Activewear makes it onto the runwaySusan Scafidi in crain's new york business.com, July 10, 2011
By Adrianne Pasquarelli
High-end designers are getting into activewear. Upscale brands, from edgy names like Alexander Wang to classics such as Diane von Furstenberg, are incorporating activewear elements—hoodies or visible zippers—into their collections.
“We do see sporting apparel moving out of the sportswear context and into fashionable street wear,” said Jennifer Farley, who co-curated an exhibit currently showing through November at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology that illustrates the relationship between fashion and sports clothing.
Mass-market retailers are also ramping up their sportswear businesses. Gap Inc.'s Athleta division is expanding, as is Canadian yoga outfitter Lululemon Athletica. Target and American Eagle have increased their private-label activewear lines in recent years.
The exercise movement and the need to stretch apparel dollars have contributed to growth. Total U.S. sales of men's and women's activewear rose by 3.2% in the 12 months ending in March compared with the previous period, to $48.6 billion, according to consumer tracking firm NPD Group Inc.
Many shoppers appreciate the clothing's versatility. What works at the gym or yoga studio now works in many casual office or entertainment settings, especially as items become more stylish. For example, leggings, which are worn under dresses and tops, began as a dance-class uniform.
“Multiperformance clothing that can be your pajamas, your workout wear and your street wear is very economical,” said Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.
Designer Catherine Malandrino collaborated with Lacoste on a spring collection. Stella McCartney, another prestigious name, has a contract with Adidas and is also creating the 2012 Olympic uniforms for Great Britain.
Meanwhile, Ms. von Furstenberg, forever identified with her feminine wrap dresses, recently put several hooded gowns on the runway.
While designers such as Mr. Wang and those at Rag & Bone are inserting drawstrings, pulleys and zippers into their looks, others are using bright color-blocking inspired by safety vests and hunting jackets. The clothes aren't cheap, either. Ms. von Furstenberg's hoodie gowns sell for about $550, and Mr. Wang's sweatpants carry a $160 price tag.
Activewear retailers are bulking up, too. Lululemon now has four New York stores, while sporting-goods giant REI, which sells performance apparel, will open its first Manhattan location—a 39,000-square-foot shop—in SoHo this fall.
Athleta, a women's apparel brand that Gap bought in 2008 for $150 million, plans to enter New York this summer with a store on the Upper West Side and one on the Upper East Side.
“Historically, what had been available to women were items based on a men's item that were just made smaller and turned a flattering color like pink,” said Scott Key, senior vice president and general manager of Athleta. “Women athletes expected more.”
Athleta expects to have more than 50 U.S. stores by 2014. The division's growth is welcome news for Gap. The $14.7 billion chain posted a 23% decline in first-quarter net income from the year-earlier period, to $233 million, and recently cut its full-year profit forecast by 22%.
“New Yorkers have been asking us for a store for a long time,” Mr. Key said.