In 2012, when Paula Reed worked as fashion director at Harvey Nichols in London, she noticed curious things taking place on the menswear floor. “Our buy of Givenchy, Kenzo, Raf Simons and (Alexander) McQueen sweatshirts, T-shirts and bomber jackets were being snapped up as eagerly by the girls as they were by the boys,” she recalls. Her team took the obvious next step: they shifted a selection of the menswear stock to the fourth floor where contemporary women’s wear lived. “And it has gathered momentum every season,” says Reed, who now works at luxury e-commerce retailer Boutique 1. She affirms, “I guarantee that this decade will be defined by athleisure.”
Equated with sporty casuals, ‘athleisure’ is the coming together of activewear and leisure clothing, and is predicted to be one of the most pervasive and longest lasting trends our generation will see. It’s everywhere—from the catwalks, with couture and ready-to- wear collections blending sophisticated tailoring with sportswear detailing; to million-dollar popstar collaborations with sports brands; and down to our daily lives. Half the time, it has nothing to do with sport: the Indian working woman with leggings replacing the churidaar; the bachelor preferring track pants to jeans while stepping out to buy bread and eggs; the college student in gold-glazed keds; the wannabe socialite who picks up her kids from school in a Juicy Couture bomber jacket and tracks; the fashion editor in a little black dress worn with sneakers instead of high heels at the front row of fashion week; the young executive in a chic polo with formal trousers. Like falling in love, the coupling of sport and fashion is a result of various forces at work, from chemistry to biology to social aspirations. Athleisure is irresistible.
Unlike other mainstream fashiontrends that start from the silver screen or the most prestigious catwalks in the world, this movement is defined by street cred and an emphasis on individual comfort over obligatory social codes. Driven by selfies on social media and paparazzi- shot images of film stars in their casual avatars, its icons range from Instagram sensations like Kylie Jenner—the youngest of the Kardashian clan is usually seen in a sports bra and leggings accessorised with a designer bag and sunglasses—to Bollywood stars like Kangana Ranaut who pairs sneakers with cocktail dresses, and Ranveer Singh who made printed trackpants legit daywear. Even Russian strongman Vladimir Putin isn’t immune— he was photographed in a cashmere- and-silk sweatsuit by Loro Piana estimated to cost around $3,200, having post-workout tea with his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev.
This year, athleisure even finds place in the Merriam-Webster dictionary with the definition ‘casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use’. “The top searched fashion item last year was ‘jogging pants’,” says Reed, who was one of the panelists at P&G Future Fabrics 2015 in Barcelona, where the world’s authorities on fashion, textiles and fabric care came together to discuss how athleisure was changing the dynamics in their fields. Reed refers to surveys that say roughly half of the buyers of activewear buy it for non-active use.“Today, entire wardrobes are built around upscale sportswear for day and knockout cocktail wear for the evening. Wearing high-end sports clothes is the new status symbol,” she says.
The growth in athleisure is directly proportional to the rise in perceptions of health as a fashion statement. “There are now more fitness options than ever before and we’re doing it in communities. Look at Nike Training Club’s 70 million-strong following,” says popular British fashion blogger Susanna Lau aka Susie Bubble. “We care about what we eat. We’re also in more flexible working environments that allow us to be casual. The office dress code is shifting; we have Mark Zuckerberg to thank for thinking that a hoodie and jeans will aid innovation,”adds Lau. Even while travelling, people seem to prefer wellness- fuelled holidays, with ‘luxury spa resorts that focus on relaxation/stress-reduction’ cited by travel agents as the most appealing type of property. And street style is influencing the ecosystem: “I just came back from Seoul, where both guys and girls had a standard uniform of a neoprene sweatshirt or bomber jacket worn not with exercise in mind but as a style statement. It’s the appearance of not trying too hard.”
The numbers speak for themselves. By April 2015, the largest online retailers in UK and US had increased their activewear offering by 203 per cent compared to April 2013, says Lau. In the online world, ‘health and fitness’ was 2014’s fastest growing app category, and not all of the people downloading them are actually exercising. According to SportsOneSource, the sales of yoga apparel grew by 45 per cent year-on-year from 2013, but actual participation in yoga only rose by 4.5 per cent. Going by a study by P&G Fabric Care, 42 per cent people wear athleisure clothing daily and 84 per cent wear it three or more times a week. Their reasons range from activewear being more comfortable (64 per cent), to giving them more energy (82 per cent), and even making them feel more confident (84 per cent).In other words, even if you aren’t buying sports clothing for sport, it does have the psychological impact of making you feel like you’re an active, healthy, fitness-conscious person.
The athleisure sector is expected to grow by around 24 per cent in the next five years, suggests Jessica Fioriti of retail analyst Verdict. The interesting thing is that these changes in fashion and lifestyle are not restricted to any age group or class. “It was and remains my strong opinion that the sporty trend is not responding exclusively to the energy of the young; it is responding to the energy of the ageless,” says Reed, who was the launch editor of Grazia magazine in the UK a decade ago. “I am as likely to see a chic 60-year-old in a butter-soft leather biker jacket with a cashmere hoodie underneath and double-jersey tracks with her Celine trainers as I am to see a twenty- something hipster in Supreme sweats and Vans. These customers are all part of the same ageless tribe.”
Much of the credit for this shift in perception can be attributed to pop-culture icons and fashion greats who made fitness symbols their motifs. From the late 1990s onwards, R‘n’B music stars were routinely seen in casual hoodies, tees, bomber jackets and sneakers, moving away from the attention-grabbing glittering disco-styled musicians of the previous generation. The most successful of the lot went and tied up with sports brands directly in historical deals. American rapper Kanye West collaborated with Adidas Originals to come up with the limited-edition Yeezy 750 Boost, described by a sports website as ‘the most hyped sneaker in Adidas history’. The shoe got its own microsite, an app for reservation, a mention during Kanye West’s performance at the Grammy Awards, besides being Instagrammed several times by his friends and celebrity wife Kim Kardashian. The shoes were sold out within 10 minutes of their launch on 14 February last year. He also designed a clothes line with Adidas Originals.
Keeping the connection between music and sport alive, pop icon Rihanna was appointed creative director of Puma in a multi-year partnership, during which time she will not only help customise and design the German brand’s womenswear line but also star in its advertising campaign. Another much-talked- about collaboration last year has been between Beyoncé and mega retailer Topshop to launch an activewear label that will include ‘clothing, footwear and accessories across dance, fitness and sports categories’. No doubt these collaborations are designed to attract millenials with money to spend, but they also create an unshakeable public perception of high-end sportswear being the ‘in’ thing.
Besides music bigwigs, sports brands have been quite aggressive about getting fashion designers on board in the past few years. Reebok hired ace Indian designer Manish Arora to add his iconic kaleidoscopic aesthetic to a sportswear collection named Fish Fry. Adidas did the same with London-based designer Mary Katrantzou and fashion maven Stella McCartney. Nike collaborated with Japanese label Sacai’s designer Chitose Abe in reworking classic silhouettes into feminine, conceptual pieces. They also tied up with Brazilian designer Pedro Lourenço in a much-talked-about women’s collection designed to go from workouts to everyday wear.
The association with high fashion has done wonders for the sportswear industry: Nike’s shares are up 40.1 per cent over the last 52 weeks. Women’s apparel sales at Nike are set to grow from $5 billion to $7 billion by 2017, and the Nike+ Training Club app has seen 19 million downloads by women. Preferences among teen girls over the past two years have also changed. According to a 2014 survey by investment bank Piper Jaffray, American teenagers now favour athleisurewear brands such as Nike and Gap’s Athleta over Levi’s and Guess.
Even without a high-powered collaboration with sports brands, fashion designers have been the biggest champions of athleisure wear in the past decade. A key name is American fashion designer Alexander Wang, who says, “I live in gym clothes. When you go out on the street, it’s the uniform now.” His collection for Swedish retailer H&M was almost entirely made up of activewear categorised as ‘sports luxe’. Other fashion designers who have championed the cause include Rick Owens, Raf Simons, Tory Burch, Derek Lam and Rebecca Minkoff. British designer Giles Deacon presented an athleisure capsule collection at P&G Future Fabrics 2015, featuring what he describes as ‘bodycon fabrics with stretch and elastane, breathable cottons and neoprene with bonded innovations, developed especially for high-contrast prints, high- colour definition and surface texture.’ These may sound like high-tech terms used in the laboratories of sportswear manufacturers, but are commonplace in fashion today.
In India, next-gen designers such as Anand Bhushan, Dhruv Kapoor, Kanika Goyal, ILK and Shweta Kapur are decidedly sporty in their approach, offering jumpsuits, bomber jackets or saris with sneakers. Shivan&Narresh have made an entire career focused on swimwear that can just as well be worn as smart-casual separates. Even older, established designers like Anamika Khanna, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Monisha Jaising, who are better known for their couture lehengas and gowns, experimented with sporty details like sneakers and crop tops this season. Almost all high-street labels, from Mango to Zara and Gap, feature athleisure clothing as a regular part of their offerings. High-fashion Italian label Diesel has also incorporated a sporty approach in its otherwise denim-centric image; its latest campaign, shot by celebrity photographer Nick Knight, showcases its stretch denim and non-denim products such as leggings.
Science has, of course, responded to changes in lifestyle. First came spandex, and then it exploded. Born two decades after nylon in the laboratories of DuPont in the late 1950s, spandex (now also called lycra and elastane) was being used with mad abandon in everyday clothing by the late 20th century. By the 1990s, its fibres were being used in both warp and weft, giving us super-stretchable fabrics that could be used as ‘second skin’ such as in innerwear, swimwear and sportswear. Soon, it changed the dynamics of the production of cotton and other fabrics too. According to Le Journal du Textile, 35 per cent of jeans in the world have stretch properties today.
In fact, most fabrics we wear every day are a combination of two or more types of fibre, says Sabine le Chatelier, deputy fashion director at Paris-based Première Vision, organiser of the world’s leading textile and fashion trade fairs for over four decades. “The composition of fabrics is moving towards anti-100 per cent anything,” she says, referring to the various mixes and blends of polyamides, polyester and polycotton we see on our clothes labels. Le Chatelier has been roped in by scientists at Ariel Matic to help develop detergents that can keep up with the care of these new-age fabrics, each more complex than the previous. It’s all about supply meeting demand, she says. Today’s fabrics need to keep up with today’s lifestyle: garments need to go from work to gym; lingerie should be strong yet forgiving; fibres need to keep you warm and cool you down when you exercise; outerwear needs to be waterproof, bacteria- proof, UV-resistant and even cellular- noise-proof. “It’s a new kind of tech luxury. Like 3D printing, we’ll soon see 3D knits, where the garment is generated directly from the yarn with special machines,” she says. “It’s already being used for Nike’s Flyknit shoes.” Textile scientists are working on the next generation of ‘wearable technology’ such as fabrics with highly sensitive elements to capture information about the wearer’s health and send it to a smartphone. Your wardrobe is set to go space age.
Now if only technology could develop fabrics that slim us down while we wear them. Till then, we have to let our clothes inspire us to get up and get moving.