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Why Athleisure Is the Best Trend (with the Worst Name)

What is “athleisure”, and what will be left behind after the trend dies off?

Outdoor Voices

“I very much hate the term ‘athleisure’,” said Tyler Haney, founder of Outdoor Voices, an activewear clothing brand that describes its audience as people who are athletic, but who don’t feel the need to dress head to toe in Nike performance gear. “Our clothes are meant to be sweat into. We aren’t a ‘to and from’ kind of brand.”

The “to and from” idea Haney speaks of is one of the roots of athleisure, a trend that represents clothes with style, but that can be worn to and from the gym as easily as to and from the office. Living in the vast space in the middle of your closet — between tailored work outfits, stiff denim and formal evening wear at one end, and loose cotton shirts, nylon shorts and thick sweatpants at the other — athleisure is the unlikely, and extremely popular, marriage of two opposites.

The bubble of style brands producing athletic-minded clothing may be on the verge of bursting. A wide range of brands are attempting to figure out what happens next.

It’s also a term all at once embraced and denied by the fashion industry, depending on whom you ask. This is because, after strolling down the runway at fashion shows in 2014 and early 2015, it seems that the bubble of style brands producing athletic-minded clothing may be on the verge of bursting. A wide range of brands are attempting to figure out what happens next.

Athleisure reached its breathable climax in 2014 with Alexander Wang’s collaboration with H&M. But at its core, the trend has sturdy origins that have been around much longer and that grow from the current renaissance of health. Increasingly today, twenty- and thirtysomethings, armed with more information about sustainability and personal health, and a surge of yoga classes, juice cleanses and hashtagging of dad bods, have both a desire to be healthy and, sometimes even more so, to look healthy.

For the year ending in October of 2014, the market-research company NDP Group reported that active-wear grew eight percent over the previous year, while the sale of tailored pants and jeans dropped. In response, big retailers, for whom denim is the bread and butter, have adjusted by carrying smaller brands that specialize in stylized activewear.


“Remarkably, the amount of high-quality and well-designed activewear that exists in the market today is crazy small,” said Andrew Parietti, president of Outdoor Voices, whose activewear line was the first to be exclusively carried by J.Crew. “Brands like Nike, Under Armour and Lululemon are huge — but if you actually drill down and look at how big their activewear footprint is, it’s pretty small. For instance — 80 percent of Nike is footwear alone.” Haney and Parietti like to say that while Nike sponsors professionals, Outdoor Voices sponsors recreationals — a mindset spurred by the active Colorado childhood of its founder.

But the duo at the top of Outdoor Voices say the athleisure bubble is on its way to bursting. By nature of being named and strutted down a runway, the term is doomed to be a fad with an expiration date. Brands focused heavily on fashion, like Alexander Wang and rag & bone (who showcased a new line at New York Fashion Week with the help of a team of parkour free-runners) will move on to the next hot trend when it jumps from the subcultures to the mainstream. For this reason, retailers who are in the activewear space for the long haul are shying away from being associated with the word itself.

“Athleisure is going in a couple of different directions — we see a trend towards fashionable clothing that has functional qualities and athletic-focused clothing from luxury brands,” said JJ Wilson, the son of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson and cofounder of Kit and Ace, which produces a line of performance cashmere, in an email. “What we’re doing is totally different — we’re focused on Technical Luxury™, rooted in West Coast style and functionality.”

Trends fade in and fade out, but the idea of young professionals wearing comfortable, activewear materials as base layers under more work-appropriate clothing — or in the case of Kit and Ace, luxury fabrics becoming longer lasting, more functional and, at the end of the day, machine washable — is here to stay. When and if the power of “athleisure” wanes, a strong group of new activewear companies will likely be left in its place. The white Reeboks and joggers of the ’90s are back, but with enough style to have staying power in the American closet, where brands like Rapha, ISAORA and Outdoor Voices will continue to roam, comfortably.

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