Activewear’s strength has spelled the difference between an up and down year for U.S. apparel sales.

This story first appeared in the September 4, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Figures released by The NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y., Wednesday showed women’s, men’s and children’s apparel sales up 0.5 percent for the 12 months ended in June to about $206.3 billion. But removing the 6.6 percent increase in adult and children’s activewear sales, to about $33.7 billion or 16.3 percent of total turnover, apparel sales for the year would be down 0.6 percent.

“Activewear is booming, with sales growth exceeding that of the apparel market as a whole, and it’s because consumers are wearing activewear not only to the gym, in the gym and from the gym, but they are working out, going out and even hanging out in activewear,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD.

Yet, activewear’s growth rate has decelerated in the most recent period in comparison to the two 12-month stretches that preceded it. In the year ended June 2013, activewear sales were up 10 percent, with apparel sales in total up 4 percent. Excluding activewear, the increase was reduced to 3 percent. In the 12 months ended June 2012, activewear sales were up 8 percent, with apparel, as in the prior year, up 4 percent with the classification and 3 percent without it.

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Nearly half — 49 percent — of activewear is purchased for non-active use, including as casual and everyday wear as well as for school. Use for school is on the rise, indicating popularity among younger customers, while athletics, sports and exercise are now less frequently cited as the intended use of activewear purchases, indicating growing acceptance as streetwear.

Cohen told WWD that the pickup in activewear first surfaced in the men’s market but that growth in women’s is currently stronger. “It’s a matter of timing,” he said. “Men gravitated towards it first as it was always a natural part of their wardrobe, and women have now figured out how to make it part of their casual wardrobes.”

He likened it to the evolution of premium denim, from which activewear has taken share in recent seasons. “What was weekendwear has become just-about-everyday wear,” he said. “The fact that women are wearing it to work has made a big difference. It’s another example of comfort and attitude changing the way people dress, the same way that, in men’s, dress slacks gave way to casual slacks, which gave way to khakis which gave way to premium jeans.”

While activewear has taken share from a number of casual sportswear classifications, jeans among them, Cohen cautioned that some of the growth may reflect NPD’s consumer respondents placing similar items in different categories in the purchase data they share with the research organization. “A few years ago, a guy might have selected ‘knit shirt’ for his golf shirt,” he said. “Now, he’s more inclined to choose ‘activewear.’”

How important a role have yoga pants played in activewear’s gains? “You’d still have double-digit increases without them, but that’s coming off a small base. The fact is that it’s the pants business that’s still driving the lion’s share of the growth,” Cohen said.

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