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Analysis: Women’s activewear

More high street retailers are limbering up to compete in the women’s activewear market.

For many people the new year starts with a vow to get fit by sticking to an over-optimistic exercise regime, only for this to be abandoned by February. But this year more retailers than usual will be hoping these resolutions are kept for longer as they look to capitalise on the growing market for ‘athleisure’.

The US buzzword describes the market for sports clothing-cum-leisurewear, which in reality is worn for everything from serious fitness workouts to lounging on the sofa watching a box set.

It has been growing on this side of the Atlantic season by season, but took a leap forward last year when H&M expanded its Sport sub-brand in January, Topshop created its Adidas Originals collaboration in March and luxury etailer Net-A-Porter launched its Net-a-Sporter category in July. Now the wider high street is playing catch-up with a flurry of accessible, on-trend designs.

The market for UK athletic womenswear, which includes sports clothing and footwear not purchased for sports use, rose 8% year on year to £525.4m for the 52 weeks to December 21, 2014, according to consumer research firm Kantar Worldpanel.

By volume, the sector increased 10.7% to 28.2 million units, while the average price per unit rose 2.5% to £18.64.

Data from retail research consultancy Conlumino suggests 18 to 24-year-olds are the main customers for the overall sports market, driven initially by interest following the London Olympics and sustained by consumers committing to new leisure activities and maintaining them as part of their lifestyles.

Anusha Couttigane, senior fashion consultant at Conlumino, says: “There are genuine opportunities for womenswear players in this arena, as seen by the success of brands such as Sweaty Betty and Lululemon. However, in this market’s short history, specialist participants have largely operated at the premium end.”

She points to the hype around collections such as Alexander Wang for H&M, which launched last November and took sports luxe into the mainstream. A mesh long-line top was priced at £79.99 and a dress at £49.99, while a crop top was £29.99. “What we are seeing now is the response of the middle market and the value-level players to the demand for affordable workout wear, as well as fashion inspired by the sports industry,” she explains. New entrants looking to muscle in include New Look with its 20-piece Sport collection, including bralets, joggers, hoodies and sports bras at between £9.99 and £19.99, which launched into 150 stores on January 5.

Matalan, meanwhile, introduced a 100-piece women’s sports clothing and accessories collection for spring 15 called Papaya Active, including running, training and yoga styles. The range, which starts at £7 for T-shirts and vests, is available from 217 stores across the UK, while a selected offering will be sold through the company’s 16 Sporting Pro stores, which first opened in 2013 and mainly stock third-party sportswear brands.

“We have big stores so we can do running, training and yogawear,” says Matalan buying director Mitch Hughes. “It’s going to be good for us, as we can offer them at very competitive prices.”

Fast-fashion etailer Boohoo.com has just launched Boohoo Fit, a 40 to 50-piece range of sportswear designed to meet seasonal trends.

“As the brand grows, offering a Boohoo Fit range felt like the right thing to do and a January launch made sense as this is when people kick-start their health regime,” says a Boohoo spokeswoman. “The range offers sports items with a fashionable edge and we’ve been really pleased with the response - we’ll be adding new pieces in the coming months. The target audience is our core Boohoo customer aged 16 to 30. The range is fun and fresh with on-trend prints in bold pops of colour.”

Not to be outdone, Boohoo’s rival Missguided unveiled a 50-piece Active collection this month, featuring strappy tops and slogan T-shirts between £9 and £20. “We’ve seen growing interest from consumers in clothing that is both functional and fashionable, and Missguided Active has been launched to meet this demand,” says the womenswear etailer’s marketing and trading director Victoria Betts.

To promote the range Missguided teamed up with exercise programme The Skinny Bitch Collective, known as SBC, a training and lifestyle regime popular with celebrities such as Made in Chelsea star Millie Mackintosh. SBC x Missguided launched on its own microsite and offers an exclusively designed workout programme, developed in conjunction with SBC founder and trainer Russell Bateman.

Next-owned Lipsy has thrown its hat into the ring with a 15-piece collection sold through its own stores and website, as well as selected stockists. The line includes supportive racer-back crop tops, layering tank tops, running tights, hoodies and T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Cardio Queen’ and ‘Weights before Dates’. Cotton leggings are £12, while technical running leggings are £30 and vests £18.

Arcadia boss Sir Philip Green is another hoping the trend has staying power. After Topshop tested the water last year with the successful launch of its 20-piece Topshop x Adidas Originals collection for spring 14, back in October Green revealed a joint venture between Beyoncé and his Topshop chain, called Parkwood Topshop Athletic. It will comprise clothing, footwear and accessories for dance, fitness and sports but won’t be available until autumn 15. Prices are yet to be confirmed.

The range will be sold in Topshop stores and through Topshop.com, although it will be run as a separate entity to Topshop and Beyoncé’s Parkwood Entertainment company, so other distribution options will also be explored.

Arcadia owner Sir Philip Green said when the range was first announced: “We have been looking at this category as fashion-inspired fitness develops, and know this is right in our customers’ heartland.

“We have much to achieve but are all up for the challenge, and look forward to delivering athletic streetwear in an inventive and exciting way.”

With so many participants entering the market, 2015 looks like being the year when the activewear race really hots up.

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