As the athleisure market matures, Drapers takes a look at the latest trends and developments shaping the fast-moving sector.
The consumer appetite for athleisure seems almost insatiable. Analyst GlobalData’s UK Sports Market 2017-2022 report predicts 5.1% growth this year, on top of estimated UK sports clothing sales of £2.5bn in 2017. And the sector is changing swiftly to cater to ever-evolving consumer demands as the market matures.
As a sector focused on lifestyle, the latest developments in the market chime with the growing wellness trend and the increasingly mindful consumer decisions of younger shoppers. As with fashion in general, activewear shoppers and brands are turning their attention to sustainable design in a new way.
“It’s sustainability in an innovative way with no compromise for the consumer,” explains Nick Paulson-Ellis, founder of activewear retailer The Sports Edit. “There used to be an eco-friendly, sustainability angle within yogawear that really compromised the performance. Now it is about having no compromise on fashion, performance or function – and still being sustainable.”
He highlights recycled, sustainable materials both in clothing and activewear accessories (such as yoga mats or water bottles) as a focus, noting in particular legging brand Teeki’s recycled plastic leggings and Adidas’ Parley for the Oceans range, which uses recycled ocean plastics across clothing and footwear designs.
For brands and retailers looking to set themselves apart in the increasingly competitive sector, sustainable and ethical credentials can provide a much-needed point of differentiation. For London-based Jilla Active, which creates seam-free activewear from sustainable materials such as bamboo, an eco-friendly approach is helping draw in new shoppers.
“Sustainability is really important to customers,” explains head of design Olivia Mcguire. “There’s so much competition in the sector, and it’s really difficult to stand out, so for us there’s a big focus on sustainable fabrics and ethical practices. The consumer definitely wants to know more about what they are wearing.”
Alongside this trend for conscious consuming, Mcguire also highlights the rise of seam-free activewear as a recent shift in the market as it evolves to a more multifunctional approach.
“We have always just done seamless, but we’re seeing that more and more companies are introducing it,” she explains. “Seamless is super comfortable as the fabric is really soft. The stretch factor is important, too: you get a great four-way stretch in seamless, so you can move in them a lot better. You can also build in different areas of support.”
Camille Roegiers de Silva, co-founder of women’s activewear retailer Fashercise, agrees: “There have always been certain brands that specialise in seamless, but now we’re seeing a lot of other brands introducing it into the mix. It is super-flattering, it offers compression. It’s a very cool look, and is probably one of the biggest trends we’ve seen.”
Celia Cuthbert, Asos womenswear’s head of buying, concurs: “Seamless is a huge area for us. Our seamless product really allows for the perfect balance of technical ability and fashion.”
Streetwear’s influence on athleisure and activewear is increasingly resulting in the merging of fashion and function, as bold logos and colours appear across collections. Activewear brand Ivy Park was founded by pop star Beyoncé in collaboration with Arcadia Group’s Topshop. Paulson-Ellis notes that it is making particular strides in this area.
“Ivy Park is getting better and better in that sense,” he says. “Streetwear meets sportswear with a performance element. Product that looks great out and about, but still functions really well. Ivy Park is really keen to push the performance elements of the range. It is not just about the casual collection any more.”
This expanded focus is reflected in the widening of its stockist base. It has moved beyond its original home of Topshop to etailers including Asos and Zalando, as well as sporting retailers such as JD Sports and dedicated department store sportswear sections such as Selfridges’ The Body Studio.
Ivy Park’s size range – many pieces are available up to XXL – is evidence of another trend: inclusive size ranges that fit a broader spectrum of customers.
“We are seeing the brands that we work with expanding their size range, moving beyond XS to L,” says Roegiers de Silva. “In the past, the brands that offered plus-size were not necessarily the most fashionable. The trend that we saw generally in activewear over the past four years – really beautiful pieces that are also really functional – we’re now seeing that in the curve sector.”
In response to this trend, Fashercise launched a dedicated “Curve” section on its website in January, offering brands such as Day Won, Rainbeau and Ivy Park in a wide range of sizes.
Emily Gordon-Smith, head of fashion at research agency Stylus, says this change is “long overdue”: “We need to see even more happening in terms of inclusive sizing. A couple of standout players who are doing extended sizing in active really well are Nike and Asos – both great ranges supported by brilliant, award-winning marketing campaigns.”
Cuthbert says: “A lot of brands are starting to offer inclusivity within their mix, but at Asos it’s part of our DNA. Sales have been strong on inclusive sizes for Asos 4505 [the own-brand fitness line goes up to size 30 in Curve], with all areas exceeding expectations. For autumn 18, expect to see inclusive skiwear, maternity yoga pieces, as well as a full range of low-, medium- and high-impact [exercise] bras that cover Asos Curve and fuller bust.”
Small but mighty
The rise of small sportswear brands that challenge the traditional international giants such as Nike, Adidas or Lululemon is also predicted to continue apace.
“The rise of activewear for all day every day means that consumers are looking for greater choice in terms of looks and trends – effectively building whole wardrobes around an ‘ath-based’ core,” says Gordon-Smith. “So, there is greater opportunity for niche brands selling more nuanced, designed-into product that offers a more exclusive look to stand out in a fairly generic marketplace.”
Cuthbert highlights that these smaller brands, for example LNDR, Day Won or Varley, interact with their customers in a different, community-focused way. “Consumers are realising being active isn’t a chore, it’s a choice. Brands are catering to this and we think this is creating more community experiences rather than just making a purchase.
“This shift makes the industry less product-driven and is making brands think on their feet in terms of capturing an audience. It’s still a focus for us and is a growing part of the business.”
Nevertheless, the sports Edit’s Paulson-Ellis points out that the menswear and footwear sectors lag far behind the developments in the women’s athleisure market: “I think there’s a lot of space in the premium men’s market. There hasn’t been the same kind of emergence of new and interesting brands in that space, so you still have a more traditional sportswear market.”
He notes that in footwear, the popularity of emerging performance-focused brands such as Athletic Propulsion Labs and On Running is signalling a change: “We’re seeing the beginning of people looking for emerging footwear brands, slightly different footwear from the conventional.
“The activewear apparel market has had a lot of new entrants into it. We hadn’t seen as many from the footwear side, but we are beginning to see that now.”
The future of athleisure is moving in a more diverse direction, as smaller labels emerge to cater to niche demands and big-name brands shift to reflect and accommodate evolving consumers’ lifestyles, both in terms of practicality and ideals. Increasing sustainability and diversity are overarching themes gaining traction in the retail sector, and athleisure is leading the way on many fronts as brands seek to keep their competitive edge for demanding consumers.