Build Your Business:

Blurring the Lines

April 20, 2016

When it comes to apparel, consumers have long been experimenting with what they wear in their free time, in the office and for exercise. And thanks to fabric technology and some of the performance properties introduced in wearables, multiple clothing styles have become acceptable in different environments.

Specifically in the athletic realm, new trends — including the new industry buzzword, “athleisure” — are spiking in popularity across North America.

“A report just came out from Bloomberg that [says] in 2015, the athletic market grew by 17%,” says Elbowgrease Athletics founder Vince Winters. “The denim market shrunk by 5%. [This is] a clear indication, when you look at athletics, [that] it’s not just what we wear on the field when we play or when we train, but it’s by and large how people are looking at athletic product and how we incorporate it into our daily life.”

Plenty of customers still are sporting athletic garments to work out, perform and compete in, and that consists of the bulk of sales in the athletic wear category.

“This is definitely a fast-growing segment for our business, as we provide athletic wear to many specialty fitness stores and retailers, training and team dealers, as well as for major sporting events and races,” says Nino Phimphachanh, a designer for Expert Brand.

While there is a huge segment of athletic wear that still is chiefly used as apparel for sports or exercise, more people are wearing athletic garments for leisure or everyday activities that don’t involve sweat and physical exertion.

“The team gear, on-field athletics and the core training business — that’s maintaining its level,” Winters says. “But what’s happening is this whole athleisure lifestyle component that is starting to take over the market.”

The popularity of athletic wear as an option for casual apparel shouldn’t be totally surprising. People like being comfortable, and that attribute is prominent on the list of features for wearables like yoga pants, jogger bottoms, polyester tops and light poly jackets.

“Athleisure, I think, right now is really hot in retail,” says Elson Yeung, director, private label design and merchandising, alphabroder. “It hasn’t necessarily crossed over 100% to the marketplace that we address, but we’re starting to see glimpses of it.”

Wearing athleisure garments doesn’t necessarily have to convey that “fresh-from-the-gym” look — something more closely associated with basic athletic wear. Rather, the athleisure trend has infused comfortable, athletic-like garments with everyday styles.

“Athleisure — depending on what city you’re in — could go from more of a yoga outfit to a more fashion shirt or sweat shirt type of styling,” Yeung says. “It depends on which region you’re in. We’re seeing athleisure influences within our marketplaces on the designs that we create. Athleisure is a combination of comfort, as well as some type of athletic appeal, depending on the performance or stylingof the garment.”

The beauty of athleisure is that, in many instances, the garment can be used for multiple purposes. Apparel worn to play tennis or take a brisk walk can later be worn to the mall or a restaurant.

“With the advent of athleisure, customers are now more comfortable buying an athletic-inspired product that has multiple end uses,” Winters says. “Women in particular — they’re wearing these higher-end tights or athletic-inspired tops, not just to participate in yoga, cross-training or athletics, but to lunch with their friends or to class. By and large, we’re seeing this athleisure component become more acceptable as an everyday part of one’s attire.”

This versatility makes the garments even morevaluable to the customer, as they can use athleisure garments in several different settings, — something that’s not only socially acceptable, but also coveted.

While embellishing athletic garments is gaining popularity, a turn-off for many decorators is the price and power of the big three athletic apparel manufacturers that are well established at retail: adidas, Nike and Under Armour.

Yes, the average consumer who wants athletic style garments typically likes garments from one or all three of these suppliers, but there are ways for decorators to get around paying premium prices for a “swoosh.”

“On the printer, embroiderer and decorator side, when you find these companies who are providing these types of products, you can then introduce them to their customers who might not have that option if they went to retail and bought something,” Winters says. “The pricing [at retail] is ridiculous, but if you can find these companies, that’s where the growth is.”

As it happens, Elbowgrease designs and produces athletic garments for sale to decorators and retail establishments. But even Winters concedes that trends like the increased popularity of athleisure has helped his company remain viable — something that may not have been possible 20 or 30 years ago.

“If this [athleisure] trend wasn’t happening, and everybody was looking at core performance products, you wouldn’t need a company like mine,” he says. “Because I can do the novelty performance fabrics, and because I can create those that are exclusively proprietary to us, it’s helping us gain business.”

In the sea of athletic wear styles — tights, athletic shorts, hoodies and polyester shirts, to name a few — it’s quarter-zips that seem to have floated to the top most recently, says Yeung.

“[Quarter-zips] have made a comeback not only in the athletic apparel marketplace, but in the corporate marketplace as well,” he says.

Such a development is hardly surprising, as a poly-fleece quarter-zip’s versatility allows it to be worn during a round of golf, after a winter workout, in an office setting or in other ways.

“We are seeing different types of quarter-zips that can be used as base layers or mid-layers,” Yeung says. “Depending on what type of look, brand or style you’re going with, you’ll see a lot of quarter-zips, but applied in different ways.”

If past years’ markets are any indication, athleisure and other athletic wear trends will continue to become more mainstream.

“The trend that we’re seeing is going to keep growing,” Yeung says. “You look at any office — unless you’re in a law office or maybe an accounting office — [and] you’re not going to see everybody in a suit and tie. What we’re seeing [in these environments] are athletic wear, athleisure and even athletic garments that are a little more dressed up.”

In this category, Phimphachanh says, certain fabric and color trends are indications of how cyclical fashion can be.

“Soft fabrics and printed/bright colors for spring 2017 are also trends we are keeping in mind for next year’s collection,” he says. “It’s almost as if we are throwing it back to the ’80s.”