Active apparel has experienced significant growth over the past five years. According to Forbes magazine estimates, the global sports apparel market was worth $135 billion in 2012. It is no secret that Lululemon and Under Armour became the defacto leaders of the sports apparel industry in terms of fashion and overall growth rates. Nike, the largest player in sports apparel, upped their game significantly and their share of the overall activewear market increased from 3.9% in 2007 to 4.9% in 2012, according to Forbes.
The sports apparel market was once controlled by male-dominated footwear companies that dished out low quality, masculine basics emblazoned with their logos. Apparel was a “foot note” in their bureaucratic shoe cultures, driven by industrial designers, on a rigid shoe production schedule with little understanding of fashion. This has been true of other shoe companies that extend into apparel as well. Apparel companies operate and think in a very different way. They tend to be more agile, trend driven, work closer to need and repeat very little season to season.
Under Armour was born from an apparel mentality. With its higher prices and slick styling, they quickly became the company to beat in men’s sports apparel. They added sex appeal and attainable luxury in a sea of dumpy poly/cotton logo tees. Lululemon came along and blew away every preconceived notion about the category. They proved consumers are willing to pay a premium for innovative feminine styling, flattering fits and exciting fashion color. They almost never discount and have trained their customers to buy now, with a limited inventory on new styles. I see a huge future for this company. Women are introducing Lulu to their men and are a fixture in the dressing area with their female counterparts. They are currently constrained by their store count. I could see men’s growing significantly and a huge opportunity, if they did Lulu kids. Companies like Athleta and Title Nine aren’t real competition for Lululemon. They are riding the sports apparel wave, but their basic styling and “Zen-like” prints are more masculine, formulaic and old-school.
Lululemon and Under Armour brought fashion to a dead zone. The genie is out of the bottle and it is never going back. These companies offer “aspirational luxury” and consumers love wearing these comfy duds on the street, whether they participate in sports or not. Nike was smart to apply the same winning principles to their apparel without knocking off them off. These leaders are in constant forward motion. The future isn’t about commodity black yoga pants.
Brands create value with a unique vision that is consistent across their product lines and find the audience to whom it resonates. The challenge for footwear companies in apparel is their industrial design driven culture. Most athletic footwear companies apparel offerings aren’t consistent with their shoe brands. They tend to be less hip and very sports marketing driven. Women don’t care about athlete endorsements and they buy a lot more clothes than men. The market is wide open for another sports apparel brand with original ideas to grab market share.