. They are often described as cult-ish, not to mention ultracompetitive — wait-lists are the norm. Their studio networks are in expansion mode as is their stake in retail. Flywheel recent switched from co-branding to private label. It doesn’t have e-commerce yet, but it does have its categories covered, including the pet accessories it launched last year. As of Feb. 15, Bloomingdale’s will be the exclusive retail partner to Barry’s Bootcamp’s private label collection, stocking nine Barry’s branded items in six locations. “The timing feels right [to partner with Barry’s Bootcamp], as culturally the consumer is building an allegiance to different workout regimes, which have become a layer of her personal identity and style,” said Brooke Jaffe, Bloomingdale’s OVP/fashion director for women’s ready-to-wear.

To her point, the SoulCycle phenomenon. To go to SoulCycle, particularly one of the prime-time, after-work classes, is to witness a tribe in motion. The women look like SoulCycle — even when they change out of the bike shoes and put on their Tory Burch Reva flats to walk home. (Speaking of, Burch has her own sports line forthcoming, details of which were too “premature” to release, according to a spokeswoman.) “Our customers are really attached to SoulCycle,” said cofounder Julie Rice. “And to them wearing the clothing is associated not just with fashion but with strength and empowerment and the feeling they have when they come and exercise with us.” The T-shirt SoulCycle originally introduced to make use of the $2,000 leftover from the launch marketing budget has expanded into 14 shipments of complete collections per year. Earlier this month, SoulCycle partnered with Shopbop on a capsule collection exclusive to the online retailer. And when the spinning studio relaunched its Web site Monday to allow for a bigger retail presence, a bug in the system prompted the New York Post’s Page Six to run an item under the headline “SoulCycle Web site malfunctions, causing panic.”

There’s also Physique 57, AKT in Motion and Tracy Anderson. Classes run, on average, $35 a session. “Anyone going to a class like that has money to spend,” said Robyn Berkley, a fashion publicist who launched her own health and wellness Web site and athletic collection called Live the Process, which is being sold at Barneys this spring.

The big brands still dominate the field and have shaped the athletic shift into the casual everyday look. The highly influential Adidas by Stella McCartney fashion sports partnership has been going on for nine years and just opened its first U.S. store last week in Miami. If Lululemon has seen profits slip amid a flurry of production issues and press missteps, it was an early influencer in the rise of the athletic look. “Our first really successful pant was a thing called the Groove Pant,” said Deanne Schweitzer, senior vice president of women’s design and merchandising, of the style, which was a low-rise, boot-cut fit. “It was quite forward at the time, and it was a silhouette that was similar to what your jeans would have been. We saw skinny jeans coming and we quickly designed what we now have as the Wunder Under Pant. We knew as soon as you switched your wardrobe to a skinnier leg you were going to switch what you worked out in to a skinnier leg.”

Fashion trends have driven the athletic consumers’ appetite for more design-driven gear, such as Nike’s Tight of the Moment, a monthly delivery of novelty printed tights. “We did not anticipate how much the consumers would love it, so we continued to offer one every month,” said Tweeden. “We were making very small quantities and we would see them sell out in hours. Gone, like vaporized. And then we were like, ‘Whoa, this is like a pair of Jordans for her.’”

The market is seeing an influx of smaller players. Michi, VMFITT, Prism Sport and Beyond Yoga are a few of the labels stocked by Carbon38, an e-commerce site launched last year by Katie Warner Johnson and Caroline Gogolak, two Harvard grads-turned-finance-professionals-turned-entrepreneurs who say they “live their lives in spandex.” They’ve positioned Carbon38 as the activewear market’s answer to Net-a-porter — the average Carbon38 shopping cart is between $150 and $200. “They’re buying a legging similar to how they buy cocktail dresses,” said Gogolak. “She can get dressed once in the morning, drop the kids off at school, go to work, her board meeting and kick off her Manolos at the end of the day and go to a SoulCycle class,” said Johnson. “I think that’s a very powerful thing for a woman on the go.”

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Some version of that modern women-on-the-go was invoked by nearly everyone interviewed for this story, when explaining the appeal and prevalence of the athletic look. And apparently, people actually wear gym clothes to work, even in fashion.

Kirna Zabête owners Sarah Easley and Beth Buccini work out at AKT and Tracy Anderson, respectively. Both are enthusiasts of Lucas Hugh, the high-end activewear line by former Alexander McQueen designer Anjhe Mules. Sports bras retail for around $170, leggings for $345. Easley and Buccini have stocked Lucas Hugh at Kirna Zabête for three seasons. “We could wear it in Paris with our Stella McCartney blazer and Jason Wu lace sweatshirt,” said Buccini. “And then whip it back out the next morning and go for a run in the Tuileries.”

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