Sure, the latest drop from Air Jordan or Adidas’ Yezzy still creates a frenzy among sneakerheads. And no one appears to be on the horizon to challenge the $40 billion behemoth that is Nike.
But just as consumers — specifically fickle Gen Zers — are eagerly on the hunt for smaller, niche fashion labels to complement the multibillion-dollar fashion brands they may buy, so too are they swapping out some of the major labels in activewear for smaller, emerging names — all in the name of standing out from the crowd.
Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Puma and other big players continue to command the lion’s share of the market, but upstart brands are gaining the attention of men — and women — looking for something a little bit different. From Rhone and Tracksmith to Vuori and Fourlaps, consumers are embracing these newcomers as they seek some differentiation on the gym floor and the running track.
The U.S. activewear market is the largest in the world, accounting for 36 percent of global sales, according to Cotton Incorporated. And it is expected to grow to $69.2 billion in 2020, which is up from $54.3 billion in 2015.
Overall, in the third-quarter activewear sales were up slightly, according to Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports at the NPD Group, driven by men’s wear. While women’s wear sales were down, men’s grew in the low-single digits in the period.
“I predict that the athletic footwear and activewear markets will both experience soft performance in Q4,” Powell said, “but smaller brands will continue to be among the top growth opportunities, and important to watch this holiday season.”
He said men — especially Gen Z men — are gravitating to smaller brands as a way to be “unique. They don’t want to wear the same thing everyone else is wearing. So you’re seeing smaller brands growing faster than larger brands and taking small bites of share.”
These newer brands are growing from a much smaller base than the megaliths like Nike, which had sales last year of $40 billion, Adidas, with 2018 sales of more than $24 billion, and Under Armour, with sales of over $5 billion.
Freya Tamayo, visiting assistant professor at Pratt institute who spent 14 years at Fila, said many customers are searching for “more interesting, eclectic activewear brands” that make a statement. “Nike dominates almost every market,” she said, “but the smaller brands are more interesting.” And while older men may gravitate toward the tried-and-true, younger guys don’t have the same brand loyalty and are willing to try newer, lesser-known labels.
Selling direct to consumers is not a barrier to business either, with most of these emergent brands opting to reach out through e-mail and social media to potential customers and create a sense of community among like-minded shoppers.
Although not exactly emerging brands, Outdoor Voices, a big player in the women’s activewear arena, is one of the most skilled at creating a community and has been making a push to include men in its circle. Ditto for Lululemon, which has predicted that its men’s business will double between now and 2023 and eventually exceed $1 billion.
But for men who are still uncomfortable wearing a logo that looks like a women’s hairdo, here are a few alternatives:
Daniel Shapiro was frustrated by what he saw as “lackluster offerings” from the big brands in the men’s activewear market. So the apparel industry veteran took the skills he had honed during 15 years at the Gap, Old Navy and American Eagle Outfitters, and created his own brand. He named it Fourlaps, a nod to the distance it takes to run one mile on a track.
His niche was an apparel brand created for the urban professional, one that used functional fabrics that regulate body temperature and are odor resistant in designs that would be appropriate outside the gym as well.
Since its launch in fall 2016, Fourlaps has grown into a low-seven-figure business without any outside investment.
“People are looking for something different today and they don’t want to look like everybody else,” he said. “Our guy has the confidence to wear another brand and be proud of it.”
In addition to its own e-commerce site, Fourlaps is available at Urban Outfitters, Paragon Sports, Unionmade and Barry’s Bootcamp as well as at Neiman Marcus and J. Crew’s online stores. Peloton tapped the $1.5 million brand to create a co-branded collection that is sold at the company’s studios and brick-and-mortar locations as well as online. Equinox has also picked up the label and it will be offered beginning in 2020.
What appealed to these wholesale partners, Shapiro said, is Fourlaps’ “less-is-more approach. We don’t overdesign — our references come from old Ivy League and Olympic athletes.”
The brand offers T-shirts and tanks, polo shirts, shorts, joggers and jackets. The most popular pieces are the seven-inch “Bolt” short ($68), which features a built-in liner, four-way stretch and zippered back pockets and was selected by Runners World as a favorite this year, along with the short-sleeve Level T-shirt ($78) that uses 37.5 technology to either vent or retain heat depending upon the temperature.
For spring, Fourlaps is embracing sustainability and is launching Re-up, a line of products made from 20 to 90 percent recycled materials. In addition, the packaging is being switched to a biodegradable substance.
“Almost all athletic apparel is made from plastic, and that’s terrible for the environment,” Shapiro said. “And I didn’t want to contribute to all this waste.” He stressed that by using recycled materials, the performance of the garments doesn’t change and the price points will remain the same. “Customers are not willing to pay more,” he said, “but they feel better about what they’re buying.”
Nate Checketts and his partners were tired of activewear that was either targeted to women with “men as an afterthought,” or was so full of “bravado and chest-pounding” that the marketing overshadowed the merchandise. So in 2014, they created Rhone, a brand designed to “speak to sophisticated men and how they live, work and sweat,” he said. It was named after the Rhone River in Europe that is not only “aesthetically beautiful” but also a “valued trade route.” Its logo is an interlocking stitch that references an Aesop fable about quarreling sons.
While its backstory may seem a bit high-brow, Rhone is designed to appeal to all men searching for fit, form and function in their workout gear.
L Catterton obviously agreed. In 2017, the partnership between Catterton Partners, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Groupe Arnault made a significant investment into the label, which is believed to have annual sales around $50 million. That followed the $6.2 million raised from a group that included former NFL Network and ESPN executive Steve Bornstein; David Stern, NBA commissioner emeritus; sports personality Ryen Russillo; Shane Battier, former NBA player, and M3 Ventures, an investment fund managed by former CAA executive Martin Dolfi.
This influx of cash has allowed Rhone to expand its product offering — it now offers a commuter collection as well as pieces earmarked for recovery and recreation in addition to its core activewear assortment. It has also gotten into underwear. Prices range from $28 for boxer briefs and $64 for a performance T-shirt to $128 for the Commuter Jogger and $298 for a hooded, water-repellent Rode jacket.
“Very few people are isolated in their training, so we do a little of everything,” Checketts said. “If you want the best running short or yoga pant, we have it. But our goal is to be in front of all people and offer the core of a man’s closet.” Ten years ago, he said, wardrobes were compartmentalized by activity: work, gym, weekend. “But those categories have condensed and collapsed into performance lifestyle. We can make product for 80 percent of your closet.”
To attract men where they work and play, Rhone has opened four stores: Hudson Yards, Brookfield Place and 40th and Broadway in New York, and Chelsea Piers in Connecticut. It is also the top brand for men at Peloton and Equinox, Checketts said, and is sold at Nordstrom, REI and more than 200 specialty stores and gyms.
Looking ahead, Checketts said Rhone will continue to expand the offerings in its current categories, and will open more stores. And it will work to continue to tweak its product. “We’re trying to use our current customers to inform us on how to make the best product and that is not just in basics, but in fashion as well,” he said.
Rob Canales and Kurt Spenser met when they were both racing on the swim team at Stanford University. When their All-American collegiate swimming careers were over, Canales obtained a law degree and Spenser got a degree in design and technology. But they never lost their love of sports.
One day, they signed up for an Ironman 70.3 race — 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and a 13.1-mile run — on a dare and caught the triathlon bug. But they soon realized that the top-of-the-line wetsuits available in the market seemed counterintuitive to the swimming stroke. They spent two years slicing open suits and redesigning them to ensure a streamlined body position and proper rotation. The result was the Maverick wetsuit that they launched in early 2013 and marketed as “the fastest wetsuit on the planet.”
The suits caught the attention of professional and amateur athletes including Olympic triathlon gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen and Ironman champion Jesse Thomas.
Since that time, the Austin, Tex.-based company has expanded into a multisport brand, creating specific collections for not only triathletes, but swimmers and runners as well. In addition to race-specific kits, there are swimsuits, technical long- and short-sleeve shirts, shorts, tanks and tights. The company also offers goggles, caps, swim fins, backpacks and other training equipment necessary in the various sports it’s targeting. Price points include a triathlon suit for $275, a running T for $50 or a singlet for $45, and shorts for $50. A quarter-zip jacket is $75, a trucker hat is $35 and the sunglasses start at $95. Its annual revenues, built on the backs on fervent triathletes, is believed to be in excess of $50 million.
The bulk of the company’s business is direct-to-consumer and Roka recently expanded to Europe where it launched an e-commerce site and opened a fulfillment center in the U.K. Roka has established a robust business in the U.K., as well as Germany and France and these customers will now no longer be saddled with taxes, duties and high shipping costs from the States.
On the product side, the company’s most recent push is into the optical market. Although it had offered sunglasses since the early days — notably a sport aviator inspired by professional triathlete Jesse Thomas — it has now expanded into both non-prescription and prescription eyewear for sports ranging from cycling and beach volleyball to skiing. The glasses come with adjustable nose pads and Roka also has a home try-on program where customers can choose four pairs of glasses that are shipped to them to try on for seven days. They can then be returned for free and the cost of the shipping and handling is applied to any order.
To further cement its position in the sport, Roka is the official global wetsuit and swim partner of Ironman, the Ironman World Championship and Ironman 70.3 World Championship events.
The company’s tag line is simple: “The Only Training Shorts You’ll Ever Need.”
Since its founding in 2017, the brand has put all its energies into improving just that product category. Although its success has led it to expand into other pieces including tights, T-shirts and lightweight outerwear, shorts still represent the brand’s hero item.
Founder and chief executive officer Keith Nowak said he created Ten Thousand to address two issues he had as an athlete: first, he believed that their quest to make money in a predominantly wholesale model caused the big activewear brands to use lower-quality materials, resulting in products that often “fell apart or smelled,” he said.
Plus, the myriad offerings were overwhelming. “If you look at the Nike online site, there are probably 130 pairs of shorts,” he said. “It is a complicated process for a simple product.”
So Nowak set his sights on creating an alternative with “no BS and no gimmicks” and embraced the Warby Parker and Bonobos popular direct-to-consumer model. “We stayed focused on training, not ath-leisure, for functional fitness athletes,” he said.
Nowak, whose background was in private capital, also attracted some high-profile investors, raising $5 million to date from angel investors including Brian Spaly, cofounder of Bonobos and Trunk Club; Dave Gilboa, cofounder of Warby Parker; Philip Krim, cofounder of Casper, and a variety of small private investment firms.
This investment allowed Ten Thousand to expand its offering “strategically and thoughtfully,” he said, and “add to the line to complete the kit.” That includes newly launched half zips and training pants. Prices include the Interval short for $58 to $68, or long pant for $98, the Distance T for $54 and Over Zip pullover for $88.
This spring, Ten Thousand launched a unique program, called the 30-Day Trial, where customers are encouraged to test its shorts before making the commitment to keep them. If they pass the test, they’ll then be charged; if not, they can just return them and not even have to pay for the shipping. Nowak said this trial has resulted in a 5 percent return rate, much lower than the industry average of 20 percent.
In addition, Ten Thousand has dabbled in a few limited-edition collections and collaborations, ranging from athlete and influencer Brian Mazza to SoulCycle.
Looking forward, Nowak said he plans to continue to expand slowly, adding more specialty shorts and partnering with gyms, studios and influencers that embrace its message.
In a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine, Tracksmith was singled out for creating “the ultimate race-day tank.”
That’s exactly what founder and ceo Matt Taylor set out to do when he launched the brand nearly six years ago. Its mission then — and now — is to outfit the “non-professional yet competitive runners dedicated to the pursuit of personal excellence.”
Taylor didn’t come to the table cold. Not only did he have firsthand experience after running cross country and track at Yale, he was also the head of marketing for the Usain Bolt collection at Puma before deciding to branch out on his own.
Tired of the uninspired and what he deemed to be the low-quality offerings available in the market, Taylor set out to change that.
The first Tracksmith product consisted of five men’s wear pieces that blended comfort, functionality and style, the latter of which was based on the history of the sport of running. He cites Sir Roger Bannister’s record-breaking sub-4:00 mile in 1954 as key to the collection’s collegiate-inspired aesthetic, which also sports a hand-drawing of a hare — an animal that relies on its speed to survive — as its logo.
Since that time, the brand has expanded its men’s wear offering, added women’s wear and opened a retail store in Boston. NPD’s Matt Powell said the store “feels like the early days of Ralph Lauren. It’s like a frat house, in a nice way, that feels clubby and comfortable. It’s meant to create community.” Today, men’s is 60 percent of the business and women’s is 40 percent and overall revenues are around $10 million.
Taylor says Tracksmith’s “classic and timeless” designs are intended to complement the apparel people have in their closet for other occasions. “We’re more toned down and understated and more aligned with the way you dress for the rest of your life,” he said.
Performance fabrics are key and the collection now offers pieces for training, racing and recovery. This fall, the brand teamed with outerwear manufacturer Boathouse on a limited-edition version of its Mission Pullover, a signature piece for the brand that has been worn by Olympians and high-caliber collegiate runners, including Taylor himself. Price points range from $78 for a Chase singlet and $72 for a Harrier T-shirt to $138 for the Solomon track pant and $148 for the Boathouse jacket.
“There are a few pieces of apparel that we acquire over the course of our running careers that we’d never part with: our first racing singlet, a well-loved sweatshirt and, most of all, our team jacket,” he said. “The team jacket has long been a symbol of belonging — the kind of piece you treasure forever. Our favorites were made by Boathouse in Philadelphia, so we collaborated with them to craft our own.”
Tracksmith is primarily direct-to-consumer, but it also has a handful of wholesale accounts in the specialty running store sphere. And the brand is carried on Mr Porter as a way to fulfill international demand, he said.
Looking ahead, Taylor said the Tracksmith of five years from now will “look a lot like today, but broader.” He plans to continue to be focused on running and hopes to open another retail store or two around the country. Women’s wear will be expanded and he also sees opportunities to enter into categories such as footwear and accessories.
Joe Kudla is a high achiever.
The California native was a successful amateur athlete, model, accountant and entrepreneur, creating a fast-growing professional staffing company that he eventually sold off. But it’s with Vuori that he hopes to have his biggest impact.
All those years playing football and lacrosse resulted in chronic back pain, so he took up yoga to help with the discomfort and it wound up changing his life.
“I fell in love with the practice of yoga,” he said. But he didn’t like the apparel targeted to yoga enthusiasts and decided to create an alternative.
He named his brand Vuori, and in 2015 created workout shorts “designed to move and sweat in, but styled for everyday life.” He raised $300,000 from friends and family and created moisture-wicking, quick-drying shorts with a distinctly coastal California aesthetic. He named the brand after the Finnish word for mountain to represent the clarity one gets after a trip to the summit.
The shorts were a hit and allowed Vuori to expand into complementary products such as joggers, sweats, Ts, chinos and accessories.
It also drew the notice of Norwest Venture Partners, which invested $45 million in the company last August and became a minority owner. In addition, Jim Gold, the former chief merchant of Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, has become a fan, investing his own money and joining the brand’s board. Gold feels Vuori, which has reported annual sales of around $50 million, is poised to break out and be a $1 billion brand.
Although Kudla hasn’t made those claims himself, he’s definitely doing everything in his power to make that number a reality.
The company’s bestsellers include its Banks shorts, a performance product made from recycled plastic bottles (retail price $68); as well as its Kore shorts with a minimalistic design and breathable boxer-brief lining; cotton Ripstop Climber pants that retail for $89, and a Tradewind performance T-shirt for $48. Vuori also hired former Athleta design executive Sarah Carlson to create a women’s wear collection, and has opened a number of stores. In addition to units in its hometown of Encinitas, the company has locations in Manhattan Beach and San Francisco, and a flagship is slated to open in Del Mar, Calif., later this month.
Direct-to-consumer continues to represent 60 percent of its sales, but it also has a robust wholesale business with more than 500 specialty accounts in the U.S., Canada and Japan, including Paragon Sports, Equinox, Nordstrom and REI.
Looking to the future, Kudla said the plan is to further invest in his team, enhance its marketing efforts, expand its product offering and add to the brand’s brick-and-mortar presence. In 2020, he will add two more locations in the Bay area as well as one in Los Angeles. He’s also exploring locations in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Denver and Boulder, Colo.; Austin, Tex.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Chicago, and New York.
Former collegiate lacrosse player Terry White couldn’t stand having to run holding his phone in his hand and putting his keys in his sock. So he set out to solve the problem and one and a half years later created the North Moore short. To actually have the funds to create the shorts with their sweatproof pockets and compression fit, he turned to Kickstarter and managed to raise $122,000 in 48 hours.
Since that time, the New York-based Wolaco, which stands for Way of Life Athletic Co., has expanded into additional models of running shorts, along with tights, tanks, T-shirts and long-sleeve technical tops as well as caps. It also launched what White called a “very condensed” women’s capsule earlier this year “to dip our toe into the water.” The women’s collection includes tights, a tank and some cropped Ts and sweatshirts.
Most recently, the company created the Grand Short, $88, a two-in-one piece that has a built-in compression layer underneath and features the brand’s signature pocket. It will be offered in women’s as well. “This will be our first style tailored to both men and women,” he said. Other pieces include the Fulton compression tight for $85, the High Line hoodie for $98 and a long-sleeve T for $40.
Next year, White said the brand has achieved enough success to expand into additional products, but they will all be performance based rather than ath-leisure products — so no lace cutouts in women’s or cashmere joggers for men. Its mission statement is to “create innovative, efficient performance apparel that empowers the pursuit of an active way of life.”
Since launching in 2015, the direct-to-consumer brand has amassed a sizable following to its web site, which it calls its Wolafam. It has blogs dedicated to both men and women and launched a podcast called Be Better, which asks customers how the brand could improve. The responses will help the company better build its products in the future. Its volume is believed to be around $2 million to $3 million.
It also hosts Wolaco Wednesday workouts around New York City which have drawn up to 200 people. The free workouts are done in various studios around town in the winter and outdoors in the summer and include runs, yoga classes and other activities. This popular community-building event is being rolled out to other cities in 2020.
Other plans for next year include a pop-up in New York City in either the second or fourth quarter, he said, and continued growth of its women’s line.
“The business has reached a point where we can develop on a more methodical basis,” he said.