Where the runway meets the street
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In our latest installment of TRENDING, we take a closer look at the athletic sportswear craze that has taken both high-end fashion houses and streetwear labels by storm.

The artist Tom Sachs, in a recent Man of the World Magazine interview, referenced the Shaker religious movement as a core inspiration for him. Its founder, Mother Ann Lee’s “dedication and discipline of production” made a lasting effect on the prolific provocateur. By mixing the spiritual with the material, Shakers believe that good, continuous, mindful craftsmanship can be roughly equivalent to prayer. Yet when it came time for Sachs to partner with a brand for his 2012 Park Avenue Armory Space Program: Mars exhibition, he chose performance icon Nike in lieu of brands known for workmanship of a more traditional, European nature.

Sachs’ limited edition apparel program is just one isolated example of how technical garments have recently usurped the formal as a facet of modern luxury. From high-end fashion houses to mass-market trend-chasers, it seems that every force in the industry has been clamoring to get a slice of the sportswear market as of late. Some analysts have sought to explain the trend by referencing the extension of work hours in major cities, leading to a “day-to-night” look being less important than a “gym-to-work” one. Others cite the healthy living phenomenon that has shown no sign of slowing down – making green juice and SoulCycle branded apparel the chicest accessories around for both men and women in major cities.

Business of Fashion deemed it the “post-workout look.” Designer Alexander Wang became famous for referring to his signature combination of luxe activewear and technical performance pieces as “off-duty model.” Whatever the impetus was, high-net worth consumers have been devouring the upscale sportswear aesthetic for the last few fashion cycles. Established old-world labels like Chanel have non-ironically produced – and sold – everything from performance-focused ski and snowboarding accessories to $9,000 USD surfboards and $1,500 USD tennis racquet sets. Hermès once manufactured an ultra-premium, $13,000 USD basketball. Gucci makes a $890 USD biking helmet…and a $14,000 USD bicycle.

As with all trends, there has been a trickle-down effect, with mid-market and fast-fashion brands attempting to graft equity off of the upscale performance aesthetic and co-op some of traditional athletic apparel companies’ market share by launching sub-labels focused around sport. UNIQLO surprised many by scooping up a 5-year contract from tennis star Novak Djokovic in 2012. It has since launched a full line of sportswear under his moniker. Womenswear mogul Tory Burch has also expressed interest in breaking into the high net-worth worlds of yoga, golf and tennis – announcing that her label will expand into activewear in March of 2014. “I find a lot of women wear what they wear to go to the gym all day long,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in an interview.

H&M, presumably eager to carve out a niche that hasn’t yet been dominated by competitor Zara, launched a sportswear line at the end of 2013. The Swedish brand’s apparel was designed in-part by a slew of its home country’s 2014 Winter Olympic athletes. After H&M’s announcement, Bloomberg Businessweek noted that the margins on workout gear are attractively high, with “the materials that work well for wicking sweat… [being] relatively cheap. Such stuff as polyester, spandex, and nylon comes from factories, not from plants or animals. A lot of workout clothes these days don’t even incorporate cotton, let alone cashmere.”

UK mega-retailer Topshop has since launched Topman Sports and tapped Danish designer Astrid Andersen for an A$AP Ferg-modeled capsule collection of her signature upscale take on sportswear. Online-only retail trailblazer and technical sportswear brand ISAORA has also entered the fray with its first attempt at an explicitly gym-oriented collection called #TrainBetter.

Indeed, with so much new competition, attempting to own a slice of the sportswear market has now become a necessity rather than a strategic choice for many labels seeking to expand into a truly “lifestyle-oriented” product offering. Whether luxurious design cues, an austere aesthetic, an emphasis on technical fabrics and innovation or old-fashioned athlete endorsements will help any of the aforementioned labels outshine the competition is yet to be known.

As always, the devil is in the details.

Words by Douglas Brundage
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