Ath-leisure has become the bane of independent specialty retailers. Customers, who in the past may have bought dresses, trousers, blouses, blazers, skirts and novelty sweaters, have become crazed exercise fanatics — or are simply dressing like them.
Ath-leisure, a $35 billion dollar juggernaut, according to The NPD Group, isn’t new, but the phenomenon of women spending more and more time in their activewear is growing. Some retailers liken ath-leisure to the rise of Juicy Couture in the Nineties, when every soccer mom from Nantucket to Newport Beach could be seen wearing one of the brand’s velour track suits.
“The biggest challenge for my business is ath-leisure,” said Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of Capitol and Poole Shop in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s the biggest pain in my behind. Women wear it all day long. It’s everybody and it’s awful. Nobody needs to see your entire body except your husband.
“I have trained salespeople on how to get women out of ath-leisure,” she said. “Customers will buy a leather jacket to throw over their workout wear, but day clothes are a tough sell.”
“I never thought that in my shoe selection I would have a half-dozen or a dozen gym shoes,” said Kelly Golden, owner of Neapolitan in Chicago. “Ath-leisure is becoming more and more popular. When you see people at airports wearing it, it’s really depressing. We’ve hit the bottom in the casual sense. I don’t think people can dress any worse.
“As far as the every day clothes, a lot of my clients are running around in yoga gear,” Golden said. “When they come to shop, they’re in workout clothes. We take ath-leisure into consideration — it’s changing how and what we buy and impacting our price points.”
Golden pointed out that “many of the lines we carry are developing core pieces such as basic Ts, and cashmere sweaters that can be worn with Lululemon pants. The Row is doing that on the luxury end. You can emulate that casual, carefree look and still be polished.”
“Customers are very casual,” agreed Sarah Easley, cofounder of Kirna Zabete. “The ath-leisure world is cutting into the denim market. It’s cutting into casual daytime stuff.
“There are lots of ways to polish up the look,” Easley said. “If you’re at Equinox and going to Whole Foods, you need a Saint Laurent big cardigan, Veronica Beard jacket with a hood or cute Mr & Mrs Italy parka.
“Designers are waking up to this, and making pieces that go with the high and the low,” Easley said. “Gigi Hadid is wearing a Saint Laurent bomber jacket over a sports bra and trousers. I say go ahead and wear a sport outfit, but please, elevate it with a gorgeous Céline handbag and Stella McCartney sweater.”
“There’s still a group that wants to wear dresses,” said Linda Dresner, whose e-boutique is in Birmingham, Mich. “It’s a small group.”
Dresner has been buying less expensive sportswear. “I no longer buy Céline,” she said. “It’s very expensive and quite strict. Brands are too particular. We’ve stopped selling Saint Laurent. It’s very expensive.”
Dresner’s top-selling labels include RTA, Unravel, Awake and Public School. Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and Junya Watanabe also sell well and Dresner cherry picks from Haider Ackermann, Balenciaga, Dries Van Noten and Victoria Beckham — “but never the total look.”
“A lot of our clients work out most of the day,” said Lori Hirshleifer, vice president of Hirshleifer’s at the Americana Manhasset. “They go to SoulCycle and they’re in workout clothes when they come and shop. The environment has totally changed.”
Customers are still buying Chanel, “but they’re buying less day dresses,” Hirshleifer said. “They’re buying Lucien Pellat Finet and Proenza Schouler sweaters and T-shirts. Nilly Loten does great everyday clothing and trousers from Rosie Assoulin are a great item. They’re casual but not workout wear.”
As for the ath-leisure trend, “we can only hope this trend goes the way of Juicy Couture,” Hirshleifer said.
Angela Guitard, owner of Angela’s in Rye, N.Y., said most of her customers walk into the store wearing Lululemon and Athleta. “They wear it to exercise and pick up their kids in it,” she said. “For fall, I bought a lot more casual sweaters and jeans, things that they can look nice in wearing around town.”
Guitard sells “a ton” of Veronica Beard jackets with Dickies and RTA skinny cotton sweatpants, suede moto jackets and leather blazers.
Guitard is pragmatic about ath-leisure, noting, “you can’t wear workout wear to a dinner.” Angela’s sells Pucci, Roland Mouret, Barbara Bui and Chloé. Gowns by Elie Saab in the $7,000 and $8,000 range have been moving.
“I’m a big SoulCycle fanatic,” Guitard admitted. “I see these girls at the studios every single day. It’s a great networking tool for me to exercise with them, but when I’m walking around town, I’m dressed.”
“I’ve definitely been seeing resistance to buying designer ready-to-wear,” said Lisa Brock, owner of the Zoe boutiques in Princeton and Brooklyn. While Zoe offers Lanvin, Balenciaga and Valentino, it dropped Saint Laurent last season and will stop selling 3.1 Phillip Lim.
“I’m steering clients [in Princeton] to a more polished casual look,” Brock said, noting contemporary designers such as Etoile Isabel Marant, Ulla Johnson, Iro and Raquel Allegra.
In DUMBO, where clients are requesting and buying more designer sneakers to pair with their ath-leisure looks, Zoe offers Common Projects, Nike and Golden Goose.
Julianne Stark, who owns the Julianne stores in Montecito, Calif., and Port Washington, N.Y., has a designer roster that includes Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta and J.Mendel. “I definitely see ath-leisure happening,” Stark said. “I’m not in agreement with it. Has it changed the way people dress? Absolutely.”
Reacting with more casual options is not for Stark. “It wouldn’t be fun,” she said. “We’ve always had sportswear and I see that selling more. Do I still try to push feathers and ballgowns? Yes.”
“The bottoms classification has dwindled,” said Julianne’s Randi Newman. “The most magnificent leather pants and classic trousers are almost nil. Fashion has changed so much in last couple of years. We have to teach customers to get dressed up. Even when you see these women come in and shop after SoulCycle I say, ‘You wear that in the morning. Now, it’s time to powder your face and put on some pretty clothes.’”