Activewear brands are going high-end to stand out in an oversaturated market.
The athleisure frenzy has been a boon to the apparel industry, but recent data suggest that an oversaturated market is causing the industry to lose its sheen. Now, brands are taking notes from the runway to keep their activewear strategy fresh and inspiring.
The athleisure revolution changed the face of everyday apparel from jeans to stretch leggings and yoga pants. Activewear sales increased by 16% in 2015, far outpacing the overall apparel market, which rose 2% in the same time, according to the NPD Group.
Now, however, athleisure fever may be wearing off. Several athletic brands including Sports Authority have filed for bankruptcy in 2016, while share prices for even industry heavyweights like Under Armour and Lululemon have slumped. This week, Bloomberg reported that unit growth sales remained nearly unchanged for the first quarter of 2016, following declining growth through 2015 from a high of nearly 70%.
Athleisure’s popularity may be key to its downfall. Following the meteoric success of brands like Lululemon, a staggering number of stores and celebrities, from H&M to Beyoncé, entered the market. Brands are now struggling to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, even as low-cost retailers like Walmart and Target entered the market and drive down prices.
To sustain growth, athletic brands looking for a fresh angle are tapping talent straight from the runway. This week, Under Armour hired designer Tim Coppens to bring a high-end twist to Under Armour Sportswear, its new brand for men and women.
Other brands are hoping to draw new audiences through the intersection of fashion and celebrity. NikeLab has a collaboration with Balmain creative director and Instagram heavyweight Olivier Rousteing in the works, while Rihanna’s fall 2016 line for Puma (her first as creative director) generated significant buzz (read: sold out instantly).
Fashion-forward athleisure not only gives brands a unique look, it also taps into a need among consumers. “We believe we have overemphasized the performance aspect of what our customers want in terms of athletic and inspired apparel,” explained Foot Locker CEO Richard Johnson in a 2015 earnings call. “It’s a given that she expects the product to have performance functionality, but the [athleisure] customer really wants apparel that also has a sharp fashion edge.”
Some fashion brands are making their own forays into the space for the first time. Cushnie et Ochs debuted a 10-piece collection with activewear retailer Bandier in late May. The line echoes the duo’s signature aesthetic while making use of cutting-edge technologies like eight-way stretch fabrics and laser cuttings and retails for $144 and up. Similarly, Tory Burch announced a standalone line Tory Sport in October.
What these designers have in common is a desire to create a high-fashion look that goes beyond athleisure—one that’s equally on point at yoga, the airport, or out to dinner. “The realization that prompted this collaboration is that both Bandier and Cushnie et Ochs are dressing the same woman—a woman who now demands much more from her wardrobe,” Jennifer Bandier, founder of Bandier, told the Observer.
Other creative strategies athleisure brands are experimenting with include ties to art or underground culture—think Reebok’s capsule collection with graffiti artist Upendo Taylor. Some brands are offering heightened customization, including luxury activewear designer Alala’s $185 leggings with customizable colors and monogram.
Either way, it’s not enough to make decent yoga pants anymore. Athleisure retailers will need to stay creative to maintain their edge.