Frank was a little apprehensive when he first walked into the recently opened New York Sports Club in Clifton, NJ. It had been a few years since he’d gone to a gym, and this one looked serious. The place is huge by any standard, loaded with gleaming equipment, rows and rows of cardio machines – and members who seemed to be intimately acquainted with all of it.

“I had on a T-shirt and sweat pants, and was just hoping I wasn’t going to stick out like a sore thumb, you know?” he says, with a laugh. “I didn’t know if these guys would all be wearing high-tech, neon-colored muscle shirts. But it was good – they all looked like me.”

That’s because 41% of men prefer cotton and cotton blends for their athletic apparel, according to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™. Compare that to only 15% of men who prefer synthetic fibers for their workout sessions.

The preference for all-natural cotton holds true as much for those who’ve logged more time on the sofa than the cross-trainer, as it does for avid workout enthusiasts.

Stephen, 38, a Manhattan-based doctor who begins every day with a morning run through Central Park, says he only wears cotton tees.

“I get super-soft, really lightweight shirts and they’re perfect,” he says. “Nothing feels better.”

Among men who prefer cotton for their athletic apparel, the Monitor found that 35% like it because it breathes; 32% find it comfortable; 14% say its “soft/feels better;” and 13% say it’s “cool/light.”

This time of year is big for workout wear. Amy Dimond, fashion director for Sears Holdings, says people come in with their New Year’s resolutions forefront in their minds.

“They really want to get back in shape, particularly after the holidays,” Dimond reports. “And even if you stayed in good shape and weren’t eating out of control, you’re getting back into a routine, getting back to your regular workouts. And buying new apparel gears you up for that.”

JCPenney shoppers are the same way, says Kate Parkhouse, brand manager.

“We do often see an increase in athletic product sales around ‘New Year’s Resolution’ time,” she says. “With the increase in holiday gift card purchases, men often support their weight loss or ‘get fit’ resolutions by spending their cards on workout wear.”

At JCPenney, cotton-based activewear represents the majority of workout gear, Parkhouse says.

“A lot of customers aren’t comfortable moving away from cotton-based product when working out,” she says.

Fiber preference among three athletic apparel items equal in price, style and performance features
Cotton 71%
Nylon 17%
Polyester 11%

The Monitor stats bear out Parkhouse’s statement. To wit, when given the choice between three athletic apparel items that had the same price, style and performance features, 71% of men preferred cotton, over 17% who chose nylon and 11% who picked polyester.

A new product coming to the market aims to capitalize on men’s desire to workout in cotton, while appeasing their interest in high-tech performance features.

SubLock Active Cotton is a line of workout wear that Ontario, Canada-based designer Regg Miller says features the same wicking capabilities of petroleum- based synthetics, but is made of natural fiber.

The Monitor finds 55% of men feel better quality garments are made with natural fibers. Additionally, 63% of men are willing to pay more for natural fibers such as cotton. Parkhouse says some of JCPenney’s best selling items are T-shirts and shorts across all brands, much of it in 100% cotton. Nike and Adidas remain the most popular national brands. The Nike product includes a crew sweatshirt and Futura cotton-blend zip hoody. JCPenney’s private label, Simply for Sports, also provides the customer with many workout options, from fleece pants and crewnecks, to zip-up hoodies.

At Sears, the bulk of its popular NordicTrack line is cotton.

“The fact is it washes well, which is important when you’re going to sweat,” Dimond relates. “It’s easy care, it has a good price point, it’s comfortable and it breathes well. Combined, that’s why cotton continues to be a staple.”

Dimond says cotton activewear is also part of a layering story, especially in winter. “You can really put on a cotton top with maybe a more technical piece, and it will keep you comfortable and dry outdoors – so it’s a winter staple.”

The most popular workout items at Sears are tees, crews and polo shirts. Tees are particularly popular with men, who own an average of 26 tshirts, according to responses to the Monitor.

As far as men’s active fashion, Dimond says more color is entering the mix. And men are matching workout wear in a “sport couture” look so they can go from dinner or shopping right on to the gym.

Both retailers say customers are becoming more interested in performance features such as moisture management, odor control and UV protection. The Monitor finds 63% of men say moisture management is important when shopping for athletic apparel. UV protection is important to 27% of men, followed by 23% who want antimicrobial (anti-odor) features.

SubLock Active Cotton, from the makers of The Lock compression support wear, is unveiling its line of activewear at the upcoming Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, UT.

Jason Paradine, a buyer at Corbett’s Source For Sports, a Canadian retailer, was given a prototype of the SubLock AC tee shirt. He wore it multiple times as a base under his hockey equipment. Subsequently, Paradine said he found it to be “the most comfortable” base layer shirt he’d ever worn, as it both kept his pads in place and wicked away moisture. Also, he said it didn’t retain odors, or have the slippery feel synthetic shirts produce. The SubLock shirt “redefined ‘performance wear’ for me,” Paradine says.

This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ tracking research. Appearing monthly in these pages, each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American men’s wear consumer and his attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.

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