Athleisure on the way out?

Lorna-JaneConsumers hungry for premium label brands have driven growth for specialised activewear retailers, but the trend may be on the way out.

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As health and fitness continue to play an important role in the lives of modern consumers, demand for athletic clothing that blurs the lines between gym and casual wear has opened up the apparel market. Brands able to tie their products to the broader cultural shift towards health consciousness have exhibited rapid sales growth.          

The athleisure trend is exactly what it sounds like – athletic apparel that works in leisurely environments. Whether it’s Puma leggings in cafes or Adidas sneakers in shopping centres, sporting apparel brands are receiving the message loud and clear: functional, yet fashionable.

Few understand that better than Julie Stevanja, who founded online athleisure retailer, Stylerunner, three years ago with a vision to make a mark on the apparel market by selling products as hallmarks of healthy living.

“It’s a new status symbol to look after yourself instead of choosing what may be seen as a bit more of a lazy option,” Stevanja told Inside Retail Weekly in May.                    

Stylerunner has become known as an industry disruptor for its ability to capture and hold the attention of the elusive 15-34 demographic, who Stevanja says have proven receptive to lifestyle-focused marketing on social media platforms such as Instagram.        

“Customers these days also want to see how they can wear the product … it sets the mood when you see it styled in a particular way; you see yourself walking down the street in it,” she said.

Stylerunner-screenshotStylerunner is a growing part of the $81.4 million online sporting apparel industry, which has grown at an annualised rate of 20 per cent since 2011, according to IBISWorld data. Bricks and mortar fitness and sporting apparel retailers are also performing well, growing at an annualised rate of 7.6 per cent since 2012.

Discount department stores have responded to the athleisure trend by investing in private label athleisure ranges, targeting price conscious consumers with affordable active wear. But according to senior IBIS industry analyst Brian Lowe, it’s premium brands that health-conscious shoppers are looking for.

“Revenue growth has largely been supported by rising demand for premium, high quality sportswear,” Lowe told Inside Retail Weekly. “Given their rising degree of use outside of the gym and other sporting-related purposes, durability has become a key criterion for consumers when purchasing their athleisure wear. As a result, this trend has further boost demand for premium sportswear as it is perceived to be more durable than private label alternatives.”

Lowe says that the market share of retailers offering premium label activewear products is on the rise, particularly those that market primarily to women, such as Lorna Jane and Canadian-owned Lululemon Athletica. Both retailers have experienced consecutive double-digit growth over the last five years, outperforming the wider industry according to IBISWorld.

Yoga apparel, compression wear and high quality athletic shoes have proven particularly popular with the female demographic, who Jodie Gear, lululemon’s GM of merchandising in Asia Pacific, says are responding well to community centric retailing.

“Our stores transform the traditional retail experience, acting as a hub of events, resources and space to connect and elevate the local community,” Gear told Inside Retail Weekly.

“We use our stores to provide the gift of yoga and other sweaty pursuits to the local community. The store teams push the furniture aside, unroll yoga mats and turn their spaces into instant yoga studios,” she said.

Athleisure waning?

While sporting apparel retailers have been growing at an extraordinary pace over the last five years, the athleisure trend is about to fizzle out.

That’s the view of US-based retail analyst and CEO of WorldWide Enterprises, Jan Roger Kniffen, who recently wrote in a column for the Robin Report that suggested athleisure was no longer the category of choice for the “cool girl”, and that trendy consumers are instead turning back to denim.

“The shift toward women wearing athletic gear as everyday wear has been a 10-year fad/trend. Very few fashion trends last more than 10 years, and this one is finally fading,” Kniffen told Inside Retail Weekly.

According to Kniffen the cultural trendiness associated with athleisure, which has been built up by celebrity endorsed products and social media campaigns, is beginning to fall on deaf ears with female consumers. However, while he thinks that brands such as lululemon will suffer, he doesn’t believe that Nike or Under Armour have much to worry about.

“I do not think that this is much of a headwind for Nike or for Under Armour. Both of those brands are ‘guy’s’ brands primarily, and the rolling over of athleisure is a ‘girl’ event.

“Everything gets to be overdone, and then it gets to be a joke, and then it dies. Celebrities will walk away. We will go back to women wearing workout gear when they work out,” Kniffen said.

Amid discussion about the possible end of athleisure, industry leaders Nike and Under Armour are focusing more heavily on the technical side of the activewear trend, leading industry stakeholders including Lululemon founder Chip Wilson to signal a shift towards “streenic”.

Streetnic has been hailed as an evolution on the athleisure trend that still encompasses fitness, but focuses on added functionality such as climate-controlling clothes and lightweight sweat absorbing fabrics.

LululemonLululemon is already making moves in the area, investing in new fabrics designed to provide consumers with clothing that can do more than act as an article of fashion. Their latest is a fabric designated for mid-September release called Nulux, which has been designed with sweat wicking and quick drying in mind.

“While yoga is our original inspiration, we continue to evolve and innovate, much like our guests, who we know engage in a variety of sweaty pursuits … this tight is specifically designed for high intensity workouts, like spin or circuit,” Gear said.

Australia shares close cultural ties with the US, but despite warnings that athleisure may be on the way out; Lowe believes that Aussie consumers will stick with fitness-centric apparel in the near future.

“As fitness apparel becomes more acceptable as street wear, consumer demand for fashionable yet functional active wear will continue to grow rapidly,” Lowe said.

IBISWorld has predicted that revenue generated by fitness and athletic clothing retailers in Australia will grow by an annualised 2.9 per cent over the next five years.

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