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The rise of women's activewear

Creating a feminine-focused experience is helping retailers cash in on the fastest-growing sector of women’s fashion retail: activewear.

Missguided Active

Missguided Active

Missguided Active

In 2015 you were as likely to see a woman heading out for lunch with her friends in a pair of yoga leggings and neon Nike Flyknit trainers as you were in her skinny jeans and boots. The ”athleisure” trend for fashion-inspired activewear hit the mainstream last year, helping to make women’s leisurewear the fastest-growing sector of UK sportswear in 2015.

“The female activewear market has long been neglected by the sportswear industry which focused on the male consumer,” says Rachel Sharp, analyst at business intelligence specialist Key Note. “However, now sales of sports clothing and footwear to women is outpacing men’s goods.”

With new year’s resolutions in full swing, women are flocking to stores to buy the latest in fashionable fitness clothing, so 2016 is  shaping up to be another big year for athleisure.

Between 2010 and 2015 the women’s activewear market grew 26.1% to £710m, against 22.6% for men’s activewear, reports Verdict. It forecasts that female activewear sales will surge 22.6% by 2020, against 19.9% for men’s.

“It was in 2014 when we really started seeing the likes of Primark and H&M allocate more space to sportswear,” says Verdict lead analyst Honor Westnedge.

“In 2015 we’ve seen these big players invest in fashionable, trend-led activewear and update their ranges more frequently, while we’ve also seen international players such as Lululemon Athletica invest in UK stores.

Boohoo Fit

Boohoo Fit

Boohoo Fit

“The athleisure trend has come over from the US where it is part of celebrity culture to wear activewear as casualwear. Consumers see this all the time on celebrities’ Instagram pages. The trend is also all about lifestyle, with activities like yoga, zumba and spinning becoming even more mainstream.”

The factors driving women to buy activewear are efforts to improve their health and fitness, combined with a desire to update their outfits. Verdict data shows almost 70% of women want activewear that is fashionable and stylish, whereas men are more interested in technical attributes.

Currently the biggest retailers of women’s activewear are Sports Direct, JD Sports, Amazon, Primark and Nike. Westnedge points out that men are more comfortable buying activewear online at 52.2%, compared with 45.3% of female shoppers.

At fast fashion etailer Missguided, activewear buyer Leonie Redfern believes the rise of health and fitness bloggers has driven sales: “Gymwear has become a staple part of our wardrobe. It’s not only to be seen in the spin studio, but also as street style on celebrities such as the Kardashians.

“So we’re growing our spring 16 range to reflect this, focusing on panelling in fishnet, print and contrasting textures in bright colours to give a ‘sports-luxe aesthetic’. The cut and design of the garments is more important than ever and fun prints always prove popular as the consumer expects her gym wardrobe to be an extension of her personal style.”

Missguided Active staples include the gym bra (£10-£15) and leggings (£10-£20).

Etail rival is extending its boohooFIT range – first introduced for spring 15 – with swimwear and a yoga collection for spring 16. As with Missguided, affordability and newness are the key focus, and prices range from £4 for a slogan T-shirt to £16 for hoodies.

Boohoo marketing director Richard Clark adds: “As many women have made activewear part of their weekend wardrobe, we’ve really noticed an increase in sales of bold prints, slogan tees and also basics with subtle design details.”

Sweaty Betty

Sweaty Betty

Sweaty Betty spring 16 Luxe capsule collection

Collaborations between fashion designers, celebrities and sportswear heavyweights only reinforce the acceptance of activewear as a wardrobe staple. From Beyoncé’s spring 16 sportswear collaboration with Topshop, to Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci’s tie-up with Nike, which launched for spring 14, fashion’s finest are leaping on to the athleisure bandwagon.

Take luxury etailer Net-a-Porter, which in July 2015 debuted its Net-a-Sporter landing page featuring the likes of Adidas by Stella McCartney and Australian luxury gymwear brand The Upside.

Demand for fashionable activewear has benefited from the rise of boutique fitness studios, says Sweaty Betty founder and creative director Tamara Hill-Norton. She gives the example of London’s 1Rebel studios, where gym-goers work out to playlists curated by world-renowned DJs.

Founded in 1998, British activewear brand Sweaty Betty has 42 UK stores and six in the US. This month it is opening a store in Santa Monica, California, followed by a boutique on New York’s Upper East Side in February.

“Last year in the UK we opened stores in Marylebone, Sevenoaks [in Kent] and Farnham [in Surrey], alongside stores in Manhattan and LA, and concessions in Bloomingdale’s in the US,” explains Hill Norton. “We want to continue to expand in the UK, and have four new stores planned for 2016, although we have no specific locations at the moment.

“Currently 64% of UK sales come from retail and 36% from online, although we have ambitious growth targets for online. Online sales in the UK and US grew by more than 20% in 2015.”

Leggings are Sweaty Betty’s bestselling category: its Zero Gravity tights (£80-£90) are popular for their “bum-sculpting” features. Prices range from a £26 running vest to £460 for an all-in-one ski suit. This year it will branch out into wetsuits and has revamped its Sports Luxe range with an 11-piece capsule collection of sports-influenced fashion. In stores this month, Sports Luxe features a sweater dress (£110) and technical fabric dungarees (£125).

Brands such as Sweaty Betty that focus on creating a dedicated female retail experience are performing particularly well, says Sharp.



Zakti Streets Ahead skort, Under Control sports bra and Groundwork barefoot trainers

“Women-targeted brands such as actress Kate Hudson’s Fabletics, Lululemon and Sweaty Betty are filling a gap in the market. And with women wearing gym clothes in their daily lives they’re willing to pay the higher price points of these premium activewear players.”

It is not just the niche brands who have recognised the importance of creating a feminine environment. In May 2015 Nike opened its first European women’s-only store in Chelsea, London, offering expert advice, bespoke sports bra fittings and free fitness classes. It then emerged in November that Nike and US sportswear rival Under Armour were both eyeing the purchase of Lululemon Athletica, causing the Canadian activewear specialist’s shares to surge 15%.

While womenswear currently accounts for just one-fifth of Nike’s sales, it is the fastest-growing area of its business, notes Sharp, so adding Lululemon to the stable would be a wise move. She argues, however, that despite efforts by the key players to capitalise on the burgeoning women’s activewear market, there is still room for new entrants.

One such brand is Zakti, launched in November. Parent company Mountain Warehouse invested £1.5m in developing the women’s activewear brand, which spans compression gear, yoga clothing, gymwear and skiwear. Zakti is pitched at a lower price point to niche rivals, ranging from £25 for a T-shirt to £45 for leggings and £60 for trainers.

“November seemed like the perfect time to launch – ensuring we were in good stead for the Christmas gift period and January fitness craze,” explains Zakti founder of Mark Neale.

“We wanted our first stores to be in key London locations and opportunities arose to take retail space in Islington and Chiswick, two shopping hotspots in varied parts of London. If the Zakti launch is successful we plan to launch up to 10 more stores across London, with a wider ambition to extend elsewhere in the UK.”

Far from fighting for market share, it appears there is space for fashion retailers, etailers, international sportswear giants and niche brands alike to cash in on the rocketing demand for women’s activewear. It is the high street players, however, who are likely to take the lead in 2016.

“Consumers shop more frequently for casualwear products than activewear, so high street stores with activewear shop in shops can encourage additional, unplanned purchases. This is where the fastest growth will be in 2016,” says Marks.

“As the high street players who have expanded into the activewear market gain more traction, their ranges are likely to increase in performance capability and design specification as investment moves towards in-house expertise.”

 Case study

Drapers commissioned retail research specialist Retailmap to review the priced and range of women’s activewear on online and in store in the two week commencing December 7 2015

Activewear 1

How is pricing structured?

The Retailmap research reveals a big price gap in the average activewear shopping bag from Primark at £31 to Lululemon at £326. The cheapest activewear specialist is Zakti at £120.

Activewear 2

How many styles do you have in stock?

Nike streaked ahead with a range size of 577, leaving its nearest rival Adidas at 401. In the battle of the specialists, Retailmap data shows Canada’s Lululemon has a far larger range (343 garments) than UK rival Sweaty Betty (85).

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