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The Rise of Athleisure Wear

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The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word athleisure as: 

“A style of clothing that is comfortable and suitable for doing sports, but also fashionable and attractive enough to wear for other activities.”

The seeds of the athleisure industry were sown in the 1970s, when exercise regimes and workout videos first became popular. When the term was first coined in 1979, it was used to describe apparel that made the wearer appear athletic but was not necessarily fit for exercise. Today, both the term and the industry have evolved and ‘athleisure’ now denotes casual clothing that is equally at home in a café, shop or restaurant as it is in the gym or yoga studio or on the jogging trail. It is not necessarily high-end performance kit, but it must be suitable for sporting activities.

Sales figures show that the multifunctional space occupied by athleisure wear is appealing to 21st Century mind-sets. In recent years, sales of athleisure wear have started to rival not only the sales of dressy fashion garments and accessories, but also of performance sportswear. Experts in the clothing industry predict that the athleisure sector will continue to lead the way as a burgeoning trend throughout the early 2020s, so we thought it was worth examining why it is so popular and which brands are currently setting the bar when it comes to athleisure.

Girl in matching crop top and leggings

Technical Innovation

One of the most significant factors in the rise of athleisure wear is the development of technical fabrics. The advent of stretchy, figure-hugging Lycra in 1958 and water-resistant, breathable Gore-Tex in 1969 revolutionised the production of sports kit. Not wanting to miss out on the possibilities offered by these ground-breaking fabrics, fashion designers have appropriated them for their catwalk designs too. It was only a matter of time before fashion and function merged to create the athleisure industry we know today.

A Low Maintenance Revolution 

Athleisure wear not only saves us time in terms of outfit changes from one activity to the next, it is also easier to look after than many alternatives on the market. Forget the meticulous starching and ironing required by cotton shirts or the expensive dry cleaning bills for suits and formal wear, athleisure wear usually washes easily in a domestic washing machine and comes out crease-free, so no need to try and find time in that busy schedule to do the ironing.

Lifestyle Requirements 

If there is one way to characterise life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries it is our capacity to multitask. The majority of women have abandoned the restrictive expectation to marry young, raise a family and shelve any non-domestic ambitions ASAP. Women who chose to have children are often also keen to pursue their careers and maintain the interests and hobbies they had before the kids came along. Father’s are no longer confined to the ‘sole breadwinner’ role, as they are also expected to be actively involved in bringing up their children and have interests beyond the confines of domestic and working life.

Our desire to have and do more than previous generations means that we are often rushing from one appointment to the next, so our wardrobes have had to adapt to facilitate this. What we wear to drop the kids off at school or nursery often needs to be suitable for the café, the gym or the office too, as our schedules no longer allow for the luxury of multiple outfit changes. Cue our love of athleisure wear and the way it allows us to rush from one activity to the next in total comfort.

Celebrity Endorsement

It’s not only us regular mortals that seem to be multi-tasking like crazy. Being a celebrity these days is not just about being a sports personality, model, singer, actor or reality star, you have to do at least two of these things simultaneously, as well as being the face of a popular brand of yogurt, taking on numerous charity challenges and launching your own line of clothing, make up or toiletries.

Given the multi-tasking required of our A-listers, it is unsurprising that many of those endorsing a clothing line opt for an athleisure wear. Kate Hudson gave us Fabletics, particularly popular for its range of fashionable, bum-sculpting leggings with handy pockets for our smart phones, so we can track our activity on an app and be on hand to answer work calls mid-jog. Beyonce teamed up with Topshop and then Adidas to bring us the Ivy Park collection with its edgy, urban styling and bold colour ways. So, although there is damning evidence on social media that posing is still de rigueur, our celebrity role models are setting a more active example, both by what they are doing and what they are endorsing.

Woman doing yoga at sunset

The Popularity of Health and Wellness Lifestyles

Not long ago decadence and self-indulgence were the go-to for the marketing departments of luxury brands. They sold cars, alcohol, chocolate, lingerie and cigarettes to a public that seemed to crave a carefree, Great Gatsby style life-on-the-edge existence. 

However, times - and advertising - have changed and the focus is now firmly on self-improvement. The prospect of being smarter, fitter (both mentally and physically) and more fulfilled is the driving force behind new sales techniques. Social media is full of influencers whose profiles exude a wholesome way of life. Whether that is genuine or manufactured is immaterial; striving for “goodness” in terms of consumer and lifestyle choices is the new impetus behind much of our marketing.

If marketing is pushing us towards a better version of ourselves, athleisure wear is positioned as the kit we need to achieve this goal. It offers cleverly engineered comfort (which also flatters your figure and makes you feel better about yourself), it saves time and it facilitates a more active lifestyle.

Popularity with Gen-Z

Gen Z-ers (those born between 1997 and 2001) are taking over from millennials as the most coveted demographic for brands to court.  In America alone they comprise 40% of all consumers and are estimated to wield $143 billion in spending power.

Generation Z is characterised by a sensible approach to life; starting to save money much earlier in life than millennials, interested in improving their physical and mental health and concerned for the environment. When it comes to clothing, they value comfort and function above all else and have fully embraced athleisure and its capacity to look luxurious without being uncomfortable.

Environmental Factors

It may seem slightly inappropriate to be talking about environmental awareness in an article about a consumer trend, especially one centred on clothing, which has such a bad track record for offences against the environment. However, one of the cornerstones of the athleisure industry is the ability of garments to multitask. If the clothing you buy in equally well suited for a workout, a stroll in the park, a day at the office and a trip to the cinema, that one outfit is taking the place of four different ones, so theoretically you will not need to consume as much.

The synthetic fibres used in athleisure wear also have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to the environment, but they are also at the cutting edge of innovative recycling initiatives, such as the Proviz partnership with Repreve.  It is therefore possible to be environmentally aware and embrace the athleisure trend.

It is also worth remembering that styles that are all the range in the shops also become popular on the second hand market shortly afterwards, so shopping on sites like Ebay or Facebook Marketplace allows people to give garments from their favourite athleisure brands a second lease of life and keep them out of landfill for longer.

Workers in casual clothing

The Dressed-Down Office

Back in the 1950s, the majority of workplaces were process orientated; they placed as much importance on the sartorial elegance of their employees as they did on the work they turned out. Image was key and a neatly pressed suit, highly polished shoes and a hat and tie (for men) and a wool suit, silk blouse, stockings and stilettos (for women) were standard office attire.

Since the 1950s, the majority of workplaces have slowly shifted towards a more results-driven attitude and image has become far less important, so long as the work is done and the targets are hit. This means that today, it is no longer just the IT department that is allowed to come to work in casual clothing. Many offices are populated with casually dressed workers whose attire will transition to the gym, bar, restaurant or cinema post-work with minimal adaptation required.

This is not to say that no one cares how they look – far from it – it’s just that the requirement for a tailored and potentially uncomfortable work clothes has been largely abandoned in favour of a more relaxed approach. No need for the pinch of your high heels or the tightness of your tie to distract you from reaching your sales targets

We predict that the rise in home working prompted by the lockdown measures necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic will become a more permanent feature of many 21st century working lives and that this shift in culture will fuel our love of comfortable, multipurpose athleisure wear.

Our Stars of Athleisure – Brands to Watch

Lululemon – Established in Canada in 1998, Lululemon Athletica is the original luxury yoga brand. Today it has a lot more competition, but consumers value the flattering, tried-and-tested apparel and the brand’s focus on exercise and wellness as cornerstones of living your best life. 

Gymshark – Now eight years old, Gymshark has positioned itself as a retailer of clothing and accessories engineered to help the wearer achieve their full potential through athletic conditioning. The focus is firmly on the gym environment, but products can also transition to home loungewear and urban outfits.

Clinique Fit – If the gym or yoga studio are the new places to be seen, it’s not just your athleisure garments that need to fit for purpose. Clinique Fit is a luxury make up and toiletry line custom made for active lifestyles.

Sweaty Betty – Specialising in women’s activewear, Sweaty Betty blends fashionable style with cutting edge technical performance.  Their garments command high prices, but their mantra of inspiring women to “find empowerment through fitness” illustrates that for many people, athleisure brand choices mean more than performance gear in flattering styles – they are the expression of wider life choices and the uniform for a way of life.

Under Armour – With its heart in performance sportswear but its reach extending to both the sofa and the street, Under Armour is a brand that should certainly benefit from the continued popularity of athleisure wear. They already have a UA facemask available to buy in their website, so their ability to respond quickly to consumer demand is undeniable!

Fabletics – Established in 2013, Fabletics is a clever VIP membership-based business model that charges a monthly subscription fee that can be redeemed against the range of sports and leisure wear. The brand aims to motivate and support people to lead healthy and active lives, whether that involves training for marathons or chasing after your kids.

PS – Check out our new ¾ length yoga leggings. Super comfy design, edgy styling and finished with signature Proviz reflectivity to help you stand out from a crowd, whether you are running home after an evening yoga class or popping to the shops at dusk. They are part of our activewear range, a fashion-forward collection that has been curated to help you look your best whilst maintaining a busy, active lifestyle. 

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