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Athleisure stretches deeper into the high street

As more and more retailers release their own activewear ranges, Drapers looks at the evolving market for athleisure and why performancewear is gaining the upper hand. 

The athleisure market is considerably more crowded than it once was. A glut of high street retailers, including Jack Wills, River Island and Mountain Warehouse, have launched their own activewear ranges in the last 18 months. Luxury sportswear brands are also stepping up their presence in the UK. In London, Canadian yoga specialist Lululemon opened an impressive 6,344 sq ft flagship on Regent Street last month and Sweaty Betty is due to open a flagship store on Carnaby Street this spring. US sports giant Under Armour is also thought to be looking for its first UK store                               .

“Athleisure has been such a game changer for the whole fashion industry,” says Clare Varga, active director at trend forecaster WGSN. ”What people misunderstand is that it’s not a fashion trend – it’s a lifestyle trend and it reflects how people live now.” 

And as new and existing players jockey for space, the market is changing. Although the athleisure trend first kicked off with customers buying clothes that looked like sportswear, consumers have since moved into wearing technical performance clothing designed for a particular activity – Nike’s almost ubiquitous Flyknit trainers, for example – on a daily basis, explains Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor.

“Sports-inspired clothing, which is more fashion led, is still performing well, but it’s the performance products, such as technical running clothes, which are seeing stronger growth,” she says. “H&M did really well with its sports range, as did Primark, but consumers are becoming more demanding with products.

“Performancewear took the lead in 2016, growing 10% year on year where sports inspired grew 8%. Consumers are still becoming far more interested in sport and exercise. There’s a perception that performancewear is better value. You might not spend more than £40 on leggings you’ll just wear to the gym once a week, but you might if you can wear them to brunch, and to a gym class, and to yoga.”

Lara Mead, founder of luxury activewear brand Varley, agrees that performance is becoming more important: “It’s undeniable that there has been an athleisure boom and, for a while, leggings became the new denim. However, I predict there will be a shift back towards functionality and performance – particularly when buying high-end activewear, customers are looking for quality and function above anything else.”

Fabric forward

When it comes to creating new fabrics, traditional sportswear brands often have an advantage over fashion retailers, as they can spend money and time developing and testing their properties.

“Adidas, Nike and Puma are very advanced in terms of their fibres and technologies,” says Kissane. “The kind of sweat-wicking technology they offer, like Nike’s Dri-Fit [a microfibre polyester, which moves sweat away from the body to the fabric surface] aren’t often offered in sports ranges from a fashion brand. The big players have money to invest in research and development and they know how to market that.”

Nike spent three years creating AeroReact – a bi-component yarn that senses moisture vapour and opens its structures to maximise breathability so runners do not have to remove layers as they warm up.

“We’re coming out of a tech lull into a very interesting time for sports technology,” believes Varga. “There’s lots of new technologies, which are harnessing the power of bacteria, minerals or biological treatments that combat odour or bacteria. These have been driven by athleisure, because people wearing sportswear don’t want it to crease or smell. It’s a whole new level of performance.

“At the very edge of technical developments, we’re even seeing self-mending fabrics which, if you rip them, will reheal. That’s the real future, but at the moment we’re seeing lots cashmere blends and high-tech wools, and that’s going to be more common on the high street.”

Adidas, Nike and Puma are very advanced in terms of their fibres and technologies

Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor

Lululemon creative director Lee Holman asserts that the brand has stayed ahead of activewear newcomers with its range of trademarked fabrics, including Luon, which offers four-way stretch, and the lighter Luxtreme for running. 

20161128 dr jw athleisure 5091 srgb

20161128 dr jw athleisure 5091 srgb

Jack Wills

“Our fabrics are built from a yarn that we don’t buy from vendors or off the shelf. We create everything ourselves internally,” says Holman. “When we create a fabric, we’re making it so that sweat doesn’t show – it dries quickly and doesn’t smell after you wash it. 

“Even five years ago you wouldn’t want to be seen in athletic product outside of the gym. Now you have fashion brands looking at active brands because of the technical innovations they’re doing.”

Wills’ way

Meanwhile, some high street retailers are catching up with the fabric leaders. Fashion chain Jack Wills launched its womenswear active line Jack Wills Sporting Goods in January this year. The range uses technical fabrics developed by specialist Portuguese factory P&R Texteis, which develops products for Olympic athletes.

Jack Wills founder and chief executive Peter Williams says it held off on creating its own activewear, despite demand from customers, until it could combine technical qualities with design.

“My plan has been to stay away from [activewear],” he says. “A lot of technology goes into this kind of product that we haven’t historically had. My general philosophy is that when fashion brands make it on the side, the product inevitably fails and tarnishes the whole brand. The worst thing someone can say is ‘I really liked that new athleisure range Jack Wills brought out but it bobbled or it fell apart’.”

River Island head of menswear buying Nick Tahir says its new men’s active range, launched in December 2016, offers performance fabrics at high street prices: “Technical construction and fabrics are important.The pieces are largely constructed from 100% cotton and nylon blends. Breathable mesh linings, waterproof microfibre fabrics and seamless garments allow for maximum comfort and stretch.

River island mw+active final 01

River island mw+active final 01

River Island

“The range also includes functional details, including concealed zippers, headphone eyelets and specially designed pockets for phones or music players.”

Varga adds: ”A lot of brands who have moved into the sector have realised it’s not just a case of creating some patterned leggings. It is about function, so if you want to grow, it does have to perform well. Sports brands have the edge but activewear customers are very loyal and I always say the best way to lock them in is through fit. The functionality can be basic – as long as it’s breathable and wickable, people will come back. And there are a lot of consumers who would be terrified to step foot in a Nike store. High street retailers often offer a wider size range and it’s easy to pick up some leggings from somewhere like H&M.”

Athleisure is still a picture of health, but the market is evolving. 

“Wearing stretchy technical fabrics has changed consumer’s outlook on clothing,” concludes Kissane. “We’ll see sportswear functionality being incorporated into everyday clothing, on a larger scale than we saw in denim.

“However, sports inspired is still very relevant: the health and wellness trend isn’t going anywhere. Consumers are still going to need gym clothes at affordable prices, so there’s a gap for fashion brands.” 


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