How Athleisure Is Saving The Fashion Industry

Growth of athleisure in the retail sector has surpassed apparel as a whole, headed by brands like Lululemon and Under Armour. Is athleisure here to stay?

Jul 02, 2021 | By Joseph Low

Lululemon’s First Global Campaign

The growth of athleisure in the retail sector has surpassed apparel as a whole, led by two athleisure brands: Lululemon and Under Armour. The new casual seems to be athleisure — yoga pants, sports bras, and dry-fit t-shirts. Gone are the days of t-shirts and jeans, not to even mention its far more formal, layered predecessors that appear to be relegated to the runway or niche occasions.

Fitness Is Now Fashion

Globally, people adopt an awareness of fitness and nutrition as societies progress beyond the bread and butter in their daily pursuits. The past few decades have seen immense human and technological progress, and the world has become deeply interconnected as such, allowing for ideas such as “fitspo” to take root in an increasing number of societies. Now, people seek to appear fit and active — they roll into bed in comfortable activewear, and roll out of bed in the same activewear, even if they do not plan to hit the gym. The point is to show up looking active, if not put together in some way. And athleisure is, without doubt, easy and easier.

FENTY PUMA by Rihanna Spring/Summer 2018

Athleisure — a strange cross between athletic wear and business casual — thus evolved to be the fastest and biggest growing segment of the apparel industry. In 2015, retail sales saw an overall stagnation, and yet, sales of athletic apparel increased 12%. With athletic brands like Adidas and Under Armour unveiling high-end designs, and brands like Puma working with pop diva Rihanna to release designer collections, embracing celebrity collaborations that have since been fashion week norms, and increasingly part of our daily lives with affordable capsule collections dropping every other week. It is no wonder that a report, published by Global Industry Analysts, Inc., projects that the global market for athletic apparel will reach US$231.7 billion by 2024.

People are no longer big on dress codes. Rather, dressing down and being comfortable is widely embraced. For those who still prefer to follow trends and express themselves fashionably, brands like Lululemon, Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour offer a range of athletic apparel that can be worn in and out of the gym — even athletic apparel that is only meant to be worn out of the gym — like yoga pants, or sneakers with suits. Athleisure offers its own level of comfort and style that is often unmatched, and at relatively cosier price points to boot.

Nocturnal Workshop x Lululemon 2015 Spring/Summer

Fashion, at every level, needs to be sustainable. Brands like Lululemon, Under Armour, Adidas, and Nike are seeing healthy profits while traditional clothing brands like Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and J.Crew are struggling. Moreover, malls are experiencing a dip in shopper traffic, in their midst of reinvention to shift emphases on malls as lifestyle and experiential destinations. People are big on customer experience today, and generally spend less on clothing. Fast fashion, discount stores, and Amazon are pulling in more demand as compared to traditional retailers because people increasingly look for discounts. From 2008-2015, sales of athletic apparel raised the whole apparel industry by 4.1% on average. The number is a disparaged 0.2% when activewear is out of the equation. Sales is driven by the large following of yoga pants, running bottoms, and athleisure as a whole, especially in womenswear and increasingly so in menswear.

This trend poses threats to traditional businesses offering just regular clothing. Retailers struggle to understand the shift in consumer tastes and preferences. For instance, J.Crew blamed lacklustre sales in 2015 on a lack in the right fit of cardigans. “We had a cardigan, but it didn’t fit that well,” shared J.Crew’s CEO Mickey Drexler. Perhaps Drexler’s call seems starkly myopic as the company’s flagship brand saw a fall in sales at 5% year-over-year. Banana Republic similarly placed fault on its one product, the blazer, with armholes too small for the average American woman. Both clothing giants fell short in observing trends, assuming that a lack of newness, the freshest designs and cuts off the runway, was to blame, while people are already searching for the next most comfortable, stretchy yoga pants that does not require them looking forward to bust out when they get home at the end of the day like a pair of stifling denim jeans. Athleisure seems to be the simple answer to what traditional brands found elusive.

The Case Of Lululemon & Under Armour

Enter Lululemon, a Vancouver-based cult favourite for athleisure, whose shares rocketed to a record high in June this year, due to immense increase in sales in its first quarter, with a 25% leap of US$649.7 million.

A Lululemon loyal always forked out US$98 or more for a pair of leggings, for an uncontested sense of satisfaction, and for days. Its growth, driven by two things:

  1. Attracting male customers at a quicker pace than women customers, where roughly 30% of new shoppers were reportedly men in the last quarter.
  2. Placing an emphasis on activities in addition to yoga. The brand invests into running apparel and hosts an annual half marathon in Vancouver each year

Lululemon is no longer a niche player. Competing with industry powerhouses like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour, Lululemon can also provide people with similar comfortable and stylish activewear, and the kind that people pay US$98 or more for, no less. Surely, Lululemon has a long way to go with just over 700 stores worldwide, while Nike has 2,260, and Adidas dominating at 4,900.

Under Armour featuring Jamie Foxx

Athleisure is a lifestyle shift. Just take a quick look at social media for evidence: #fitspo is hashtagged over 50 million times solely on Instagram. Fitness has gotten people talking and opening up new conversations. Another quick look at fashion trends reveals the spread of athleisure in streetwear and casual wear, and even in high fashion, with Virgil Abloh, of designer tracksuits and chunky sport sneakers fame, heading top fashion house LVMH to bring out its Spring 2019 collection heavily infested with athleisure influences.

Louis Vuitton Men’s Spring 2019

In the corporate sphere, workplace casual has athleisure transcending formalwear boundaries as people increasingly stretch the limits of dress codes, and not without merit and reason. Fashion at all levels has simply transformed beyond formalwear, or suit-and-gown. In fact, I daresay suit-and-gown has become way passé and way conservative. Switch it up, throw on a pair of chunky sneakers and slacks, work comfortably, and fashionably.

Athleisure means big business.

Back to top