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ANALYSIS Athleisure: Using yoga pants to rule the world

Sandra Halliday
07 April 2016

The rise of athleisure has taken fashion, sport and leisurewear by storm and it’s not set to slow down any time soon says Sandra Halliday

A former teen sector retail star, Pacific Sunwear of California, has just (almost) bitten the dust in the US. It’s one of a number of chains to file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection in recent years after facing an onslaught of competition against which it couldn’t win.

But what was the nature of that competition? A few years ago, commentators cited the rise of ultra-affordable fast fashion chains like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara for any chain’s demise. But in the case of PacSun, I’ve seen one word repeated over and over again: Athleisure. It didn’t get on board the trend ad it paid the price..

For a category that didn’t even exist not so long ago, being cited as a giant-killer is no mean feat. Yet it’s no surprise, neither in the US nor in Britain. Because athleisure is already a force to be reckoned with, is continuing to grow and seems to be the only thing able to coax us out of our skinny jeans.

Market size figures are hard to come by but Morgan Stanley is predicting that US activewear sales in 2020 will be $83bn. Meanwhile NPD estimated that athleisure’s star item, yoga pants, saw a 341% year-on-year increase in new-in pieces in a single quarter last year.

Everybody’s doin’ it…

Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein's Athleisure ads

Just look at the recent news flow. Beyoncé and Sir Philip Green finally launch their long-awaited JV. What is it? Athleisure. Selfridges opens its biggest-ever department and it’s… a Body Studio. Calvin Klein releases a new ad campaign. Is it another iteration of the “me and my Calvins” jeans theme? No, it’s athleisure. Nike ups its marketing spend by 10% on the back of… the athleisure trend. Adidas announces a new women’s creative director post. Puma declares “the future is female”. Under Armour reports apparel sales surging over 22%. Lululemon bounces back from years of product missteps and the entry of lower-price competition and says its pant sales are surging. The founder of fast-growing Mountain Warehouse launches a new chain having spotted a big opportunity in the market and it’s…. yes, you guessed it, athleisure.

Time to pause for breath

What’s clear is that this is no flash in the pan category. Athleisure is here to stay and the smart money in the industry is banking on major growth ahead.

Much of that growth will come from dynamic new entrants into the market. The runways may have largely moved on from sports luxe but, like the wider denim sector, athleisure has a life of its own that certainly doesn’t require runway endorsement to continue.

Ivy Park

Ivy Park: 200-piece collection

Take Beyoncé and Philip Green. These two billionaires know a good thing when they spot it and the joint venture they’ve been working on for over a year turns out to be not the usual celebrity "capsule collection" but a complete althleisure lifestyle offer called Ivy Park.

It’s a 200-piece offer. I’ll repeat that: 200 pieces of clothes and accessories, not only for millennials who do yoga, pilates, who cycle to work or are tapping into the barre trend. These are clothes that Ms Knowles and Sir Philip hope they’ll wear to the hairdresser, the supermarket, on holiday, in Starbucks and in Nando’s too!

So far we’ve just seen a few pictures and a video (Beyoncé looking great in a leotard, in a jacket, in a fitness studio). It’s all designed to make the rest of us think we can look that way too, of course, even if we don’t want to make the heavy several-hours-a-day commitment to working out that the average pop superstar manages.

The line-up includes sports bras, leggings, jackets, bodysuits, socks, leotards, shorts and a whole lot more, further underlining the complete lifestyle approach. Beyoncé told Elle in an interview that "for me, it won't be real until I see women at the gym, in the park, on the street wearing the collection, sweating in it, and loving it."

She might wonder just what more anyone can add to yoga pants, leotards and hoodies but these pieces are heavy on detail like signature seams, convertible lo-to-hi-rise waistbands, and mesh trims. And they have built-in underlinings to lift and control those body parts that don’t always behave… another feature women will likely embrace in their non-gym/dance studio lives as well as while working out.

Prices for the collection go from $30 up to $200 and it’s launching in 50 countries and in 12 store chains/e-stores, including JD Sports, Nordstrom, Selfridges, Philip Green’s own Topshop (of course), and Net-a-Porter.

Body shopping

Ivy Park may be the biggest athleisure brand launch yet but when it comes to the biggest launch in space terms, Selfridges take the prize.

Its Oxford Street Body Studio is a 37,000 sq ft space that’s bigger than any other department in the giant store. OK, the Body Studio isn’t all about athleisure. But for a such a forward-looking store to bring categories such as intimates, swim, sleepwear, holidaywear, hosiery and loungewear together with sports in such a massive department underlines the 24/7 trans-seasonal cross-category way in which athleisure has worked its way into the mainstream.


Selfridges' new Body Studio

The store has also opened a Bodywork space on the lower ground that’s a perfect complement to what’s going on in the Body Studio as it offers spin classes and yoga. So customers can spend £5 to £2,5000 on clothes and accessories from Adidas by Stella McCartney, Aussie high-performance label The Upside, LA-based Varley, fashion/sports crossover labels Wanda Nylon and Michi and many more then head down for a spin class, yoga or boxing.

The mix of sport, fashion crossover and pure fashion brands in the Selfridges space is an interesting one and highlights how performance sport brands have realised there’s as much mileage in selling fashionable sport product to women as there has been in selling it to men for all these years.

Adidas, Puma, Under Armour and Nike have all staked their claim to the women’s market in the past couple of years and their investment in women’s product has soared. Nike recently reported that it upped its marketing spend by a whole 10% in Q3 to $804m, largely on the back of its increased focus on women with its Better For It campaign. As befits its performance sports profile, Nike’s offer offer may be more "ath" than "leisure", but its marketing is cleverly targeting the lifestyle shopper too.

Its new YouTube-only video series called Margot versus Lily, comprises eight entertaining short films about two young women who set each other a challenge (one to make more friends, the other to exercise more). The branding and sportswear message builds steadily but subtly and the company launched a dedicated Better For It hub, so women could directly shop for the clothes worn by the fictional Lily and Margot.

Has it made an impact? You bet. Nike said the series has had over 80m views.

If you’re small, think big

While Lululemon, Ivy Park, Nike and Selfridges are all about size (big ranges, big budgets), the beauty of the athleisure sector at present is how it still has potential for smaller entrants. In fact, upstart brands have good opportunities to grow in this area if they can offer a distinctive enough USP.

Zakti Active only launched last November. Zaikai is an old Sanskrit word meaning positive energy, strength, power and potential. And this one certainly has potential, probably more chance than most as it has the drive of Mark Neale, the man who took Mountain Warehouse from zero to 220-plus stores internationally, behind it.

The USP is the same kind of mixture of quality and very affordable prices that drove Mountain Warehouse’s success, as well as welcoming stores that resemble yoga studios. There are only three at the moment but a fourth will open in Oxford imminently and the brand is following the Lululemon path and launching menswear soon too.

Which brings us full circle in the sport-meets-leisure category. Sports leisure clothing was once dominated by men in football shirts, joggers and trainers. Then came athleisure and the yoga pant reigned. Maybe men will switch on to the joys of yoga pants and “Yogini” tees too. Only time will tell…

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