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Staying Ahead of the Game

Fashion, function and sustainability are key components of athleticwear for 2023

By Hilary Daninhirsch, Contributing Writer


Women’s leggings have become wider with higher waistbands. Photo courtesy of Hanes

March 16, 2023

Today’s athletic teamwear is a fusion of fashion and function. Comfort reigned supreme at the height of the pandemic, and there are carryovers from that lifestyle for today’s brands. People are, of course, also demanding performance out of their athleticwear, especially when it comes to outfitting sports teams.

Industry experts agree several concepts will continue to shape 2023’s athleticwear trends: versatility, sustainability and comfort, along with fashion, sublimation and customization. Feeling good and looking good will go hand-in-hand.

Sustainability

The idea of sustainability may have started as a “trend of the month” but has since transitioned into a concept valued by both consumers and brands. Customers are demanding sustainable products in many clothing categories, and athleticwear is no exception.

Hanes Champion Athleisure

Champion’s Cropped Tank is ideal for DTF printing. Photo courtesy of Hanes

Importantly, this call for sustainability goes beyond just the product level. “[Customers] want to know that suppliers are committed to responsible, transparent manufacturing, from sourcing to delivery,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager for HanesBrands Printwear. “A printer tells a shirt’s story with embellishment. But it’s also important that printers know the story behind the shirt.”

Augusta Sportswear is also noticing a continued consumer shift to sustainable products. To illustrate, the company produces a collection called Eco Revive with at least 50 percent recycled content in each item.

Similarly, Grace Owen, brand manager with TriDri, has noticed this trend in Europe, as well as in the United States, with brand transparency being especially important. “It is not enough anymore to use the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycled.’ Customers want proof, with certifications to back up the buzzwords,” Owen explains.

That said, while Roget Chavez, vice-president of Domestic Manufacturing and Embellishment with Game Sportswear, says he has noticed an increased demand for sustainability and recycled apparel, his opinion is that it is still not a major driving force in decisions for most team wear, nor does he see this changing in the near future.

Materials: Comfort and Eco-Friendly

Comfort is key in many clothing categories, but with athleticwear making sure a garment is suitable for dealing with perspiration is equally important. That is why synthetic fabrics, including poly blends, continue to be popular, because of their stretch and wicking properties. Recycled polyester and organic cottons are becoming more popular as well, as they provide this kind of performance while also satisfying the increasingly important eco-conscious consumer demographic. Along these same lines, chemical-free cooling and UPF ratings remain critical in consumers’ minds.

Although fashion is becoming more important in team wear, function and performance should never be discounted, says Russ Neale, senior vice-president of marketing, Founder Sport Group. “Whether it’s a wicking-antimicrobial jersey that keeps the player dry or a dura-light micro-mesh that helps keeps the player cool, a great uniform helps athletes perform at their peak,” Neale says.

Chavez agrees. “Lightweight, wicking and high-performance micro-mesh fabrics give the athlete tangible benefits on the field or the court. High-tech fabrics are often introduced in professional or college sports and then make their way to other levels of play. ” By way of example, Chavez says four-way stretch fabrics are especially popular at the moment, as they serve to blend function and style.

Style: Fashion-Forward

The Ventura Soft Knit Hoodie from Holloway features moisture wicking and side vents for cooling. Photo courtesy of Augusta Sportswear

Fashion, of course, also plays a major role in team sports, with amateur teams aligning their choices with those of professional teams. However, it’s important to keep in that that the degree to which fashion influences athletic wear depends on the sport. Some sports, like football, for example, tend to stick with a more traditional look, with pro soccer, perhaps, going a little bolder.

In addition, trends are often shaped by different geographic regions, with more “fashion-forward” looks often getting their start on the coasts and then working their way to the interior, Neale says.

Interestingly, as the world becomes ever more connected, Chavez says the industry overall is starting to see an increasing emphasis on form over function, so to speak. “The social media world seems to be driving a new type of team fashion not seen since the ’80s. Right now, a lot of vector patterns are driving the style but with the incorporation of high visibility colors with reflective accents,” he says.

“Nowadays, with the advancement of technology and cost, there is a drive for amateur teams, down to school sports, to try to emulate the same fashion high-end look of professional athletes,” Chavez adds.

Owne agrees, saying that “with professionals and sports celebrities more in the spotlight than ever due to social media this is set to only increase.”

Unsurprisingly, the demographic driving these trends are younger people, particularly teens and Gen Z. More specifically, “Female millennials want more trend-led sportswear, while Gen-Z is making ’90s styles ‘retro.’ Think quarter zips, track suits and vintage looking hoodies,” Owen says.

If the Uniform Fits

As a general rule, the fit depends on the sport. Still, Neale, says that uniforms overall are trending toward sleeker and more form-fitting. Examples, include tighter, “no-grab” fits in football, tight-fit jerseys in basketball and a tapered-fit pant in baseball.

Basketball Uniform

The Sneakheadz custom sublimation collection brings attitude to the court. Photo courtesy of Founder Sport Group

At the same time, David Goerke, vice-president of marketing and product development with Augusta Sportswear, says he is seeing the opposite shift in fits for younger, more fashion-conscious customers toward a looser, more relaxed profile. “While comfort is a key factor, this looser fit trend also allows for more unisex sizing, addressing gender-size inclusivity, which is also a key concern of many customers,” Goerke says.

As for silhouettes, Neale says shorts are getting shorter for both men and women. “Where 7-inch inseams were common a few years ago and there was good demand for 11-inch, we’re seeing athletes looking for 5-inch and shorter in-seams,” he says.

For women, specifically, look for cropped tanks, such as the new Champion Women’s Cropped Tank with double brushed fabric and four-way stretch, conveniently compatible with DTF (direct-to-film) printing. Along these same lines, Founder Sport Group is working on more sleeveless jerseys, including modified racerbacks that still allows for decoration on the back. Women’s leggings are also becoming wider, with higher waistbands. “Where tees and tops have gotten shorter, bottoms have gotten higher,” Davis says.

More generally, customers are embracing crewneck silhouettes in sweatshirts and loose fit styles that are easy to layer. For field uniforms, Goerke says, the focus is on performance attributes that keep an athlete comfortable, including “venting, stretch and an engineered fit to enhance an athlete’s movement and overall performance.”

In some instances, form and function are also now merging in new and interesting ways. According to Neale, for example, Founder Sport Group has a new two-in-one-design in its Sweatless line, featuring lightweight sweatband panels that are “sewn into key action areas of performance garments in order to provide athletes with superior grip, eliminating the need for a complimentary towel.”

Patterns and Colors

In terms of color palettes and prints, Neale says watermarks and fill patterns are trending as teams are “adding logos, adding colors, adding outlines shadows and watermarks to make uniforms that really stand out.”

Earthy neutrals, Goerke says, are also trending for both women and men. “Versatile neutrals are key on the casual side,” he says, pointing to the popularity of grays and natural bone tones. Outdoor inspired shades—such as olive, terra cotta orange, maroon and ocean blue—are cropping up as well.

“Bold, geometric based graphics and patterns are trending in retail activewear. We expect this retail trend to carry into sublimated on-field product designs. Nature-inspired textures, such as water, foliage, and camo, continue to be strong in off-field styles,” Goerke says.

Customization

While stock uniforms still constitute most of the industry—particularly for budget-conscious customers—customization continues to grow, as a growing number of teams are embracing unique looks.

“There’s a market for both stock uniforms and customization, but customization is certainly an ever-growing trend, whether for teamwear, clubwear or fanwear,” says Davis. “After the last three years, when groups and teams tended to be more conservative when ordering new gear, the industry is being bolstered by people wanting to be active and looking for group activities.”

Then there is the push toward making it easier to place orders for customization. “Younger coaches and team managers are digital natives, used to being able to quickly select and customize uniforms and apparel. Older coaches may be less tech-savvy, but they know what they like. Winning dealers will embrace these trends to make browsing, building, and ordering team apparel easy,” Neale says.

By Design

For the past few years, sublimation and DTF have been the most on-trend decorating processes in athletic wear. Though decorated stock jerseys make up the majority of uniforms, Neale says “the quality, flexibility and value of custom sublimation is driving rapid growth.”

Football Basketball Varsity Jacket

Varsity jackets provide endless decorating options. Photo courtesy of Game Sportswear

In addition, even when teams take the field in a customized jersey, the way that jersey is being decorated is shifting. As an example, Davis says sublimation is great on athleticwear that offers a white colorway or color blocking with a white print area since many of these products are made with polyester. However, “DTF lends itself to many different types of fabrics and blends, so it’s perfect for the wide variety of fabrics available in the market.”

Sublimation is also highly popular for custom orders and continues to grow. “Because it’s made to order, there are never any back-orders, and the decoration options are virtually unlimited,” Neale says.

Even DTG (direct-to-garment) is becoming increasingly also popular, Goerke says, because of the way it gives customers “more creative choices in designing their garment for on-field or off.”

Finally, Chavez says the industry is seeing an uptick in embroidery as teams are now outfitting their athletes with layers, not just a base. “Hoodies and jackets have almost become just as important as base athlete wear,” he says.

Owen agrees, noting that embroidery is growing for more a premium looking finish to garments, along with self-color embroidery.

State of the Market

Industry experts agree that the market for team athletic wear will continue to grow, in part because of consumer interest in wellness and fitness. “We believe the further availability of high-end customizable looks will continue to increase and will improve market share. With more and more teams being created, the market is in a great trajectory for years to come,” said Chavez.

“The athletic team wear category saw a banner year in 2022, and growth should continue through this year. Team sports and being a part of a team, are such a key part of growing up,” Neale adds.

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 hdaninhirsch@gmail.com or hilarydaninhirsch.journoportfolio.com.