Lululemon Sweatlife

SHANGHAI — Shao Wei, 31, discovered running when she lived in the U.S. as a college student, but after returning from New York to Shanghai for work, life got in the way of working out.

“After one year of not being very active I felt my physical condition is not as good as before and my work was very stressful; that’s quite common in China’s big metropolitan areas. So I started running again and found it a great distraction from work. Then I started going to the gym again and I just tried everything. I do body combat, body pump, spin classes and yoga,” Shao said.

This fitness boom among women in China marks a departure from the country’s long-held beauty standards of extreme, waif-like thinness as the ideal to an acceptance of more defined and shapely figures.

It has been spurred, as with many other trends among the country’s growing middle class, by a national obsession with sharing an aspirational lifestyle on the country’s most prevalent social networks, WeChat and Sina Weibo, as well as the influence of celebrities and key opinion leaders, commonly called KOLs here.

Television actress Shanshan Yuan caused a stir last year by documenting her fitness progress and routines on Weibo, with her defined mid-section becoming something of a sensation. At its peak as a trending topic, the term “Shanshan Yuan’s firm abs” garnered more than 88 million hits on the platform.

An image uploaded by Gao Qian to her social media accounts. 

In June, Gao Qian, a fitness vlogger, became a national celebrity after being awarded the title of a “most beautiful buttocks” contest. A self-confessed “fitness fanatic,” Gao credited a daily regimen of six hours of squats and lunges as the key to her shapely success.

Shao started her fitness journey with running, and an increasing number of Chinese Millennials — of both genders — are doing the same, largely because of the sport’s low barrier to entry, the perceived suitability of long-distance running for Chinese body types, and the fact that milestones and successes can easily be shared via social media, which adds to the sense of accomplishment garnered by exercising.

Accordingly, the number of marathons organized in China increased from 22 in 2011 to 123 in 2015, with over a million participants, according to statistics from the General Administration of Sports of China.

“Getting a spot in the Shanghai Marathon is insanely competitive,” Shao said. “I think it’s become trendy, so people don’t want to feel they are left out. Also, the promotion of health is becoming more important. The work, life, the food we eat and diseases we get that weren’t common before, all of these things have raised an alarm among the younger generations and fitness is an important part of that.”

According to data from Euromonitor, China’s health and wellness boom has driven sportswear growth to a point where it threatens to overtake luxury goods by 2020. Euromonitor estimates the sector will reach a retail value of more than 300 billion yuan, or $45.85 billion, by 2021, up from 187 billion yuan, or $28.58 billion, in 2016.

China’s sportswear market has traditionally been dominated by four major companies — two international giants, in Nike and Adidas, as well as major domestic players, Li Ning and Anta — which together account for 50.9 percent of the market.

But as a response to increasing healthy lifestyles and participation in fitness activities, the market is rapidly starting to diversify, making room for smaller brands hoping to capture an increasingly discerning group of Chinese consumers.

Matthew Crabbe, director of research, Asia-Pacific at market research firm Mintel Group, notes a shift in recent years in the way sportswear brands market to Chinese consumers from the “top-down” approach of celebrity athlete endorsements to more of an emphasis on grassroots participation. With women at a grassroots level taking up sports at a rapid pace, this messaging is increasingly directed at them.

“This is really one of the dichotomies that sportswear has faced in China is this push and pull between the big sports — the top-down elite athletes side of thing. At the same time, you’ve got the grassroots and what people aspire to do for themselves,” he said.

Liz Flora, editor for Asia-Pacific Research at L2 Digital, which last month released its “Activewear China” insight report, anticipates an increase in the diversity of international brands all arriving to the China market equipped with sophisticated digital operations and a focus on participation — and female consumers.

“China’s activewear market is predicted to see significant growth in the next five years, so more brands are entering the market and expanding their store footprints. Both the newcomers and local Chinese competitors have been developing sophisticated digital innovations in WeChat marketing, omnichannel and e-commerce, so Nike and Adidas will have to stay on top of their game digitally if they want to keep their high market share,” Flora said.

Lululemon hosts yoga classes in major Chinese cities that have been particularly popular with women [and] activewear brands have also joined in on the trend of hiring ‘Young Fresh Meat’ celebrities to promote their products. These young, attractive male celebrities are generally quite effective at reaching a female fan base.”

Lululemon’s Q2 results, revealed last month, showed 70 percent year-over-year market growth across Asia, led by momentum in China, where the brand has grown 350 percent over the second quarter of last year.

“China is one of our most exciting and unprecedented growth opportunities. Building on Lululemon’s exceptional performance and resonance so far, we’re accelerating our expansion strategy in Shanghai and Beijing, and building our presence in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chengdu,” said Lululemon chief executive officer Laurent Potdevin.

“As Chinese Millennials are some of the most progressive and digitally engaged consumers in the world, we’re focused on exploring and developing new approaches to capturing this audience. From incredible experiences like ‘Unroll China’ to the collective impact of our physical stores and digital presence, we have strong brand momentum to connect with the growing community of Chinese consumers choosing an active, mindful lifestyle.”

Also responding to the fitness boom among middle-class, urban, Millennial Chinese consumers is department store Lane Crawford, which has significantly widened its roster of international boutique sportswear in recent years, stocking brands such as Perfect Moment, Live the Process, and Adidas by Stella McCartney.

“With the trend of well-being and active lifestyle, ath-leisure is one of our fastest growth categories in China and I believe it will continue to grow. Much of this is associated with the evolving lifestyle and wanting to not just look good but feel good at the same time,” Lane Crawford’s chief brand officer Joanna Gunn said.

It’s not just smaller international sportswear brands poised to take market share from the sector’s major players. International fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Uniqlo are also proving popular with Chinese sportswear consumers and, according to Mintel’s Crabbe, are likely to pose the biggest threat to the likes of Nike and Adidas.

“Nike and Adidas have really established market share but that doesn’t mean they won’t also be challenged by up-and-coming brands. When you are looking at the fashion market generally, there are plenty of companies like Uniqlo coming in and selling sportswear, so there is competition from the fashion industry as well. That kind of disruption is more likely,” he said.

One thing brands can’t count on from Chinese Millennial consumers is loyalty. A 2016 UBS survey showed the under-35 set in China to not only be less loyal than the previous generations but also less loyal than their Millennial counterparts in the U.S.

“I think for me, I care about style and quality. It doesn’t have to be one specific brand — local or international, famous or not-so-famous. For me I would choose because of quality and the look. I want to look good in what I am wearing,” Shao said, though she added she anticipates paying a higher price for international brands.

“I would be prepared to pay a couple of hundred [yuan] for a top or shorts or leggings from Nike, Adidas or Lululemon. I also buy from H&M sports section, Victoria Secret and Lorna Jane. [Lorna Jane has] very good-looking outfits, the color and cut and the look are very cute but one piece of that is two or three pieces from H&M or Victoria Secret, so I won’t buy all the time from Lorna Jane,” she said.