Outdoor Voices

Athleisure wear: A tidal wave in the fashion industry

Key takeaways

  • Athleisure, a fitting contraction of the words “athletic” and “leisure,” refers to athletic apparel which people can wear in non-athletic settings.
  • The athleisure sector has grown 42% in the last seven years reaching a total market worth of $270 billion, and is predicted to grow another 30% by the end of this year.
  • Technological innovations in fabrics, the trend of sporty aesthetics, and the body-positive movement have been fundamental to the success fashion’s athleisure movement.

In the wake of Lululemon’s groundbreaking marketing-to-women campaign and its flattering pants, athletic giants Adidas and Nike started to pay attention to non-athletic audiences.

Combining functionality and sleek minimalist design, athleisure wear has played a major role in sportswear’s resurgence on the fashion scene.

This trend, supporting “transition” moments with leggings and other yoga pants which can be worn anytime, anywhere, went viral and finally reached premium and luxury brands.  

Now, indie brands, like Outdoor Voices and Girlfriend Collective are disrupting the distribution model and carving out a niche in this segment.

With its links to the health and wellness movement, the evolution of athleisure is clearly far from reaching the finish line.

Athleisure wear: the street combination of fashion and a healthy lifestyle

The athleisure sector has grown 42% in the last seven years reaching a total market worth of $270 billion, according to Morgan Stanley. The same report predicts athleisure is expected to grow by another 30% by 2020.

Everyone from Nike to Primark to Eres has launched athleisure lines to cash in on this $44 billion market (in the US alone), according to NPD Group.

By many accounts, athleisure is the signature fashion trend of the 21st century so far.

The expression comes from the contraction of “athletic” and “leisure”.

Nike, the largest sportswear brand on the market, made a rapid expansion towards the women’s athletic wear market, taking on Adidas.

Following the release of its latest Tech Pack Collection, the brand tapped the designer behind the ALYX brand and its highly coveted SS19 show collection, for a capsule collection.

In recent years, it has also tapped into the yoga and athleisure markets with the creation of “pant studios” and other dedicated clothing options in specialized sections in 5,000 of its stores.

Nike Tech Pack 2019
Nike Tech Pack 2019

Athleisure refers to athletic apparel which people can wear in non-athletic settings.

It was seen, for a long time, as “casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use” as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

It symbolizes a decompartmentalization of sportswear, which, thanks to its elevated design, becomes an everyday outfit able to instantly enhance a look.

Fashion is giving sportswear an uplift in credibility while sportswear is giving functionality to fashion, like sweating-wicking capabilities, odor resistance or stretch texturing.

Athleisure wear: from female empowerment to an Instagrammable holistic success

Deirdre Clemente, professor of history at the University of Nevada, told Business Insider that athleisure mania relies on three long-term trends:

Firstly, technological innovations in synthetic fibers have made products like spandex more flexible, durable, and washable than natural materials. Secondly, the rise of a fitness-conscious appearance has made yoga pants an effective vector for “conspicuous consumption,” upon their wearers. Finally, athletic-casual wear has become increasingly acceptable for use in a wide variety of social situations.

Many of the clothes that people now consider work-appropriate, incorporate sports-inspired materials like spandex, Lycra, and other synthetic fibers.

Lululemon was the first company of its kind to focus on the underserved female demographic: the athletic “super girls”.

With the launch of its first pair of Boogie Pants in 1998, it pioneered the Athleisure wear category. Nevertheless, the brand still considers itself a technical streetwear player in which fashion never overtakes function.

If the word “athleisure” only appeared in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2016, it can be traced back to a 70’s ad.

1977 is often regarded as a turning point in sports aesthetics with the release of the bestselling “The Complete Book of Running” by James Fixx, which fueled the jogger mania in America.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio
Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio

In the 80’s, the health-conscious glamazon archetype, embodied by sporty beauties like Christie Brinkley, rose to fame thanks to the public craze surrounding dancing and aerobics.

Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” music video and Jane Fonda’s fitness sessions, alongside movies such as Fame and Flashdance fueled neon leotard and leg warmer trends everywhere but outside the gym. As a result, sportswear brands started making clothes for athletic performance. The quality significantly improved with synthetic fiber clothing to boost athletes’ performances and allow greater freedom of movement. 

Athleisure became widespread in 2016 when key influencers Beyoncé and Rihanna introduced athleisure to the mainstream, with the help, respectively, of Puma and Topshop, using Instagram as a runway to commercial success. 

Rihanna successfully released her Fenty athleisure collection, exuding in turn gothic and mid-90’s racing vibes or pastel tones with barocco maximalism “as if Marie-Antoinette was going to the gym.”

According to NPD Group Retail Analyst Matt Powell, Rihanna is probably the only recent example of a celebrity endorser directly boosting a brand’s sales.

In the meantime, Beyonce launched her Ivy Park collection and made a statement for athleisure with her awarded music video Formation

Instagram transformed a sporty trend into a holistic lifestyle. It delivered loads of selfie-ready, kinetic details featured in celebrity “behind the scenes” like contexts.

Numerous celebrities and fitness influencers started to mix and match leggings with non-sportswear to make their outfits more versatile, which in turn, motivated their millions of followers to adopt a more laid-back appearance.

On social media, these celebrities disclose every aspect of their daily life and sponsor athleisure brands. Canadian brand Michi and American brand PE Nation gained traction thanks to the important coverage provided to them by Kim Kardashian and her famous siblings.

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Indie, “recreational” activewear brands: authenticity and inclusivity at their core

While traditional athletic brands used to tap into the product performance-only seeker, new entrants have filled the gap left by the sportswear industry with client-centric designs, merchandising reworking and expanded offerings.

These Digitally Native Vertical Brands (DNVBs) do little to no advertising and do not rely on celebrity endorsement, helping them build their brands in a more authentic way.

By embracing real women’s bodies, these brands have secured their place in client’s hearts as a brand they can relate to. Their ability to market themselves as a lifestyle brand and to have found a niche that consumers can connect to has helped them thrive in a competitive market.

Outdoor Voices
Girlfriend collective

Innovation can come from product segmentation: rather than traditional sizing, Lululemon divides its yoga pants into categories such as “hugged, naked, relaxed, tight and held-in.” Each one serves a specific purpose in the customer’s journey.

British brand Sweaty Betty’s figure-sculpting leggings and its athleisure counterparts began as a remedy to shapeless sportswear, providing understated tonal colors like black, grey or navy and high-quality composition.

Outdoor Voices make recreational apparel for active people who don’t necessarily see themselves as athletes. Launched in 2014, Tyler Haney’s brand relies on the tenet that “doing things is better than not doing things” and that activity isn’t necessarily measured by performance, it can be social and fun.

Former Women’s Creative Concept Director at Nike, Kristin Hildebrand, succeeded in launching a new premium priced athleisure brand. Wone is currently the only female sportswear brand using a fabric which is 35% lighter, dries 75% faster than comparable fabrics in the market and is guaranteed through 50,000 washes. She also proudly points out that these fabrics cost $20 to $25 a yard.

Exclusivity is also key, since in order to purchase a product, you need to apply for membership. 

Athleisure aims to be durable, and cult favorite brand, Girlfriend Collective, produces affordable, sustainable leggings made of recycled water bottles available on the Reformation platform. Since their debut in 2016, over 6 millions post-consumer, plastic water bottles have been diverted from the landfill.

According to Professor Deidre Clemente “Athleisure is the ultimate breaking down of barriers.”

For Marshal Cohen, NPD Group’s chief industry advisor of retail, convenience is the most powerful ratchet effect of Athleisure.

“I’m often asked if the athleisure trend is going to fade away, and the answer is no: When you have comfort and function combined with fashion it’s difficult to go back to anything else on a regular basis.”

By analyzing millions of kinetic details on social media daily, our AI solution enables any kind of fashion brand to successfully embrace the Athleisure trend and deliver the product design their clients long for.

About the writer: Victor Gosselin, content writer at Heuritech

Victor writes about luxury fashion brands and products under the scope of sociology and pop culture to analyze new consumer behaviors.

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