High fashion began dabbling in activewear years ago as looks from the gym started to take to the street. But now that the trend has not only grown but cemented itself as a fashion cornerstone — giving Lululemon Athletica Inc. a $30 billion market capitalization — ath-leisure prices are reaching higher and higher to luxury levels, where the margins are better and big price tags build brands.
Just how high can ath-leisure go?
Right now, it’s not clear just what the limit is. But fashion is full of brands testing what the market will bear.
Fendi’s activewear line includes leggings made from viscose and polyamide materials for $1,100 and sports bras for $400. Versace’s sports bras retail for around the same price, but the brand’s leggings are just under $800. Moncler offers ski leggings for $500. Then there are activewear collections from Tory Burch, Chloé and Adidas by Stella McCartney. This month, Adidas will relaunch Ivy Park, a high-end ath-leisure brand codesigned by Beyoncé. And there are also luxury activewear lines that have popped up without a designer name attached, such as British-based Varley or Yella Activewear.
While fashionistas and influencers are forever concerned about what they’re wearing, now more mainstream consumers don’t seem as reluctant to drop hundreds — if not thousands — on their workout attire.
“There’s a real market for luxury brands to develop performance-driven higher-priced items,” said Julie Gilhart, president of Tomorrow Consulting. “What’s on the forefront is those luxury brands applying their luxury with the technology of a [company like] Nike or a Lululemon, or someone that is very skilled at performance fabrics — but at a higher price point.”
Asha Kai, founder and chief executive officer of premium activewear brand Ultracor, which recently teamed with fashion house Christian Lacroix for a luxury activewear collection, added that there is always a market for every price point.
“It’s just a matter of doing it in a way that that customer wants to purchase it,” Kai said. “There’s a lot of thought that goes into every single bit and piece of [our] garments. It isn’t just your everyday leggings that’s out there in the moment.”
Special features include moisture wicking, breathable fabrics, special stitching and hidden shapewear — and price tags that start at around $200 for a single pair of exercise pants.
But many argue that it’s money well spent.
“Technology has become so intelligent and subtle in terms of visibility, you would never know it was there without being told about it,” said Stella McCartney, who has been collaborating with Adidas since 2004. “Or better yet, noticing the difference to your performance.”
The ath-leisure look is fed by the larger wellness trend that shows no sign of abating. The global ath-leisure apparel market — which is defined as sports-inspired apparel, but not actual performance wear — is worth more than $77.2 billion, up from roughly $56 billion just five years ago, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. That same market is expected to grow to more than $93 billion by 2023. Athletic-inspired footwear is growing even faster. Experts estimate that the market, which was worth about $34 billion in 2013, will reach $73.1 billion by 2023.
It’s not surprising that designers are eager to capture a piece of those billions, especially as sales of general apparel flag.
“As long as this whole ath-leisure trend is apparent, then there will always be the luxury element,” said Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at Euromonitor. “Consumers who can afford it will always want to have the high-end stuff. Similarly, if a different trend came on board, luxury brands are going to buy into that.”
Kai, who founded Ultracor five years ago, also noted that prices for ath-leisure and activewear pieces have continued to rise during her time in the space.
“It really has shown that people are willing to and want to pay for a product if it’s done right,” she said.
Similarly, when McCartney started designing for Adidas, she said the selection of sports clothes for women was slim.
“The colors were very basic and [there was] hardly any variations in design,” McCartney said. “It was so bad, it was almost cool.”
Soon enough, with launches like Adidas by Stella McCartney, consumers started taking those casual fashions outside of the gym. Companies including Adidas and Nike, recognizing the opportunity, launched athletic-inspired collections.
“Fast forward 15 years, and sportswear has really become a lifestyle choice for women everywhere,” McCartney said.
That explains the proliferation of activewear and ath-leisure apparel brands on both ends of the price spectrum. Fabletics, Old Navy, Target and H&M are just some of the companies that offer affordable options. Sock firm Bombas also recently released an ath-leisure apparel line. It seems everyone is eager to get in on the action, exploring a category that many designer brands dabbled in decades ago through licenses, particularly in skiwear.
But what remains consistent throughout is that people want to look good while working out. Hence the renewed emphasis on fashion in activewear.
Gym-goers regularly flood Heather Andersen’s New York Pilates class in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood dressed in metallic sports bras and rose-colored mesh leggings adorned with chains and fancy stitching of her own design. The New York Pilates apparel line, which debuted in September, is meant to be stylish, much like Andersen’s exercise studio.
“We focused on fabrics that have coverage as you bend and twist and have a really nice feel to them on your skin, in addition to having really beautiful colors,” Andersen said. “If you have something that you can put on that is really comfortable, but also feels chic, it makes you feel like you’re in an outfit, instead of just pajamas.”
The New York Pilates collection is just one example of a fashion-based activewear collection. Daniella Mizrahi, founder and ceo of premium activewear brand Yella Activewear, said she often looks for workout clothes that feel like “a second skin.” Mizrahi’s first collection, which debuted earlier in 2019, is meant to be worn all day, in and out of the gym.
In fact, the demand for cross-functional clothing options continues to grow as consumers lead increasingly busy lives. More lenient dress codes in corporate America have also contributed to more casual styles — hence the trend throughout the Aughts for women to wear leggings not only to the gym, but everywhere from school runs to the workplace.
And the trend is even going international.
“London in particular is really starting to catch up,” said Lara Mead, cofounder of luxury activewear brand Varley. “The movement is definitely coming here to Europe, where women want to work out and they don’t want to have to get changed ten times throughout the day.”
She described a recent trip to a spinning studio in London where every class was booked all day long.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It was absolutely heated.”
Inii Kim, cofounder and creative director at King & Partners, a New York-based marketing agency, said the fashion-and-activewear fusion is a natural progression. Anytime there is a great demand people want more options, she said.
“I find myself always looking for new types of activewear, even though I don’t need it,” she said.
But others say the fashion community is just starting to catch up with the ath-leisure trend.
Andersen, who began her career as a private-session Pilates instructor eight years ago, said she was tired of seeing “the same cut” in women’s activewear. She wanted a more “punk-slash-fashion aesthetic,” so she decided to create her own.
“Most of what’s in the market is still based on Lululemon,” Andersen explained. “You know, thick waist bands and cover stitch. A basic design from 10 years ago.”
But it’s exactly that consistency that has positioned Lululemon at the top of the activewear-ath-leisure food chain: The company is designing for athletes.
“It’s not a fashion play,” Calvin McDonald, Lululemon’s ceo, told WWD. “It really is a science of feel, a function play of, ‘What are we trying to solve?’ Some of the fashion brands look at it as an opportunity. But I think rooted in our business is technical performance.”
Roberts of Euromonitor agreed.
“When it comes to performance, generally, consumers will go with those brands that are solely designed for performance and have fancy technologists and they have all of the information from a sports science background, as opposed to a fashion background and fashion elements,” Roberts said.
But even Lululemon is moving to infuse more fashion into its designs. In October, the company launched the Lululemon x Roksanda collection, a collaboration with London-based women’s wear designer Roksanda Ilinčić. The 17-piece line included the Infinity Coat, which retailed for $998. On the company’s December conference call with analysts, Sun Choe, Lululemon’s chief product officer, said the jacket was a hit with shoppers, selling out online.
“What’s exciting here is that this is another proof point that tells us that when we bring newness and innovation into the assortment, price doesn’t appear to be a limiting factor,” Choe said.
In some ways, athleisure apparel is simply catching up to the trend that has dominated the sneaker world for the last several years as designer brands from Balenciaga to Louis Vuitton, Dior to Valentino and Chanel have introduced styles at price points of more than $1,000. And they often can’t keep up with demand.
The ongoing demand for designer sneakers has spurred another trend in ath-leisure, in which luxury brands team with established activewear players — Prada has linked with Adidas in a long-term collaboration, that is separate from Prada’s Linea Rossa ath-leisure line, while Dior Men’s has done the same with Nike’s Jordan brand to introduce the Air Dior line.
Not everyone can afford to drop hundreds of dollars on sneakers, basics or clothes meant for exercising.
“But we’re not dealing with most people here,” said Euromonitor’s Roberts. “We’re dealing with affluent consumers. It’s the same as anything most people can’t afford to buy. [For example], a Chanel bag for 10,000 pounds. But there is a market for it.”
The ability of luxury retail and fashion companies to develop performance-based activewear and entice their existing customers into buying products will be what determines their success in the space, Gilhart said.
“The business of it is that you have these luxury brands and they want to be in that world. And as they expand their different categories, they think, why not?” she said. “And it keeps the customer in your brand, which is important. Because if you’re not meeting all of their needs, they’re going to go somewhere else to get something that they need.
“If Chanel has sportswear that’s made well in the way that Chanel is made and is also performance-driven, then the same person who is buying Chanel will think, why not?” Gilhart continued. “They love the brand. They think, you know, I’m a Chanel girl. It kind of makes sense in that way.”
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