The New Definition of Athletic Apparel

Athletic Apparel Has Been Permanently Disrupted

Remember when athletic apparel was mostly made by footwear and sports equipment companies? It was budget-priced, logo-driven basic tees, sweats and shorts, sold primarily in sporting goods stores, for working out and active sports. It was the ugly step child to the primary businesses.

Market disruption started about 10 years ago when higher-value athletic apparel started to hit the market by fashion and price pioneers, Under Armour and Lululemon. They were innovators with more costly, functional fabrics, fashion-driven styling and unique branding; think of Under Armour’s powerful mannequins and Lululemon’s yoga cult brand experience.

Their flattering and comfortable styles, outperformed and outlasted their cheaper competitors. Customers found emotional value paying for creative, sexy and fashionable looks at a higher price and started wearing them in and out of the gym. They created “aspirational status” athletic brands.

The athleisure trend took off and has been the biggest trend in apparel for more than 5 years. Active and casual apparel blurred into a new category. The genie is out of the bottle and it is never going back.

Athleta pushes urban lifestyle products.
Athleta pushes urban lifestyle products.

Competition in Athletic Apparel Has Gotten Fierce

As athleisure has grown, the competition for market share has gotten fierce. Many non-athletic brands including Tory Burch (Torysport) and Free People (FP Movement) now offer their own active apparel. Footwear companies like Nike really upped their fashion game and companies are doing designer collaborations like Stella McCartney and Kayne West’s Yeezy for Adidas.

High-end, ecommerce specialists like Carbon 38, and Bandier (online and opening stores), have sprouted up, carrying ediger brands, like Michi and Heroine Sport. Designer ecommerce company Net-A-Porter started Net-A-Sporter.

Lululemon is seriously challenged lately by Gap’s Athleta. Athleta fully understands the blurring of the category with their combination of performance and sophisticated street wear looks (they used to only carry bright colors and the cliché “zen-like” NorCal prints). Lululemon has recently vowed to double-down on market-leading innovation and put a greater focus on performance athletes, in a recent article with Bloomberg.

Lululemon is pushing market-leading innovation.

Lululemon is pushing market-leading innovation.

Retailers like Target, Kohl’s and JC Penney greatly improved their active offerings. Macy’s, late to the athleisure party, now has a big selection in 700+ stores and online. Victoria’s Secret has an growing sports bra and athletic business. In fact, the sport bra  business has seriously dented fashion bras. Fast-fashion stores like Primark, have large active assortments at rock bottom prices.

Primark has rock-bottom prices, like $10 pants.

Primark has rock-bottom prices, like $10 pants.

Active Apparel Distribution Has Been Diluted

Distribution has been widely diluted across all retail channels. Sporting goods stores are no longer where most women buy their athletic apparel. Footwear and sports equipment companies have to sell direct to consumer and forge forward-thinking relationships beyond the sporting goods channel to regain market share.

It’s no wonder retailers like Sports Authority and defunct City Sports didn’t capitalize on this mega-trend. Sporting goods stores have to do more than display apparel in cavernous spaces and start competing head-on with real apparel merchants. They must be discerning, take brand risks and edit out the so-so.

Adidas at Urban Outfitters.

Adidas at Urban Outfitters.

2016’s Definition of Active Apparel

Athletic apparel is two-pronged. A smaller percentage is worn for true performance sports, but the lions’ share is used as casual, lifestyle clothing. Shorts designed for running, are a teenager’s summer staple. Sports bras are worn all day. Leggings and sweats are paired with Uggs for school. Hoodies are everywhere.

Design teams must understand the bulk of their products will never be worn for active sports. Personally, I own at least a dozen Lululemon tops and have never even tried yoga. Active designers simply can’t assign cursory importance to the “lifestyle” part of their business.

The definition of athletic apparel in 2016 is predominantly knit-driven, fitness inspired, comfortable casual apparel that is made of functional and innovative fabrics that can be worn for range of casual uses, including sports activities.

Fierce competition in the women’s and men’s apparel and accessories markets requires real innovation in styling and function. I’m not just talking “anti-stink” here, but unique and compelling designs as trend relevant as the underlying brand. The emotional connection to an active lifestyle is more important than the intended use of the clothes.

The world doesn’t need another ordinary half-zip. If the label was removed would anyone recognize your brand? What’s compelling about your products? The innovative brands will have pricing power, the copy-cats will experience significant mark downs and price deflation.

 

The Dix & Pond Blog is the blog of  Dix & Pond Consulting,  a Boston-based, company that consults on trend and creative direction, brand experience and business strategy, product development, merchandising and provides executive coaching for retail, apparel, footwear & consumer products companies.  CONTACT US TODAY!  or call 617.733.7411

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