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Going the Distance

A category that’s here to stay, versatile performancewear meshes with athleisure for trendy looks and comfort as the world works from home.

By Hilary Daninhirsch, Contributing Writer

Certain technical fabric enhancements have become popular in many garments, including odor control, moisture wicking and UV sun protection.

November 12, 2020

Once upon a time, performancewear was limited to the gym or other athletic activities. Today, however, comfort reigns supreme. The boundaries between athleisure apparel and performancewear are becoming hazier by the day, with the former increasingly impacting the latter.

This fall, expect the performancewear segment to evolve even more, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect both work and workout habits.

Athleisure vs. Performancewear
Though the terms “athleisure” and “performancewear” often are used interchangeably, there is a difference, says Greg Vanover, vice president of sales for A4.

“Athleisure refers to the type of athletically styled clothing that the general public might wear in a casual environment,” he says. “Performancewear refers to clothing, other than the uniform, an athlete wears during the game, event or practice that helps enhance their performance.” He adds that manufacturers must emphasize function for the athlete in performancewear, but can trade some of those functional elements for comfort in casual athleisure.

“For some, the current pandemic is further condensing this merge between performance and athleisure even more,” says Michael Johnson, director of marketing, Hanes Activewear. “For those working at home, instead of switching into your workout apparel at the end of the workday, they may, instead, start their day wearing their workout gear.”

Sion Shaman, president of Expert Brand, thinks there are some overlaps with these categories, but they are, nonetheless, distinct. “Performancewear primarily deals with hard-core workout and exercise that requires performance attributes, while athleisure is more relaxed and lighter,” he says.

Kelly Thompson, senior director of merchandising at Augusta Sports Brands, agrees that there is a difference, saying athleisure is “hangout wear” inspired by workout clothing, while performancewear denotes apparel that is meant for a workout and should deliver benefits that the athlete uses to perform better.

Versatility is the magic glue that seals the blend between those two categories. “Key trends for performancewear and athleisure are mostly aligned, which makes it easier for suppliers to stay up to date,” Johnson says.

“I definitely think the lines have blurred even more as of recently,” adds Katie Zimmerman, design director at Russell Athletics. “Not everyone wears performancewear only. Athleisure, on the other hand, is widely worn and accepted by everyone.”

The COVID Impact
Vanover says there has been a temporary decline in performancewear sales across the board, with fewer people going to the gym or playing sports, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as students begin a cautious return to school, sales are expected to increase.
He adds that another challenge posed by the pandemic is a disruption in global supply chains, combined with preexisting tariffs. “If [the supply chain] continues [to be affected], we may see availability of certain goods become more scarce,” he says.

Conversely, Thompson doesn’t think the pandemic will slow performancewear sales because people will be looking for comfort at home, as they likely won’t be returning to the office or gyms in the immediate future. Shaman agrees, saying the category will grow due to both social changes and the attractiveness of the technologies in the product lines.

Zimmerman says the market actually may become oversaturated, with fabric, fit and function as important differentiators.

Demographics as Influencing Trends
There’s no question that performancewear is favored across various demographic categories. However, Vanover says demographics play a small role in shaping trends. Rather, how the garment is used influences trends.

“The amount of fashion or design is greatly dependent on the sport,” he says. “So, sports like golf, tennis, soccer and cycling are examples where there is a great deal more emphasis on design. The overall trend is an increase in design or looks of a garment without sacrificing anything on the performance side, but some sports are farther down that path.”

Still, points out Johnson, there are a few gender differences; men prefer a looser fit in garments, and women wear a mix of loose and fitted. “For example, [women] may wear leggings with loose layers on top,” he says.

Zimmerman says women are gravitating toward matching pieces, while men tend to dress using more basics. Another gender difference is that women prefer fashion over comfort, while men tend to prefer the latter.

As far as age is concerned, Zimmerman says performance apparel is the younger generation’s “go-to” style, as they have grown up with it as a wardrobe mainstay.

Textures, Fabrics & Colors
Emily Quilter, director of design with Augusta Sports Brands, says texture is key in performancewear, including mesh paneling and embossing; double-sided fabric constructions; quilting; and cozy, brushed finishes.

Vanover, however, thinks texture in performancewear is not as important as the perception of performance. In other words: “A garment must feel like it can perform,” he says. “That means there must be enough weight to it, and [it must be] soft enough that it feels comfortable while also being durable enough to last. This can often be accomplished in the knitting process or by blending fabrics.”

Zimmerman says the current dominant trend is sleeker and more modern fabrics vs. textured fabrics, though texture has a place when layering, such as mixing sleek, spandex performance pieces with fleece pieces and nylon.

Certain technical fabric enhancements have become popular — if not standard — in many garments, including odor control, moisture wicking and UV sun protection, which keep the wearer cool and protected. Shaman and Zimmerman say antibacterial/antiviral attributes also will gain traction.

“Cooling and warming will continue to grow, as well as muscle recovery and wicking properties,” Zimmerman says.

Look for the blend trend this year in fabrics as well, such as cotton with polyester and even spandex to provide support, along with Sorona and Tencel. Polyester alone is in demand, too.

“For hardcore athletes, even a love for the softest of fabrics won’t convince you to abandon a high-performance poly for its wicking,” Johnson says. “But for many, blends provide sufficient wicking, or the softness of 100% cotton makes up in comfort for what it lacks in dryness.”

Consumers are more aware of and interested in natural fibers. “More and more cotton, bamboo and rayon blends are showing up in this category as a way to bridge the gap between true performancewear and athleisure,” Zimmerman says.

Sustainability also is important in fabric, agree Johnson, Thompson and Shaman, so look for substrates made with recycled or sustainable materials and products that are made responsibly. For example, Expert Brand has introduced hemp to its apparel line, while Hanes has a line made in part from recycled plastic bottles or recycled cotton.

“Apparel produced with transparent supply chains and made with recycled materials tend to stand out in this market,” Johnson says.

Black and white are classic colors in performancewear and will stick around for the foreseeable future, as will neutrals and earth tones, but there still is a place for brighter colors in this category.

For example, Vanover reports that light pastels are climbing in popularity, particularly A4’s pastel mint, light yellow and pale blue. Quilter adds that while the broader color story is partially inspired by nature, such as forest greens and berries, they are balanced by digitally inspired brights. For the most part, though, soothing and versatile neutrals are key for athleisure-inspired styles.

“Calming grays, ocean blues, stony whites and soft blacks create the base,” she says.

Looking Ahead
The intended functions of performancewear — enhancing athletic performance and moisture management — will never go out of style, and companies will continue to make that a focus.

“The most important element of performancewear is the ability to regulate the body’s natural heating and cooling process,” Vanover says. “Garments will continue to improve on that ability in lightweight, comfortable fabrics.

“Versatility is key for the future,” Quilter says. “We expect to see more modular designs — reversible, multifunction styles, with elevated, minimalistic design and performance fabrics. Thermoregulation and protective performance features, such as UPF protection and antimicrobial treatments, will be increasingly important.”

It may have started in the workplace with casual Fridays, but with more people working from home for the foreseeable future, every day may end up bein a casual-inspired workday.

“We have seen the importance of the ‘commuter lifestyle’ on the rise for some time, but we really expect this to surge post pandemic,” Zimmerman predicts.

Hilary Daninhirsch is an award-winning freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Her work has been featured in a number of lifestyle and trade magazines. She can be reached at or

Leggings: Here to Stay

Perhaps one of the most versatile apparel items for women, leggings have become a staple wardrobe item and are here to stay. Because of their comfort level and versatility, Shaman says, they partially have replaced denim; many women own both basic and more fashionable leggings.

Thompson says leggings designs continue to evolve. “Women look for other design attributes like mesh cutouts, stitching and prints to elevate leggings beyond a basic black [option].”

Zimmerman expects leggings to still be important in the future, but not growing at the curremt rate, as women are trading leggings for bike shorts and fleece bottoms.

“Women will continue to choose leggings, but now there is more competition for outfit pairings in the women’s market,” she says.