As the athleisure market becomes ever more crowded, brands and retailers are turning to high-tech fabrics to gain a competitive edge.
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Exercise is everywhere in 2017. Fitness fans can follow the physical feats of toned social media gurus, try any number of workout crazes and shop for their gym kit from an ever-increasing pool of high street retailers, sportswear specialists and emerging brands. As the market heats up and fitness becomes an integral part of everyday life, consumers are demanding advanced technical capabilities from their sportswear. To keep up, brands and retailers are racing to create new properties that allow amateur athletes to perform to the very best of their abilities.
“Everybody [in the athleisure market] is looking for fibres that respond and adapt to moisture, and everybody is looking for better transportation of moisture from the inside to the outside – fabrics that dry as quickly as possible,” explains Helder Rosendo, general manager at Portuguese specialist manufacturer P&R Texteis, which worked with Jack Wills on its first sportswear collection earlier this year. “Those are the key drivers within the market.”
Sportswear giants with hefty research and development budgets have long led the pack when it comes to innovation in performance fabrics. Nike’s AeroReact technology, a lightweight bi-component yarn that senses moisture vapour, helps runners to thermoregulate by opening its structure to maximise breathability. The Adidas Climachill range uses fabric woven with titanium and aluminium cooling spheres to reduce body temperature. Canada’s Lululemon prides itself on creating its own yarns for its trademarked fabrics, including Nulux, a lightweight fabric with quick-drying properties, and Luxtreme, which offers four-way stretch.
Newer players to the market are doing their bit to challenge the technical innovations of these industry titans. British sportswear brand Ashmei, for example, uses carbon-treated merino wool instead of synthetic fabrics. Founder and creative director Stuart Brooke argues that wool gives a high performance thanks to its temperature-regulating and antibacterial properties, as well as having the added benefit of sustainability.
Customers are becoming savvy about where and how their garments are made
Stuart Brooke, Ashmei
“Cotton wicks sweat away but then takes hours to dry, so as soon as you stop your bike ride or your run, you get cold,” he tells Drapers. “The same is true of polyester. Merino is warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm, although you have to treat it right and blend it the right way.”
Merino wool’s antibacterial properties also make it odour resistant, Brooke adds: “Lots of brands are playing with finishes and treatments, but you’re adding chemicals that stop smell to a fibre that loves bacteria. We’re also finding that more and more customers are becoming savvy about where and how their garments are made, so the fact that wool is environmentally friendly is important.”
Rosendo agrees that the performance sportswear market is beginning to experiment with the properties of wool and other natural fibres.
“We have seen lots of interesting things happening around wool and natural fibres, because of their thermoregulating properties. The innovation in wool means it is being used more and more in sportswear, whereas before it was always seen as a very traditional fibre and a very expensive fibre. Sportswear is evolving, so there is room for these more sophisticated fibres, as customers want a higher performance from their fabrics.”
But, for the time being at least, experimentation with wool and natural fibres is confined to the mid-to-top range of the market, rather than in
the athleisure offers that are available from high street retailers or supermarkets.
“Stretch yogawear is a good example,” says Praburaj Venkatraman, senior lecturer in textile technology at Manchester Metropolitan University. “We’re seeing natural products such as organic cotton and bamboo-based cotton, and innovation is slowly starting to create new fibres and new materials, at a higher price. Innovation doesn’t tend to start in the mass market – it tends to be at the higher end.”
Another area of experimentation within the sportswear market is the combination of fibres and technology. Ralph Lauren is one of the few big names leading the field. The preppy label has given its classic polo a futuristic spin as the PoloTech shirt. Silver fibres blended into the garment collect data and give the wearer information on steps taken, heart rate, calories burned and depth of breath. A detachable black box on the side of the shirt uses Bluetooth to send the data to the wearer’s smartphone. The technology was first tested on ball boys at the 2014 US Open tennis tournament, and went on sale to the public a year later. But again, innovation comes with a price tag – the PoloTech shirt retails at $295 (£230).
“There are opportunities in integrating electronics into fabrics, such as adding LEDs for high visibility,” says Rosendo. “There is definitely some more research and development to be done, but sooner or later we will see more electronics being embedded in garments.”
Venkatraman agrees, adding: “We can see wearable technology that monitors lifestyle moving into athleisure, particularly in the younger market, where people are interested in the analysis of things such as muscle movement.”
As well as garments that can monitor performance, the sportswear industry is also starting to experiment with kit that encourages gym-goers to work harder. American brand Physiclo uses layers of elastic and panels that stretch over muscles to generate inbuilt resistance, forcing the wearer to use more effort to make movements.
Compression garments remain a controversial topic. Proponents argue the tight-fitting, supportive clothing improves blood flow, thereby reducing muscle swelling and cutting recovery time. However, others, including Rosendo, are sceptical and say there are as many studies that show compression garments do not have an impact as those that show they do.
As fitness trends change and develop, the concept of “wellness” – covering everything from emotional health and peace of mind to eating well and exercising – has come to the fore.
“Wellness is a massive topic,” says Helen Palmer, director of materials and knitwear at trend forecaster WGSN. “We’re seeing two types of fibre in the active industry: one is high performance and the other is softer and more holistic – that’s where wellness comes in. It’s about feeling good, the importance of sleep and your own goals. Interesting minerals are going into fabrics and we’re seeing jade or tourmaline being added during spinning or finishing [for anti-stress properties] in products such as yogawear.
“Silver is also being added to garments more and more – it has anti-stress, anti-UV and antibacterial properties, and is said to ward off the impact of [electromagnetic radiation from] electronic gadgets.”
If fabrics are synthetic, consumers are looking at recycled versions
Helen Palmer, WGSN
Sportswear brands are expanding out of the gym and seeking to improve well-being. At this January’s Las Vegas tech event the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Under Armour launched its Athlete Recovery Sleepwear, which it claims can improve athletic performance while the wearer sleeps. A “bio-ceramic” print on the inside of the sleepwear absorbs body heat and reflects back far infrared energy – this has been shown in some studies to reduce inflammation and improve blood circulation.
Palmer adds that a soft, natural hand-feel is important in the wellness part of the activewear industry.
“It’s important that the fabrics look natural even if they’re not made from natural fibres, although we are seeing more natural fibres coming in, more merino silks and sustainable, biodegradable fabrics with soft silky properties. If fabrics are synthetic, consumers are looking at recycled versions – they want a good story.”
In such a crowded sector, those who can combine technical know-how with fashion-forward design will stay one step ahead.
“Today’s consumers are more demanding and they are a bit wiser,” explains Ashmei’s Brooke. “Gone are the days were sportswear could be badly made and a horrible colour. Now the quality and functionality has to be right up there –in fact, it almost has to be better than everyday clothing because fitness is such a passion. Our customer wakes up thinking about going out to ride their bike or going for a run. It’s everything to them, so the kit has to be right.”