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Why athleisure has staying power


Brands and supermarkets are jumping on the athleisure bandwagon as it continues to grow and evolve.

From mums in leggings at the school gate to yogis sporting harem pants at the coffee shop, athleisure has been an inescapable fashion trend in the last couple of years.

And it is paying dividends for retailers. JD Sports chairman Peter Cowgill attributed its 80% uplift in pre-tax profits for the year to the end of January 2017 in part to shoppers’ insatiable appetite for athleisure.

He told Drapers: “The product lines are in vogue at the moment as the athleisure trend is strong and we are well positioned to capitalise on that.”

Retail analysis company Mintel reports that sales of sports clothing by specialists has grown 44% since 2011 and the market was worth £4.5bn last year.

Futhermore, it found that 14% of shoppers bought sportswear from a fashion retailer in 2016.

Fashion retailers across the spectrum are making a play for the athleisure market.

Superdry Sport was launched in autumn 15, and has been identified as a “massive area” for growth. Indeed, this week chief executive Euan Sutherland announced plans to launch standalone shops for the sub-brand that would ”rival Nike and Adidas”. 

Meanwhile, Topshop launched Ivy Park with singer Beyoncé in April 2016, swiftly followed by sportswear collections from River Island, Missguided and Jack Wills. 

Peter Williams, chief executive and founder of Jack Wills, says customers had been asking for an athleisure collection for years.

“For years, people were wearing Jack Wills to go down the gym but it was missing something for the actual workout – that technical component.

“Some people were jumping on the athleisure bandwagon but I didn’t want to. I only want to make things we’re good at making.”

Jack Wills Sporting Goods


Jack Wills launched its first collection of women’s activewear in January.

The initial Jack Wills Sporting Goods collection included leggings, sweatshirts, hoodies, sports bras, joggers, tank tops, T-shirts and a “gymwear” bikini.

The garments were designed in house, using technical fabrics sourced from specialist Portuguese manufacturer P&R Texteis. It expanded the range into menswear in April. Sweats and jersey are priced at £24.95 to £54.95, while technical pieces range from £39.95 to £74.95.




Williams’ mind was changed by factory P&R Texteis, which made him believe Jack Wills could produce high-quality activewear.

“We’re using a factory in Portugal that makes the kit that Olympians wear,” says Williams. “The one thing I’m confident about is that it’s really good. You’ve got to make great stuff. You can’t just stick your name on it – it will damage your reputation.”

Jack Wills Sporting Goods launched in womenswear in January and has been “very successful” to date, says Williams. The brand expanded the collection into menswear last month – and “big splash” is planned for autumn, says Williams, although he declines to give further details.

Prime position

Primark, which has sold workout gear for some time, has also reported a growth in demand over the past five years.

A spokeswoman tells Drapers: “The trend of healthy living, well-being and fitness is a global phenomenon and is gaining momentum.

“Our activewear range has gone from strength to strength, helping to drive sales across all regions.”

Sainsbury’s has made a recent push into athleisure, and with Mintel research showing that 11% of consumers have bought sports clothing, footwear, equipment or accessories at a supermarket in the last year, that looks like a wise move.

Sainsbury’s head of buying John Carolan says: “About three years ago we spotted something big happening on outdoor, casual clothing, and so did a bigger range. We’ve doubled sales [in the category] over the past two years.”

Carolan believes the athleisure trend has an added bonus for fashion retailers who have long battled unpredictable weather: it is seasonless.

“It doesn’t matter if it rains or it’s boiling hot outside, people still buy it,” he says.

Will athleisure go the distance?

But how long can the athleisure trend last? Indefinitely, believes Williams

“If it was a purely fashion trend, it would not stand the test of time but this fits into a broader cultural shift,” he says. “Today’s young people are more health and wellness minded than previous generations.”

Carolan agrees: “People want to get healthy. Every supermarket is pushing this and we’re at centre of it with our Living Well for Less [campaign],” he says.

“There’s a growth of gyms and classes around the country. There’s a definite lifestyle change that people want to get into.”

“Will it be here forever? It will be. It’s a core part of retailers’ ranges now.”

Rbo workout womens p1 a3 02

Primark performancewear

Primark focuses on comfort and versatility through fabric innovation, functionality, colour and styling.

Key product features include: moisture wicking, which keeps the body dry and cool; fabrics that are breathable, fast absorbent, quick drying and water repellent; and designs that flatter the figure with durable, multi-way stretch for support, comfort and mobility. The collection ranges in price from £3.50 for a cropped top to £16 for a jacket.




However, it is not just about adopting a healthy lifestyle. There has also been a shift towards wearing more casual clothes in general.

“It’s become more daywear than activewear,” says Carolan. “Mums are all lycra-ed up to go collect the kids at school. These are now essentials in the wardrobe.”

Primark concurs: “The desire to look fashionable while working out first invaded the world of fitness, but activewear has fast become an everyday, must-have, fashion item,” says the spokeswoman.

“Our customers are wearing athleisure and trainers not just to the gym but also out shopping, meeting friends and around town.”

The athleisure story has longevity because more people are following a healthy way of living

Mintel retail analyst Sam Dover

Mintel research backs up this claim. One in two consumers is interested in buying fashionable sportswear that can be worn when not exercising, it shows.

Mintel forecasts sales of sports clothing and footwear through specialist retailers will increase 34% in the next five years to reach £6bn by 2021. However, growth is at a slightly slower rate than in recent years.

“The sportswear market has benefited from an appetite for sports-influenced fashion. However, the impacts of such trends are likely to fluctuate,” says Mintel retail analyst Sam Dover. However, she believes the rising interest in health and wellness means athleisure is here to stay.

“The athleisure story has longevity because more people are following a healthy way of living, thus increasing demand for product and services that align with such lifestyle shifts.

“One in three consumers considers themselves to be healthier than they were a year ago and this is significantly higher among young people,” she says.

An evolving trend

Sainsbury’s believes there is much organic growth to go for and Carolan plans to expand its own range. However, it is in branded products where he thinks the big opportunity lies.

In menswear, Sainsbury’s has worked with brands to gain a foothold in athleisure, partnering first with retro football label Admiral, followed by its tie-up with Russell Athletic earlier this year, which Carolan says has been “really strong for us”.

“There’s a higher propensity to buy brands – 40% of menswear is in branded goods. Together with our own Tu clothing range, Russell gives more choice for our customer,” he says.


Sainsburys menswear

Sainsbury’s activewear

Brands have played an important role in Sainsbury’s athleisure push. It partnered with Admiral on a menswear range in 2015 and started selling American sportswear brand Russell Athletic online earlier this year, across the men’s and women’s wear. This was the first time that female shoppers have been able to purchase branded clothing from Sainsbury’s. The collection launched in store last month.

Prices for Sainsbury’s activewear range from £10 to £35.




Carolan also points out that retro sportswear has made a big comeback in recent years with brands such as Ellesse and Kappa becoming popular once more. He says retro has given athleisure “a new lease of life”. 

He also believes celebrity tie-ups will fuel growth: “It’s one of the busiest areas in terms of collaboration with sports or fashion stars that are known for fitness.

Global Data retail analyst Fiona Paton cautions that is can be a challenge to maintain momentum with celebrity collaborations after the initial sales boost: “I’m not sure that Ivy Park is as popular as it was when it launched,” she asserts.

Carolan believes that newness and product differentiation is critical: “People are looking for colour and print and differentiation in athleisure. It’s not just about black leggings.”

Primark is focusing on “continually re-inventing and developing exciting new products and fabric innovation” to meet its customers’ expectations in the category.

Dover expects innovation to drive growth, both in product design and in integrating wearable technology into garments: “60% of people already own or are interested in owning wearable technology – tech that tracks fitness or monitors health. As wearable tech continues to evolve and can increasingly be seamlessly incorporated into garments we expect this market to grow massively in future.”

There is no sign of athleisure’s appeal waning any time soon but retailers that want to capitalise on the trend need to innovate in terms of design, fabric and even wearable technology to keep up with pacesetters.


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