Sportswear fashion is having a field day this year, with celebrities launching stylish gym gear that can be worn as everyday attire and consumers demanding comfortable clothing to suit their modern lives. We look at what this means for the lingerie and swimwear market.

If your lingerie store or online boutique hasn’t already taken stock of sportswear then you might want to pick up the pace.

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Sportswear sales in the UK are set to surpass £6bn this year as ‘athleisure’ – the trend of wearing gym clothes as everyday attire – drives up demand.

And this trend shows no signs of abating. According to business intelligence company Key Note, sales related to athleisure, including sports bras, leggings and yoga tops, will grow by about 24% over the next five years.
So what factors are contributing the rise of athleisure and how have intimate apparel brands responded to this trend?

The origins of athleisure

There has been a heightened interest in wellness in recent years, with buzzwords like ‘fit’ and ‘strong’ replacing ‘thin’ and ‘skinny’.

Consumers are more aware of the importance of health and fitness than ever before – even the non-gym-goers are coming round to the nutritional and physical benefits of things like green juices and pedometer apps – and want to incorporate this into their total lifestyle, even their wardrobes.

So, wellness is one contributing factor. Another is our changing lifestyle habits – the consumer is busier than ever and wants her wardrobe to fit into her routine.

“What originally started as a heightened interest in female physical fitness has now spread to many women wanting to have an all-round holistic approach to life,” says Triumph International product manager Monica Harrington.

“From mindfulness to high intensity training, women are increasingly looking for a balance between work, socialising and staying fit.”

Celebrities have also played a huge role in driving the athleisure trend. In October 2013, actress Kate Hudson co-founded a line of lifestyle and athletic wear called Fabletics. The brand achieved huge success and has since expanded into swimwear and activewear for men. Hudson now has seven Fabletics stores dotted around America and is set to open an eighth boutique in North Carolina this July.

Meanwhile, Rihanna has signed on as Puma’s Women’s creative director, and Beyoncé launched her 200-piece athleisure collection for Topshop in March.

Then there are those celebrities who haven’t branched out into activewear design, but have helped make wearing stylish sportswear outside the gym more acceptable.

Kendall Jenner, Victoria Beckham, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Gigi Hadid are just a few famous faces who have been stepping out for a post-workout brunch in their gym gear.
The fourth factor that’s influencing the athleisure trend is social media.

Swimwear designer Melissa Odabash, who launched her Sports Luxe range last year, believes there has been a rise in professional knowledge about health and fitness that the public can access, through social media channels such as Twitter and Instagram, with personalities driving forward the concept of wellness through nutrition and exercise.

“For these reasons I’d say there’s also been a rise in people wearing sportswear to and from fitness classes and, due to the comfort of this type of clothing, it has evolved into a trend,” she explains. “I’ve definitely been known to turn up to work in my gym gear.”
Anna Neale, head of design at Freya Active, agrees. “Social media has enabled so many women all over the world to view, like and share sportswear-related images, so there has definitely been a viral effect,” she says.

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Brands and retailers benefit

Since the athleisure trend emerged, lingerie brands have seen a notable increase in demand for sports bras, and sportswear products in general, from their wholesale partners and consumers alike. Panache, for example, has benefited from more women incorporating the sports bra into their everyday attire.

“Our Sports Bra sales continue to go from strength to strength,” says Panache product manager Alysha Taylor.

“Our customers wear our sports bras outside of the gym – for walking, gardening and even lazy days around the house.

Our Non Wired sports bra is perfect for that. Athleisure has certainly made this more acceptable.”

Freya Active has also found that women are demanding feminine yet sporty- inspired clothing that can be worn both inside and outside of the gym, day or night.

“Whether they embrace the trend through a sporty crop top or by wearing leggings, so many women have incorporated the luxe or retro sports look into their everyday style,” says Neale.

“From a sales point of view, Freya Active is performing really well. The number of Freya Active stockists have more than doubled year-on-year, with stockists such as Bravissimo, ASOS and John Lewis all having introduced the brand. Sales of Freya Active with our independent stores are also up. There has been a demand for both our basic colours, as well as our brand new colours. Every season our forecasts for Freya Active are getting bigger and bigger, which is really exciting for us to see.”

But it’s not just sports bra makers that are benefiting from the rise in athleisure; swimwear labels like Zoggs have witnessed and increased demand in sporty and stylish products.

“Swimsuits that can alternate between fashion and sport is key,” says Zoggs head of design Margot Lundgren. “High fronts and interesting back details are very important,” she adds.

“We are perfectly positioned to suit this trend and we have seen some very positive movement in the last year, and we’re expecting even more growth in the year ahead.”

The industry reacts

The popularity and demand for sportswear has meant that lingerie and swimwear brands have upped their game for the seasons ahead, introducing new shapes, styles and colours to their collections.

“Carbon, our new AW16 palette in grey and aqua blue is practical, but has a pretty twist. This will also launch in a number of new styles, such as a soft crop top and loose and fitted-style shorts and leggings,” says Neale.

Freya Active is looking to add more clothing pieces to its collections next year.

“For SS17, we’ve launched our underwired performance sports top in our brand new energetic colourway, Cherry Glow, as well as our scientifically- tested crop top sports bra, which we think will get a great reaction,” explains Neale.

Panache will also continue to introduce more colour and fashion-forward prints into its sports range.

As an ode to the Rio Olympic Games, Panache has launched its Wired Sports Bra in a rich teal shade and Odyssey print, inspired by the bold colours of Brazil and the vibrant nature of Rio’s hillside Favelas.

This style, along with core colours of Black and Latte, will also be available in patriotic red, white and blue marl.

But it’s not all about colour and print; fit, function and performance also drive purchase decisions when it comes to sportswear.

“The consumer wants to stay cool, supported, comfortable and look great at the same time – that can be said for her full athleisure wardrobe,” says Taylor.

Lundgren agrees, adding: “No customer will buy Zoggs without fit, support and comfort – they are essentially important to our brand values.”

New innovations

Triumph has responded to the athleisure trend in a huge way, investing more money into its sports segment, TriAction, which will take the spotlight in its AW16 and SS17 campaigns.

“Research has told us that women want sportswear products that boost confidence and improve performance. As a result, we’ve increased the size of our TriAction sportswear offering, together with developing our unique Dynamic Lite concept with 3D Powertech fabric – a new lamination technique that ensures the bra is exceptionally strong yet flexible to contour the bust,” Harrington explains.

“There are three fits across the Dynamic Lite range, each designed to suit a different range of activities. We’ve even created a Brazil-themed capsule collection inspired by the women taking part in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.”

German heritage brand Falke has also invested in new fabric technologies to stay ahead of the competition.

“We are highly experienced in knitting techniques, helping Falke to maintain a competitive advantage, combined with our aspiration for innovation,” says Michael Klein, head of Falke’s Ergonomic Sport System, a segment of innovative sportswear for men and women.

“For example, our new Impulse technique demonstrates completely new ways to use the physiology of the body and how to apply stimulation using textiles,” he adds.

Impulse is designed to stimulate sensors in the body to help improve posture and support. Falke has also developed seamless technology in its sports bras to offer optimum comfort.

Meanwhile, Melissa Odabash has created a fashionable swimwear range specifically designed for water sports.

“When I designed my first Sports Luxe collection I was determined that I wouldn’t compromise on anything – it’s not right to create pieces simply for fashion if they don’t work for the wearer,” she explains.

“The fabric is actually thicker than in my regular line to offer more support, and the swimwear also has shape retention, is ultra-chlorine resistant and even provides protection from UV rays, as you’re more likely to be out in the sun for longer if you are doing sport all day.”

Niche labels

Now that sportswear has become an everyday outfit choice, consumers are looking for more fashionable gym gear than standard sports brands can offer, leading to a rise in niche labels.

Swedish brand Under the Same Sun launched its first yoga, surf and beachwear collections in 2013.

“We started Under the Same Sun as consumers could not find what we were looking for out on the market,” said co-founder Anna Engellau.

“We wanted to offer yoga wear that worked just as much for exercise as for everyday attire. Little did we know that there were more people like us out there who have helped to create this big boom of athleisure.”

The company makes high-end printed garments using sustainable fabrics.

“We feel that finding fabrics that are eco-conscious with great quality and have a high performance value, combined with the design aesthetics of our prints, help us stay ahead of our competitors,” explains Engellau.

“Taking the step into sustainable fashion after you have made a choice to have a healthy, active life is not a large leap and the market is becoming aware of this.”

Another fashion label, MINKPINK, which was founded in Australia in 2005, branched out into activewear last year.

Its playful range of bralettes, crop tops, shorts and leggings are now stocked at Urban Outfitters, ShopStyle UK and Figleaves’ activewear boutique.

“We realised the same girl who buys MINKPINK for its personality had nothing to wear to the gym that made her feel the same way, so we created MINKPINK Move, our activewear brand.

“We found the athleisure and activewear trend to be in line with our customers’ lifestyle, and we found that the brands on the market weren’t fashionable and fun enough for a not-so-serious exerciser.”

Despite MINKPINK’s focus on fashion, the performance of its garments is also important, according to marketing manager Nia Pejsak.

“Quality and longevity is key – if you’re going to be sweating it out in a crop top every week, you need to be sure that it’s going to go the distance with you,” she says.

“We teamed up with a trusted sportswear factory that specialises in developing technical stretch fabrications so we could create a range that not only looks great, but also possesses the quality needed to be competitive in the market.

“Our customer is definitely not a fitness fanatic, and picks up a MINKPINK piece mainly because of how it looks, but we take a lot of pride in providing both a good fit and a good-looking garment.”

Future of athleisure

With the Rio Olympic Games just around the corner and high street stores continuing to embrace the trend more and more, it seems that athleisure is only going to get bigger.

Fashionable activewear and leisurewear are a key focus at Selfridges’ Body Studio, which opened on Oxford Street in April.

The studio entrance features an entire room dedicated to this category, with mannequins seen in athletic poses and layered with leisurewear, from sports bras by Puma to jersey tops by Sweaty Betty and leggings by Falke.

“We were excited by the opportunities yielded by the wellness movement and the way a positive attitude to the health and well-being of our bodies is being integrated into our customers’ lifestyles and shopping habits,” buying manager Heather Gramston told Lingerie Insight at the time.

Other retailers tapping into activewear in the next four years will reap the rewards. According to Morgan Stanley, the sector is worth $270bn (£194bn) globally and will grow 30% by 2020.

Keeping this in mind, maybe athleisure isn’t a trend at all, but a mass movement.

Odabash agrees with this theory. “I think consumers are much more educated about health and fitness nowadays and I don’t think that is something they are likely to discard very easily,” she says.

“Regardless of whether other trends arrive, I think that athleisure may be here to stay.”

Figleaves’ take on athleisure

Lauren Thurston, branded buyer for lingerie and nightwear, takes the hot seat

How has the athleisure movement impacted your sales?
The sales of our sports bras have increased by +27% on last year, with the most growth coming from colourful, supportive options from the likes of Panache Sport and Freya Active. We have also seen a good uptake of softer, less supportive crop tops that are ideal for yoga – these pieces particularly embrace the athleisure trend as they can be worn for weekend comfort or for exercise.

Now that activewear has become more fashionable, is fit and support still important to consumers?
We have seen a big increase in the sale of soft, fashion-led crop tops that tend to come in small to large sizes, as opposed to cup sizes. However, cup-sized sports bras remain our top seller. Fit and support still a key sales driver, but brands are now offering much more fashion-led prints and colour pops to capitalise on the trend for stylish sportswear.

Have you seen a rise in sporty swimwear styles?
We saw the sports influence come through the scuba trend last year and this is still prominent. High-neck styling and racer-back detailing usually seen in sports bras is definitely finding its way to the customer. We have some Figleaves own-brand styles launching with high-neck detailing and we have seen the same look delivered by the likes of Seafolly and Freya. True performance swimwear is still important for customers who need both support and functionality for fitness.

How do you decide which activewear brands to stock?
We have selected our activewear brands based on both performance and aesthetic. We know she likes to feel confident in her workout clothes, so stocking Under Armour was definitely an easy decision for us. We also wanted her to be able to create that fashion look, as well as having functional garments, so we looked for more boutique brands to deliver this. We have introduced MINKPINK, which offers great styling and amazing digital prints, but also a super wearable range. We have worked to deliver a range that works alongside sports bras, so if the customer needs high performance sportswear we can offer it, but we also provide low-impact clothing for yoga  or Pilates.

What are the main components that consumers are looking for in sportswear?
Support and comfort is still key, and seasonal colours now outperform the ongoing black and white shades.

Where do you see the future of the activewear market heading in the future?
Athleisure has become more than a trend, as it is an aspirational lifestyle choice for many. People’s focus on their health and wellbeing is unlikely to waiver and only get stronger.