HONG KONG – The ath-leisure category in the U.S. may be an intensely crowded market, but with China’s burgeoning fitness scene just starting to take shape, brands are jostling each other in their efforts to expand East.
On June 19, yogawear giant Lululemon Athletica will debut its first Hong Kong store, a 14,00-square-foot space in the upscale IFC mall. Plans are already in the works to open a second Lululemon unit in Causeway Bay come September. Although the brand started its first Asia showroom in Hong Kong in 2011, the IFC outlet will be a full-fledged store and capable of delivering online orders within a few hours.
The brand is just one of a series of sports apparel players to expand in Hong Kong this year. An Adidas Originals flagship launched in January, followed quickly by an Adidas women’s-only store. Then in April, fitness and yoga chain Pure rolled out an e-commerce platform for its in-house apparel line.
“The last two years have probably had the greatest growth,” Lululemon’s general manager for Asia Ken Lee said. “Reading the market, the sales were growing double-digit, very high growth. We monitor many indicators, like how many yoga mats are selling.”
“We’re entering the market at a really powerful time in terms of health and fitness,” Lululemon’s Asia brand and community director Amanda Casgar said. “You’re seeing an influx of boutique studios like H-Kore and XYZ and all of those [workouts] that were supremely popular in North America and the Soul Cycles of the world get major coverage and that’s starting to happen here in Hong Kong in a major way. The appetite for health and fitness here and in China is tremendous.”
Celebrity yogi Tara Stiles, who was in the city last weekend to launch a yoga video series and health menu at the W Hotel, said she’s also noticed the growing popularity of an active lifestyle in Asia.
“This year I came back, people were a lot looser and excited and had gotten into the whole lifestyle,” Stiles said. “I think the yoga movement is definitely on the up and up.”
Her video series demonstrating yoga poses is played in W Hotel guest rooms. The Hong Kong hotel was chosen to pilot the collaboration, but the hotel chain said it is looking at expanding it to other locations.
“We see huge growth in this lifestyle in Asia,” Pure Group chief executive officer Colin Grant said. “The penetration is very low. For instance, the fitness industry in the U.S., about 17 percent of people have an active [gym] membership. In Asia, it’s less than 4 percent, so obviously it’s a huge growth potential. A lot of people are looking at Asia as the next growth market.”
Although the East is aiming to catch up to the U.S. in the ath-leisure movement, it is moving fast because of keen support from authorities.
“The Chinese government is launching all sorts of health and fitness initiatives,” Casgar said. “They did a massive partnership with India and hosted a yoga class for 1,000 people. We also worked with the Singapore tourism bureau to shut down Orchard Road and we hosted a class there for 1,000 people.”
On June 17, the first India-China Yoga Festival will open in Sichuan, an initiative by the neighboring countries. Health awareness among the Chinese general public also appears to be on the rise – Beijing, infamous for its hazardous polluted air, banned smoking in enclosed public spaces at the start of the month.
But while ath-leisure makers are planning their Asia expansion, they must compete against a sizable homegrown brand. The Hong Kong-based Pure Yoga apparel line, while only launched 18 months ago, has strong funding and enviable industry connections.
One of Pure Group’s cofounders is Bruce Rockowitz, better known as the former longtime ceo of sourcing giant Li & Fung, and who now heads up its consumer brands spin-off Global Brands Group. Grant readily admitted the Li & Fung connection has given the brand a substantial advantage and that it handles the majority of the sourcing for the Pure apparel line.
“Most of it, yes,” Grant said.
“Oh, huge,” he said, referring to the advantage the sourcing firm gives. “We started small and Li & Fung had access to the mills and textile factories.”
Priced about 10 percent cheaper than Lululemon, Pure is tapping into its community of practitioners across more than a dozen studios in Asia, much in the way Lululemon starting clothing yoga instructors in its early days to test out products.
“We have 10,000 students practice a day at Pure,” Grant said. “That’s a lot of people and a lot of feedback. Other companies who want to get into that space need to get into that community. They need to know what people like to do, what they like to wear. We’re a yoga company first.”
Pure Apparel’s Web site lists U.S. dollars as its default currency, a telling sign that it has much more than Asia in its sights. The line is not yet stocked at Pure Yoga’s New York studios, which are operated as a venture with Equinox, but the group is in talks to roll it out there. They are also in the process of setting up wholesale partners across North America.
“Next year, hopefully we’re going to do stand-alone stores,” Grant said. “Not sure if it’s going to be Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore first. We want to get the men’s line up, then take it from there.”
But if Asia is the coveted growth driver, what are those shoppers seeking? Smaller sizing for petite bodies and a hesitation for baring the midriff were a common refrain, but consumers are also showing a strong inclination for bright colors and patterns.
“We found that Asians in this part of the world really appreciate color,” Lululemon’s Lee said.
“The crazier things do way better than the very simple things,” Stiles said of her yogawear collaboration line with Reebok. “Reebok was like, ‘They’re crazy!’ but they sold out in a couple of days.”