Wear Athleisure at Your Leisure

Ashesha Mehrotra

The rise of “athleisure,” a blend of athletic and casual wear, has changed the way American millennial women dress. Women have embraced the comfort and function of movability by wearing active clothing all day, not just to the gym. The increasing uptick in fitness awareness has contributed significantly to making athleisure a preference over a need.

“Athleisure depicts endurance, pain, willpower and at the same time aspiration, beauty and power. It is a smart combination of seriousness and fun, as well as health and leisure. It is time-saving and sexy. And lastly, it is also about pumping in that extra confidence while working out,” said fashion stylist Karishma Bery.

Once overlooked as a fashion fad, women’s athletic wear is now a cake that every major brand wants a piece of. No wonder designers such as Tory Burch, J.Crew, Tommy Hilfiger, Baja East and Creatures of Comfort showcased their athleisure collections at New York Fashion Week 2016.

“I’m all about athleisure wear. It’s so easy to throw on leggings and a sweatshirt and run errands or study. Athleisure wear is my go-to on weekends and weekday evenings because it’s both comfortable and presentable,” said 29-year-old Kate Hopple, client manager in the Chicago office of Extreme Reach, a marketing firm.

Kara Snyder, a Massachusetts-based health and lifestyle strategist, wrote in an e-mail that women today want to enjoy both style and comfort, and do have the option of getting the best of both worlds with athleisure.

“The modern, athletic woman doesn’t have to trade feeling attractive for a workout. She also doesn’t have to scuttle to/from the gym trying not to be seen,” she stated.

High-end yoga pants first made popular by Lululemon range from $80 to $200. But the competition is becoming fierce with other brands such as Michi, Forever 21, Yogasmoga, Calia and Outdoor Voices are giving a tough fight to household names Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.

Activewear range at Forever 21.
Activewear range at Forever 21.

“My price range totally varies and depends on what I’m buying. Yoga clothing can be more expensive. I’m willing to pay $80 for a really nice pair of yoga pants,” said Mary Delaney, 28, senior media strategist at CUNA Mutual Group, a Madison, Wis., insurance company.

Delaney said that she wears her “nicer” activewear outside home and stocks several types of activewear in her closet such as “legitimate” workout clothes, “stylistic” yoga pants and ultimate “junk activewear” for running errands.

Other women in the same age group expressed similar interests and budgetary notions.

Carrah Christiana Golightly, who works in Atlanta, said in an e-mail she can spend up to $90 for wintry athleisure clothing, and her staple athleisure outfit is “good fitting shorts and tank tops.” Her favorite brand is Lululemon.

“I absolutely love activewear,” said 22-year-old Camille Warde, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s hard not to. For me, choosing to wear activewear is the most effortless style choice you can make. The only time I don’t wear it is when I’m wearing scrubs, or when I have to attend events with a dress code.”

Warde said she spends the most on leggings and the maximum she has paid for activewear leggings is $70. “I typically spend the most money on leggings. I’ve recently succumbed to the Lululemon hype. But I haven’t paid full price for any of the leggings I currently own.”

Athleisure made a mark on fashion in 2015 and analysts are predicting that this trend will only get stronger in 2016. Paul Swinand, an analyst at Morningstar, said sportswear and sports apparel are selling well in the United States, Europe and even China against a backdrop of tepid consumer spending and apparel sales growth in department stores.

“While product technology and innovation were the driving forces for sales growth for the likes of Nike and Under Armour, now it seems everyone one is jumping on the trend,” he said.

But it is not just designers hopping on the bandwagon with their uber-luxe athleisure collections that make this trend here to stay. Experts believe that recent shifts have proved a greater demand for workouts that are less of a chore and more of a lifestyle.

Kelsey Comstock, a vice president at Turner, a public relations firm, write in an e-mail, “Athleisure is very much a part of this larger movement, as it further reinforces the lifestyle component. If you can pull off the same outfit in the office as you can in your barre class, less time and effort is needed to get your workout in.”

Over a period of two years, there has been an explosion in athleisure wear options. According to an article on Bustle, a women-centric online news publication, yoga pants sales increased 341 percent during a three-month period in 2015. There were 68,000 pairs of sneakers that hit the web, and 35 percent of those were athleisure sneakers.

Arnab Majumdar, assistant professor in the fashion department of Columbia College, Chicago, wrote in an e-mail, “you see Zara with knit sweatpants (they call it knit trousers, but they essentially are printed sweatpants) which people wear at clubs and restaurants now.”

38 percent millennials are likely to wear activewear to work in comparison to 17 of percent boomers who are comfortable with the idea.
Shoppers browse through an abundant activewear display on a Wednesday evening.

According to an NPD Group report, 38 percent of millennials are likely to wear activewear to work in comparison to just 17 of percent boomers who are comfortable with the idea.

Chicago-based stylist Katie Schuppler said, “Over the past two years my clients have been adding workout clothing to their shopping lists on their style assessment which was never the case in the first few years of my style consulting business.”

What further increases their appeal is that they give a svelte, leaner-looking figure as compared to cotton or denim clothing, said Majumdar in the same e-mail.

“Knits can be extremely fitted (and well suited for training, etc.) but also many times can be forgiving. Thus, people who aren’t in shape can wear them and look fit and feel motivated to work-out. Also, a lot of streetwear fashion is crossing over with active and athletic wear,” he wrote.

But despite this surge in demand for athleisure, there is still skepticism on the longevity of this trend, from both a retailer and consumer point of view.

“Ultimately this is a fashion cycle and not everyone can see double-digit sales increases forever,” said Swinand of Morningstar.

Another Morningstar analyst, Bridget Weishaar, wrote in a note that although Lululemon in January increased its guidance for the fourth quarter of its fiscal year about to end, “we remain concerned about the long-term impact of the eventual fade of the “athleisure” trend . . . as well as continued pricing power in the face of increased competition.”

Additionally, not all consumers feel comfortable wearing activewear outside the gym, citing reasons such as its casual appearance and coverage provided.

Chicago resident Lisbeth Vargas, 28, a paralegal at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm said, “I try not to wear it outside of the gym because I feel the material doesn’t provide as much coverage as a pair of jeans would.”

“Agreed, activewear is comfortable,” said 32-year-old Jigyasa Verma, as she swiped her card to pay for two dresses and a blazer at a downtown LOFT store, “but spending $70 on yoga pants sounds ridiculous to me. Plus, it does look unprofessional.”

Nevertheless, the future looks strong for the athleisure industry. Industry experts have been closely analyzing the investments made by large companies in chic activewear and are upbeat about its becoming a staple in everyone’s closet.

Apparel giants are developing and investing heavily in their R&D facilities to keep up with the latest trends and demands of the consumers, wrote Majumdar of Columbia College.

“Knit products are the core of activewear market and to be true today’s knit products are far more superior products than ever before with the advent of technology (Nike Dri-Fit, Adidas ClimaCool, etc. are now a norm in most of such garments).”

And the garments, too, are clearly the new normal.

“Haters gonna hate. It’s the comfiest and I’m gonna wear it everywhere,” said 28-year-old Latifa Stone, who calls herself a “Lululemon worshipper.”

Photo at top: Not just a fashion fad, athleisure has become a lifestyle. (Ashesha Mehrotra/MEDILL)