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The Evolution of Athleisure

This category's winning trifecta of comfort, fashion and functionality fits today's active lifestyles — and beyond.

By Nicole Rollender, Contributing Writer

Athletic fabrics have come a long way in the past few decades and now features everything from stretch and recovery to heathered fiber content.

November 21, 2019

These days, athleisure is much more than an apparel buzzword. It’s a phenomenon that has changed where and how consumers wear apparel like slogan T-shirts, leggings, joggers, hoodies and caps.

“Athleisure is a power combination of comfort meets style, and fashion meets functionality,” says Eric Simsolo, director of business development, Next Level Apparel.

In fact, Americans spent $80.1 billion on athleisure and activewear in 2018, according to Euromonitor Intl.

“The term ‘work-life balance’ has taken hold in fashion because consumers want garments that allow them to balance new wellness priorities with remote or at-home work demands in life, without needing to outfit themselves separately for each,” says Summer Scott-Samuel, senior merchandising manager, Gildan Activewear.

Convenience is a growing commodity, she says, and end users are willing to pay more for fashion apparel basics that offer versatility and concealed functions. Apparel suppliers have responded to this lifestyle shift — largely pioneered by Millennials — that prioritizes experiential living and wellness through healthy habits and athletic activity, with athleisure styles that can be worn at work, the gym and on the go.

The Athleisure Revolution
Athleisure overtook American fashion nearly 20 years ago when yoga-inspired athletic apparel company Lululemon appeared on the scene. “This rise in athleisure came at a time when lifestyles were changing — eating healthier, working out more and being more health-conscious — leading athleisure to fit consumers’ functional and stylistic needs,” says Jeanene Edwards, vice president of merchandising and marketing, Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES Activewear. “Since athleisure has mainstreamed across all ages and demographics, that’s going to ensure its staying power.”

Recently, more traditional apparel retailers have entered the sportswear category, including H&M and Forever 21, which introduced activewear collections in 2015. Also, Topshop has collaborated on an athleisure collection with Beyoncé, while J.Crew has partnered with New Balance. In addition, haute-couture brands like Gucci, Dior, Fendi and Balenciaga have imitated the success of athletic performance wear brands such as adidas, Champion, Nike and Under Armour.

“They’ve added an elevated-couture look and feel to sportswear,” says Christina Marcantelli, account executive, S&S Activewear. “We see influencers, celebrities and athletes taking on this clothing category that fits multidimensional lifestyles.”

A resurgence of 1980s and 1990s apparel brands and designs historically rooted in cotton-rich products also contributed to athleisure’s power surge. “Consumers wanted these pieces, but didn’t want to forsake the comfort of more modern fabrics or performance features of their poly-rich athletic apparel,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager for HanesBrands. “Combining these comfort and performance features on popular retro brands and designs helped the athleisure trend take off even faster.”

Davis says once consumers realized they could have both casual comfort and performance features like UV protection, adaptive wicking and odor control in their clothes, they began to expect them in items ranging from tees to outerwear. Fortunately, apparel suppliers were ready to meet that demand, accelerating fabric innovation and technological advances in garment design and construction.

“This made garment production faster, easier and more capable of delivering a wider array of styles, fabrics and colors,” Edwards says. “Many activewear fabrics are specifically designed to enhance all-day comfort with properties like moisture wicking, stretch and odor control.”

The Health Factor
Many people describe their lifestyles as “crazy busy,” as they juggle family activities, careers and healthy lifestyles. “We’ve started to use the term ‘lifewear’ since consumers want clothes they can wear anytime and anywhere during their daily activities,” Davis says.

This trend has contributed to the steady decline of formality in the way Americans dress; athleisure blurs the line between activewear and office attire, offering cross-functional styles. In the past 10-15 years, retail and industry apparel suppliers have evolved the athleisure concept to adapt to widespread lifestyle changes. Overall, people — especially Millennials — live more health-conscious lives, but still want to look fashionable.

“[Millennials are] incredibly trend-conscious and want to express their individuality through their style,” Edwards says. “Athleisure is the perfect outlet for Millennials to showcase their active, healthy lifestyles, both on social media and in their lives.”

By extension, social media has helped accelerate a more fit lifestyle across the board. “Many influencers and fitness buffs train for marathons and tournaments in athleisure,” Marcantelli says. “Even travel, racecar, biking and boating enthusiasts wear athleisure as they inspire others to get active.”

The Uber-Casual Workplace
Edwards points out that leaders like Steve Jobs, with his signature black turtleneck, and Mark Zuckerberg, with his hoodie, rapidly changed the concept of acceptable office attire. Now, more than one-third of consumers (34%) say they wear casual clothes to work, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor Survey. Plus, 71% of consumers say their office has at least one casual day.

“Changing work cultures and increasingly casual dress codes mean that ‘power dressing’ doesn’t resonate with Millennial and Gen-Z consumers,” Scott-Samuel says. “Casual apparel basics worn as workout gear are now the new and acceptable ‘uniform’ at work.”

She also says that as a growing number of Millennials work remotely or in freelance capacities, they create their own rules for day-to-day styles that accommodate versatile wellness, work and travel lifestyles. These new “life rules” also include a shift away from traditional work hours toward an emphasis on experiencing life outside the office.

“That’s not to say Millennials aren’t focused on their careers, but they’re more likely to go from the gym to the office, or from the office to the bike trail,” Davis says. “Not having to change clothes between the day’s different activities has become very appealing to this generation.”

In addition, as older Millennials approach age 40, they’re often the major decision makers for promotional apparel in their organizations. “Their preference for athleisure and brands that reflect their values show in many new product launches,” Edwards says.

In addition, when a company gives its employees retail-branded merchandise from, say, adidas or Columbia, it sends the message that they’re valued. “The more versatile the garment, such as a quarter-zip or fleece hoodie, the more likely employees will wear them outside the office, increasing the amount of impressions,” Marcantelli says.

Athleisure’s Lasting Look
Thanks to the Kardashians, Edwards says, track suits, leggings and sneakers can go just about anywhere. That translates into layered tees or French terry pieces as the basis of most athleisure wardrobes, along with joggers or yoga pants.

“From a garment perspective, fit is still important,” she says. “Athleisure isn’t sloppy, so just any pair of sweat pants won’t work.”

Athletic fabrics also have come a long way in the past few decades. “From the stretch and recovery, to colorways, heathering and fiber content, it all has changed,” Simsolo says. “Without that technology and development, you wouldn’t have the modern yoga pant, the quarter-zip that doesn’t look like a trash bag, or even the breathable, one-piece woven running shoe. A good athleisure top will feel and fit as comfortable with yoga pants as they will under a bomber jacket, or even a smart blazer.”

Marcantelli notes that due to the variety of athleisure garments, the pieces can be infinitely styled and decorated. For example, she sees monogrammed weekend sets of sweat shirts and matching lounge shorts growing in popularity as influencers wear them during their daily routines.

“We also see varied silhouettes with keyhole cutouts; crisscross open backs; unique hemlines; open shoulders; and crop tops in tees, tanks, hoodies and crewnecks,” she says. “The sheer variation of seasonal colors and patterns and fabrics, such as Sherpa, sponge [and] teddy fleece, as well as sheer inlays in leggings, yoga pants, tops and tanks giving a hint of femininity, are all categorized as athleisure.”

Ultimately, Davis says, athleisure is versatile. “When brands combine elements of fashion, comfort and performance into their clothes, it’s a winning combo for end users,” he says.

Nicole Rollender is chief storyteller at New Jersey-based Strand Writing Services. For more information or to comment on this article, connect with her at

4 Reasons Athleisure Sells

Christina Marcantelli, account executive at S&S Activewear, weighs in on why athleisure is a hot seller in the promo market, especially with younger buyers:

1. Lifestyle brands are ubiquitous at retail and promo. “Thank Amazon and Etsy for creating a marketplace for brands to offer heat-pressed logo tees, hoodies, joggers and yoga pants with custom sayings,” she says.

2. Younger consumers will spend more for a perceived value or cause. “They’re more inclined to do research before buying items,” she says. “Athleisure represents quality, recreation and a perceived lifestyle.”

3. Millennials care about corporate and social responsibility. “They love companies that use eco-friendly fabric and dyes with the use of recycled plastic bottles, while creating some of the hottest trends in athleisure styles,” she says. Many apparel suppliers also WRAP-certified, using eco-conscious facilities while limiting their carbon footprints.

4. Causes and celeb partnerships influence younger buyers. Marcantelli cites adidas’ partnerships with fashion icons like Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Stella McCartney. “This has increased adidas’ sneaker category alone,” she says. “The collaborations with Stella McCartney and Parley for the Oceans fosters sustainability and eco-responsibility. Millennials want the recognition and association facilitated by wearing and promoting these brands.”