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Drapers Denim Report: The pursuit of leisure

As casual dressers drift away from skinny jeans towards a more sophisticated take on tracksuits, denim brands are being forced to evolve

For those who were schoolkids in the 1990s, tracksuits evoke fond and sometimes awkward memories of wearing three stripes or, worse, poppers.

But at this season’s fashion weeks, Kappa reincarnations were spotted on and off the catwalks, confirming what we have suspected for a while: that the much-hyped athleisure trend is here to stay. As a result, denim is no longer the default choice at weekends: its activewear sibling’s newfound acceptability outside the gym has made it a credible pretender to the casualwear throne.

Although denim is still by far the larger market, activewear is growing at a much greater rate. The UK women’s activewear market was worth £710m in 2015, up 26.1% from 2010, reports research firm Verdict Retail. Euromonitor International, meanwhile, says the women’s denim market, was worth £1bn in 2015, up 1.6% from £984m in 2011.

“Denim is a staple and there will always be a place for it, but athleisure is new and it is big,” says Rebecca Marks, retail consultant at Verdict.

But whether athleisure will overtake denim as a staple is debatable. Over the past 12 months, 49.9% of people in the UK have shopped for denim, Verdict’s data shows (table below). A quarter (24%) of women and a third (34%) of men wear jeans every day. A similar proportion, 53.7%, have shopped for activewear in the past 12 months – however, only 10.5% of women and 12.8% of men wear it daily.

Denim vs athleisure: at a glance

  Denim Athleisure

Shopped for in past 12 months



Age group with highest penetration



Wear it every day (women)



Wear it every day (men)



Wear at least once a week (women)



Wear at least once a week (men)



Figures from Verdict Retail

Juls Dawson, managing director of young fashion agency Just Consultancies, which represents denim brand Wåven and athleisure label Hoxton Haus, says: “There is an appetite for the athleisure look and we have reacted as a business by taking on Hoxton Haus. The big sportswear brands have dominated the market so far, but there are others coming through now.” However, he adds: “There’s no slowdown in denim, it’s still core to retailers. Denim trends are for “rip and repair”, and badges and appliqués – trends you just can’t activate on athleisure.”

Katie Smith, senior retail and fashion analyst at fashion data analyst Edited, agrees: “There is no doubt athleisure has increased its presence in the market and popularity with the consumer, but denim is still performing well. Forever 21, and Boohoo have the highest number of replenished styles on the UK market, and all upped the number of new products arriving into stores in February 2016 compared with February 2015 – Asos by 7%, Boohoo by 21% and Forever 21 by 88%.”

Denim trends are for “rip and repair”, and badges and appliqués – trends you just can’t activate on athleisure

Juls Dawson, managing director of young fashion agency Just Consultancies

Meanwhile, trend forecasting agency WGSN’s denim director, Dio Kurazawa, points out that many jeans brands are evolving in response to athleisure, increasingly using performance fabrics to create comfortable and functional denim products. Diesel, for example, developed a knitted indigo-dyed fabric last year. For autumn 16 this will come through in denims such as bi-stretch or multi-directional stretch-woven denims, in a variety of weights, and additional performance attributes such as anti-microbial or skin-moisturising fabrics.

Marks & Spencer grew sales of jeans by 11% to 4.3 million pairs last year.

Head of buying Paula Bonham-Carter has noted the influence of athleisure on denim styles: “The skinny jean is still a really important silhouette for our customers, but the relaxed style of the athleisure trend is having a big influence on our denim and we are offering styles with a softer, more relaxed fit. The popularity of the trend is partly borne out of women wanting clothes that are easy to wear and our customers are looking for exactly the same in their jeans.”

This ability to evolve and innovate is denim’s real strength, and will help it maintain its position as the king of casualwear.


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