“It’s not a trend — it’s a movement, a way of life,” said Elie Tahari this month, when he launched his ath-leisure collection, Elie Tahari Sport.

The fashion crowd is asserting a focus on fitness and banking on activewear as a major opportunity. But it’s not just activewear: The new category, ath-leisure, gained traction this year, with apparel — like yoga pants — encroaching on denim and other casual sportswear. And of course, it all has to look great and perform well.

This story first appeared in the December 19, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Tahari wasn’t the only designer to dive into the red-hot category this year. Although dominated by powerhouse sports brands like Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma, Under Armour, Lululemon Athletica, Athleta and Champion, an increasing number of designers — Alexander Wang, Carolina Herrera, Balenciaga, Victoria Beckham and Marni, to name a few — showed ath-leisure on the runways.

For spring, Tory Burch will launch her Sport line and Carrie Underwood will introduce a fitness line, Calia by Carrie Underwood, exclusively at Dick’s Sporting Goods. And Beyoncé has formed a venture with Topshop to produce an athletic streetwear brand, due out late next year. Adidas AG has strengthened its active portfolio through collaborations with Stella McCartney, Mary Katrantzou and Pharrell Williams. And this week, Puma named Rihanna as creative director, overseeing the sporting goods maker’s women’s line. As part of a multiyear partnership with Puma, Rihanna will direct Puma’s fitness and training line, including apparel as well as shoes.

“Active has become a complete lifestyle shift for consumers,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group Inc. He said it’s about more than being active — it’s about comfort and ease of dressing. Active is “a way to look and feel healthier. It’s also about spending on product that does more than just one thing. Activewear has a multipurpose for consumers. It takes them to the gym, in the gym and from the gym.”

Once designated exclusively for sports pursuits, these days on-the-go women are wearing performance apparel throughout the day and night, layering key workout pieces with a sweater or jacket for the office or even making a dressy statement with heels for evening.

This has led to a very robust year for activewear. Through October, sales of activewear reached $35.1 billion, representing 17 percent of the total apparel market, according to NPD, keeping the category on an upward trajectory for the past few years. Cohen noted that activewear sales have increased 8 percent for the 12 months ended in October. Conversely, jeans are down 8 percent, which, he added, “is not a mere coincidence.” Cohen sees continued growth for activewear if companies keep making it fresh and new: “Jeans did not, and they lost momentum,” he said.

Many factors play into the category’s strength, not the least of which is that fitness and health are paramount concerns for Millennials and Baby Boomers. Popularity is soaring for boutique fitness studios like SoulCycle, Flywheel, Pure Barre and Barry’s Bootcamp, and there’s a proliferation of exercise classes, including cross-fitness, high-intensity training, yoga, Pilates, dance, barre and Zumba.

The activewear movement is marked by a growing number of high-performance fabrics that shape and smooth figures, such as Lycra spandex, Supplex, Tencel, MicroModal and a new generation of comfortable, lightweight microfibers. Many of these fabrics have wicking and antibacterial properties. Fibers by Invista are also microencapsulated with skin-soothing lotions; Outlast fiber uses proprietary technology that can cool body temperatures. Adidas in the spring launched Climachill, an activewear cooling technology that provides an instant chilling sensation, helping athletes to perform in warm conditions. Compression king Under Armour this fall unveiled ClutchFit, which was described as a “second skin” that responds to movement and activates under pressure.

Department and specialty stores are jumping in, too.

“At Saks Fifth Avenue, we definitely believe that the trend toward ath-leisure is continuing to gain momentum. We see it more as a lifestyle change,” said Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director. She noted that women are leading more active, casual lifestyles and that they want to be more comfortable. Saks launched ath-leisure on saks.com for this fall and will be rolling it out to stores for spring.

Among activewear brands carried by saks.com are Adidas Originals by Mary Katrantzou, Alo Yoga, Koral Activewear, Michi, Zara Terez and T by Alexander Wang. Sherin said her customers also respond to the luxe version of the ath-leisure trend, like Brunello Cuccinelli parkas, anoraks and track pants, which she said are “in the most beautiful cashmere fabric or a lightweight leather.”

For spring, Alexander Wang showed a dress with athletic mesh inserts and a handbag shaped like a sneaker, she said. “Athletic mesh was definitely the techno fabric of choice, with many designers opting to incorporate mesh into their collections. Even Carolina Herrera, whom we think of as a polished, ladylike designer, did ballgowns in athletic mesh,” said Sherin.

“We’ve really gone after the athletic business,” said Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Macy’s Inc., at a meeting with analysts in the spring. He said the business is “just unbelievably strong compared to what it used to do. It’s not even close, and with that, it has had a direct positive impact on our apparel.”

Macy’s teamed with Finish Line to provide active footwear under license as well as licensed in-store shops. The shops sell footwear, and Macy’s is selling the coordinating apparel. Macy’s also features Nike, Calvin Klein, Soybu, Fila, Helly Hansen, Lauren Jeans Co., Lauren Ralph Lauren, Puma, North Face and Under Armour in its activewear department.

Naturally, Web sites that cater exclusively to the active market have sprung up, too. Net-a-Sporter, a new channel from online retailer Net-a-Porter, launched in July in 170 countries, featuring 37 brands across 11 categories — tennis, running and yoga/dance among them. The site sells Monreal London, Nike, L’Etoile Sport, Markus Lupfer and Adidas Originals, among others.

When Trevor Edwards, Nike Brand president, was asked this year about all the non-athletic brands getting into the ath-leisure market, he replied, “We don’t think of it as a trend. We think of it as a cultural shift. Sports and fitness have become a part of life. Many others have seen the opportunity to do that. And I do believe that competition is a good thing, because it keeps you very focused.”

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