Today’s athleisure customers demand performance, versatility, convenience and community experiences from the brands they buy.
More from: Athleisure: beating the competition
From Primark stores to the Louis Vuitton catwalks, brands and retailers across the fashion spectrum are continuing to tap into the booming consumer demand for activewear and athleisure products.
No longer just a trend, athleisurewear is now embedded into modern consumer lifestyles and, despite speculation to the contrary, shows no sign of slowing down. The UK sportswear market will grow by 20.9% between 2018 and 2023 to £6.7bn, predicts a GlobalData report from February 2019. The research indicates that sportswear will outperform all other retail sectors over the next five years.
Nevertheless, as the market matures, consumers are becoming more demanding: they expect technical, detail-focused and stylish performance product.
“The biggest trend for us recently has been much more design focused,” explains Louis d’Origny, founder of men’s yoga brand Ohmme. “Products with more specific technical qualities are doing well. The more we dive into the more technical, detailed side of things, the more people are interested and the better they sell. The more we describe product details, the more popular it tends to be with our customers. They really want to know the story of the products and the brand.”
The more we describe product details, the more popular it tends to be
Louis d’Origny, founder of men’s yoga brand Ohmme
He notes that light fabrics with sweat and moisture-wicking qualities and increased movability have been particularly popular.
The hunt for products that will equip them well for several occasions.
The pursuit of versatile, technical products that fuelled the rise of athleisure is now expanding. Customers are demanding product that works for a wide range of activities from spinning, to yoga, pilates, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes and the school run.
“Customers are choosing to buy versatile, multitasking products that can adapt to their many activities,” says Colette Lever, brand director for activewear label Dare 2b. “It is essential that we meet their varying demands in a saturated market. They are aware of technology and expect it as a minimum. They want product that performs well and looks good. These two elements need to work seamlessly.”
Tom Henshaw, senior brand manager EMEA
for sportswear brand New Balance, agrees: “Trend is definitely a key driver, but we still see an appetite for technical performance product, often worn
in a lifestyle context. The best mix of trend, brand and value always wins.”
Co-founder and director of Australia’s Nimble Activewear Katia Santilli explains that this is in part thanks to the rising popularity of boutique, studio gyms – such as Blok, Frame, 1Rebel and Barry’s Bootcamp – and hybrid workouts.
“The product has to work hard for the wearer while still looking good. Sometimes people just want one thing to do it all. We are working on building out our hybrid assortment of ‘go to’ pieces [that work across a range of activities],” she says.
Frankie Thorogood, founder of direct-to-consumer performance sportswear brand TCA, adds that there is a growing trend for community-based fitness, such as Crossfit, which is influencing performancewear design: “People are not just working out for a physical benefit: it is not just about your body, but also about lifestyle and building a social circle.” He says this necessitates a close, engaged relationship with the consumer, which can be tricky to build in the online world.
TCA has just launched a “Sunday Sessions” newsletter to support its online community, which he stresses is not about selling. It links not to products, but to articles and talking points that the team have found interesting during the week.
On a local level, the brand works with Miguel’s Boxing Gym in Brixton, south London, to help run sessions for children in the community, and with anti-knife crime charity Knives Down Gloves up.
Consumer shopping habits are reflecting the demand for versatility and ease, as many choose to shop in the same places they work out.
We’re not trying to invent a viral product. We want to go back to the things people need day in and day out
Frankie Thorogood, founder of TCA
London-based studio gym Frame stocks third-party brands such as Nike, LNDR and PE Nation, and has retail sections at all six of its locations, as well as an online store.
Co-founder Pip Black explains that, when customers shop for activewear and athleisure, they want to shop for the whole lifestyle: “Everything is about convenience and the retail element [of the studios] is an important part of that. People like to shop when they’re in gyms, as they’re in the right mindset: thinking about working out and seeing the inspiration in front of them.
“It is not just workouts – the whole package is important for this sector. We try to encompass that lifestyle in our studios.”
Although the sector is largely dominated by big-name retailers and brands such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Under Armour, there is a growing appetite for unique, niche and independent brands that differentiate themselves from the multinationals.
Thorogood launched TCA in 2012 with £100 of his savings, and it is now a multimillion-pound revenue business – he declines to provide exact figures – that employs a team of 10 at its office in east London. Since then, the brand has sold more than 300,000 pairs of its signature Elite Tech men’s shorts.
Everything is about convenience and the retail element [of the studios] is an important part of that
Pip Black, co-founder of London-based studio gym Frame
He says his business took off when he introduced compressionwear – skin-tight clothing that could be worn underneath other items – which was a relatively niche but popular product at the time: “I spotted a little opportunity and started to buy sportswear, then I reinvested time and again.”
Ohmme’s d’Origny notes that the high levels of competition between big names is opening up more opportunities: “Big brands are competing harder and there are fewer differences between them. The small brands that are still around are the ones that are really unique.”
Thorogood agrees, and says he is focused on ensuring TCA retains its identity and niche, setting itself apart from larger competitors: “We’re thinking smaller to grow bigger. We got quite successful quickly and there is a danger that you can become a little diluted: lose identity and lose focus. The cost of growth and more money is that you forget where you came from.”
The race to stay ahead is tough and increasingly competitive. The sector is closely aligned with general wellness and fitness trends, which develop at pace, so those working in the sector must be agile enough to keep on top of customer demands and shifting consumer lifestyles.
Gym-based shops provide shoppers with the ultimate experiential retail journey, as they are able to see and use the products there and then. For up-and-coming activewear brands, this could provide a valuable route to new, targeted customers.
There is also still ample scope in the market for smaller, direct-to-consumer labels to make their mark with unique product that taps into the social aspect of fitness, and sets them apart from the big-name brands.