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Athleisure: Channeling Fashion & Comfort

Athleisure continues to pull double duty, providing multifunctional uses for different lifestyles.

By Dustin Shrader, Managing Editor

Champion’s Reverse Weave scrunch dye adds flair to this classic fleece hoodie. Photo provided by HanesBrands.

March 18, 2021

Athleisure is the transitional fusion of athletic wear and casual clothing. Although this popular apparel category has been on the rise, it has become even more prevalent during the past year.

Comfortable and stylish, loungewear has finally reached its apex with professionals trading in suits and skirts for sweats, allowing wearers to don the same versatile wardrobe pieces while running to the grocery store, hitting the gym, picking up the kids and racing back home to catch that afternoon Zoom work meeting.

Translation: Athleisure isn’t just trending in the apparel industry, it’s thriving.

Driving Popularity
Comfort has reached new heights and taken on an unpredictable meaning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While this characteristic already was in high demand pre-coronavirus, it finally has claimed its crown due to work-from-home, remote-learning and quarantine mandates, when necessary.

“A leading driver to athleisure’s popularity is, unfortunately, COVID,” says Michael Johnson, HanesBrands’ director of marketing. “Many of us are still working from home, and we want to be comfortable. We want to wear one outfit throughout the day — [whether it’s while] sitting in front of the computer, walking the dog, going to get a cup of coffee. Apparel needs to be comfortable, stylish and versatile — the very definition of athleisure.”

According to Elicia Dorn, Augusta Sportswear’s director of product development, the pandemic has certainly redefined the category during the past year, with all signs pointing to even more of a redefinition of what athleisure means in 2021 and beyond, and the foundation of “comfort in movement” remaining constant.

“The pandemic has only increased athleisure’s popularity; comfortable apparel is essential to everyday life,” says Dorn.

Courtney Karam, manager at AWDis, agrees. She says most people are more active in the comfort of their own homes, highlighting how the company’s Just Cool line provides the stretch (100% polyester neoteric fabric) people are looking for during these stressful, unprecedented times.

Although the pandemic eventually will come to an end, it remains to be seen what everlasting effect it will have on the decorated-apparel industry. “It will be fascinating over the next few years to see if COVID further deepens the athleisure imprint on us, or if we see a backlash post-COVID to a period of much more stylized apparel,” Johnson says.

Comfort, style and versatility all have driven athleisure for more than a decade. Now, however, it’s also about where and how garments are made. With climate change escalating, eco-responsibility is a key factor.

“Alternative Apparel has coined the term ‘Earthleisure’ as people now consider the impact their apparel has on the environment, whether it’s the chemicals used, fair labor or water usage,” Johnson says.

Looking good isn’t the only thing that matters anymore when it comes to clothing purchases. Buying at retail also is about feeling good knowing your purchases will have a limited impact on the environment.

“Alternative Apparel has always been an eco-focused brand known for its luxuriously soft fabrics and strong sustainability platform,” Johnson says. “Alternative, for example, said goodbye to virgin polyester last year, making the move to use only recycled polyester across its product line. The brand’s new Eco Cozy fleece collection is the first collection made with all recycled polyester.”

Love for Leggings
Consumers are searching for “all-day” active apparel that is multifunctional, with leggings topping the list.

“Leggings are a wardrobe staple,” Dorn says. “Matching top/bottom warmup sets will remain popular, but will move to more of a tonal look from top to bottom.”

Leggings create great opportunities for layering and are the perfect backdrop to dress up or down, Johnson explains. “Make sure you are offering fleece bottoms, as we’ll see matching fleece outfits on trend with women this year,” he says. “Overall, fleece pants have seen a renaissance both with men and women, and we expect that to continue.”

Another notable trend is yoga pants being rebranded as “flared leggings,” an alternative for wearers who are averse to skin-tight clothing. Also, look out for the increasingly popular “butt-scrunch” design being praised on the social-media app TikTok as a Kardashian-style enhancement. Many brands now offer both of these styles in various options to accommodate any wearer’s taste.

Fashion in the Details
Unique colors and sleek fabrications are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to athleisure versatility. Men and women anticipate performance features to fit individual needs.

For example, women tend to favor more fashion details infused into silhouettes, colors and fabrics. New cropped tops for women are an anticipated commodity this summer. Men, however, focus more on comfort and multi-use — although men’s athleisure is stepping up its game with features such as such as narrow, banded legs in fleece bottoms.

“Lightweight hoodies, joggers and stretch woven shorts will continue to be popular staples for men,” Dorn says. “In addition to polyester/cotton-blended fabrics, we are also seeing a push for using 100% polyester fabrics that use a spun poly-yarn construction that gives the fabric a cotton-like hand but keeps the performance attributes.”

Odor control, wicking and sun protection are benefits consumers look for in athleisure apparel that is ideal for transitioning between work, rest and play. But there still are people who participate in higher-impact activities who need apparel to be designed specifically for performance, according to Johnson.

While cotton/polyester blends are the king of comfort, spandex and modal are fabrics to watch this year and beyond.

“Modal is a fabric to watch, as it has an incredibly soft hand and is eco-friendly,” Johnson says. “Hanes’ Modal tri-blend crew, for example, features Lenzing Modal tri-blend fabric, which is made with sustainably resourced material, is CO2 neutral and requires less energy to produce than other leading fibers in the apparel industry.”

When it comes to fashion details, garment-dye and tie-dye styles will still reign supreme. There also will be a vast amount of interest in earth tones and natural colors this season.

“We’re seeing that younger consumers tend to have a perception that earth tones and natural colors have a higher value — that they look elevated,” Johnson says. “We’ll see more muted earth tones continue to shine in this channel.”