There was a time, not so long ago, that the term “athleisure” could have gone the way of “normcore”—talked about ad nauseam but then forgotten, destined never to be used in the style lexicon again. But no—while the exalted wearing of all things basic seems to have slipped off the tongue of pop culture, athleisure is here to stay, affecting big brands and retailers in an officially permanent way. Numbers at the end of last year showed Americans spent $1 billion more dollars on apparel and shoes than the year before, and all credit went to active wear.
Koral Activewear tank and Onzie leggings, available at Carbon38.
“It’s definitely here to stay,” confirmed Elle Strauss, fashion director at Shopbop, an e-commerce giant that currently carries 34 active-wear brands. “Over the past year it’s gone from practical workout wear to having more of a street vibe. It’s less about performance and more about looking relaxed and cool.” Strauss said she first noticed the trend creeping in five years ago and counts fitness brands collaborating with designers as part of the sea change (reference Mary Katrantzou’s breathtakingly gorgeous creations for Adidas, plus Stella McCartney’s longtime partnership with the brand).
A scad of brands and designers have beefed up their offerings with dedicated fitness categories, including Free People, Net-a-Porter’s cheeky Net-a-Sporter, Trina Turk, and Cynthia Rowley, whose passion for surfing meant she started with wetsuits. “After performance and functionality is achieved, designing ready-to-wear and fitness is exactly the same,” she told us.
The latest to throw her hat in the ring is Tory Burch, who announced her intentions last spring, saying “I find a lot of women wear what they wear to the gym all day long” (she already has a popular accessory range for Fit Bit). Tory Sport should be with us sometime this year, according to WWD, and will be available online on its own site (torysport.com, which currently is empty) and in a new New York City store. “It’s creating another brand. It’s being designed in-house and marries function and style. It will be yoga, running, some tennis, and golf,” she has said. The Tory team didn’t have anything else to add at this time.
Tory Burch’s Fit Bit bracelet.
The brands that first identified as fitness, not fashion, have been enjoying the spike in attention recently, as expected. Nike called it “a lifestyle shift that’s here to stay” and explained that with their fit focus, the fashion connection has become somewhat of a tool. “We strive to create products that motivate her to wake up at dawn to run before work, or stop at the gym on her way home,” Julie Igarashi, vice president of Global Design for Nike Women’s Training, said in a Nike News story. “One insight we continually get from top athletes is that if they look good, they feel good, which means they’ll perform their best.” Gap Inc.’s fitness arm, Athleta, has also felt the shift. “We’ve been spending more time as a team thinking about how products can perform for her before, during, and after her workout,” Athleta president Nancy Green said of their evolving customer. “We’ve started to push the boundaries in what fashion can mean for our brand, and we’re happy with our customer’s response.”
Adds Keith Peterson, cofounder of Splits59: “More and more, women are understanding the importance of health and fitness, and it’s being embraced and integrated into daily lives. It’s a fundamental shift in mentality and lifestyle.”
Consider: where Lululemon’s initial explosion was met with some snide remarks about it being adopted by shoppers who wanted to appear as if they were gym-bound (while really only running daily errands), the athleisure movement is marked by people who really did log the calorie burn but simply chose to keep their workout togs on because they were so chic.
“As fitness becomes ever more entwined in day-to-day life, women’s expectations have changed. It’s not good enough for performance pieces to just perform. Today’s woman is looking for items that she can blend into her overall wardrobe,” Peterson said. And while today’s hit-the-gym-hard woman might toss a sweat-soaked shirt post-spin or a run, she’s keeping on her leggings and it shows—the category has grown far beyond the plain black crop.
Paparazzi shots mined for style inspiration are just as likely to show stars in workout clothes, like this one of Taylor Swift and Gigi Hadid walking together.
“Workout clothing in general is being mixed into the wardrobe, but it’s most apparent in bottoms, and in tights in particular,” Peterson said. “It used to be that women searched for a favorite pair of denim jeans. Now it’s her favorite pair of leggings.” Luxury-priced options from lines like Michi are crazy covetable, spurred by the celebrity supermodels spotted in them, and the idea of shelling out $175 for a pair suddenly doesn’t seem quite as laughable (they’re currently sold out on Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters’ websites). Splits59 offers one of its most stylish pairs for $120.
Athleisure might feel like a new idea to some of us, but for those who pioneered the trend, it’s been a constant in their lives. “I went to the School of American Ballet in New York City and embraced it early on. I had to wear easy, transitional pieces since I was constantly going from ballet class to school,” Carbon38 cofounder Caroline Gogolak said, reminiscing about wrap sweaters and sweats pulled over leotards and tights. “I used to have this knee-length jersey swing skirt that I’d throw on over my three-quarter-sleeve leotard when shuttling between classes,” her business partner Katie Johnson added. “I felt very European, very Audrey Hepburn. I guess I’ve always been part of the athleisure trend!”
Carbon38’s Caroline Gogolak and Katie Johnson.
That early experience has translated easily into adulthood, with the site’s stylish workout pieces replacing ballet school basics. “Ten times out of 10 I find myself reaching for leggings over jeans. They’re sexier, more comfortable, and more flattering than denim,” Johnson said. When launching their site, the duo worked hard to figure out just who was shopping, and it turned out, she was a lot like them.
“When we started the business, we made a pact to get to know our first 1,000 customers personally,” she explained. That meant the women did everything, answering customer service calls, packing orders, and testing product. “The feedback loop was invaluable. The shopper wants performance and style. Every piece has to support her through a marathon and still look great with a blazer and heels.” There’s no way of knowing how many pieces are worn off the gym floor, but Johnson estimates 90 percent are worn beyond working out.
That figure might be higher than the airtime the majority of our workout duds get, but if things keep going the way they have been, it could become the norm before long.