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Besides the iconic Juicy Couture tracksuit, in the early 2000s wearing workout clothing in public was taboo. Society still wore gym clothes around town, but it was typically beat-up sweatpants and crewnecks handed down from your cousin or something along those lines. But those days are long gone as the athleisure wave has fully taken over. Today, wearing stylish gym sets from LuluLemon or Athleta is the norm for most people, and nobody thinks twice about it. 

History Lesson

While athleisure has skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade, it always had a place in history, and was first recorded in the late 19th century. The first shoes with rubber bottoms were produced for athletes all the way back in 1892, and the rubber allowed tennis players more traction on the court, coining the term “tennis shoes.” Intramural sports became popular at universities in the United States around this time, and athletes would wear their athletic clothes to class before or after practice. Shortly thereafter in the 1920s polo shirts came onto the scene and were originally designed for tennis players as a comfier option compared to the long-sleeved designs that were popular at the time. 

Eventually, polo players adopted the shirts as their unofficial brand. Today, few people think of polo shirts as athletic apparel, but that’s what they were. Throughout the 20th century, new clothing was designed to meet the ever-changing needs of athletes, including shorts, which were first designed for use in the gym. It wasn’t until the 70s that modern athleisure apparel made a name for itself. 

Dating back to 1979, the term was used in an issue of Nation’s Business to describe garments and shoes designed for those who want to look like an athlete. Even back then, aesthetics were everything. Fast forward to 1997, Women’s Wear Daily defined athleisure footwear as “non-performance styles such as canvas or suede.” 

The key factor in the original definitions of athleisure is that these styles are made to resemble exercise wear– not to actually do physical activity. This is slightly different from how Merriam-Webster defines the term today. Added to the dictionary in 2016, they describe athleisure as “casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use.” Athleisure evolved into serving multiple purposes; looking good and being efficient in the gym. 

That brings us to today, where athleisure is now acceptable to wear in the workplace at many companies. 

“Leggings aren’t Pants” 

While athleisure slowly became a fixture in streetwear, it’s hard not to recall the ‘leggings aren’t pants’ discourse of the early 2010s. Back then, the rage on Facebook was to like as many “pages” as humanly possible. Some of the most popular pages on the platform were pages titled “Like This Page if You Don’t Think Leggings are Pants” and so on. The movement was so omnipresent that even the Huffington Post dedicated an entire article to the fad. 

An excerpt from the piece says: 

“Just because something is trendy doesn’t make it right. Unless you’re six or on a ski slope, leggings are not pants. I’m bombarded with shiny black thighs and the indentation of female buttocks and it makes me wonder: where does one go dressed like that? To the gym? Surely not the workplace or out to dinner with a beau.”

The trend persisted but the naysayers were no match for the irresistible coordinated sets that Lululemon boasted. 

The Rise of Athleisure Brands 

Few brands ushered in a new era of athletic wear quite like Lululemon and Athleta. These brands catalyzed the market which would grow immensely. According to Allied Market Research, the athleisure market size was valued at $155.2 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $257.1 billion by 2026, registering a CAGR of 6.7% from 2019 to 2026.

According to Vogue Business, Lululemon registered a 130 percent increase in online searches in the three months ending March 2019 compared to the quarter before, per Lyst data. Searches for performance clothing rose by 21 percent.

The piece notes that in order to keep this upward momentum going, athleisure brands must find ways of not only maintaining a loyal clientele but also attracting new buyers against the growing competition in the sector. Most athleisure brands primarily focus on comfort, but there are signs they are pivoting to relaxed fits with less of an outwardly casual look. Of course, as the workplace continues to become more of a casual environment over time, the apparel restrictions are also laxer, creating opportunities for athleisure brands to fill this niche intersection. For example, yoga pants still aren’t acceptable outfits at financial institutions, but Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan recently made suits optional for male employees.

In response, Lululemon introduced its “Office, Travel, Commute” collection featuring styles that combine business with more informal, comfortable attire like their ABC pants for men and On The Fly bottoms for women. Athleta also came out with their “City Pants” range. 

Even mainstay brands are getting on board. Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh had said that the rise of athleisure played a large part in the rapidly declining denim brand’s womenswear sales. In response to this, he tasked designers with making a comfier fit like that of a “jegging”. Since then sales have jumped by $200 million.

One look at the numbers in the athleisure apparel industry will prove that to be a smart move.

True Fit’s Fashion Genome, which analyzes data from 17,000 brands and 180 million True Fit users, confirms that athleisure orders climbed 84% since the start of the pandemic. In the U.K. alone, sales of women’s athleisure bottoms(leggings, joggers, etc.) were five times higher in December 2020 than they were just a few months earlier in April 2020. Meanwhile, orders for men’s athleisure clothing sales were 20% higher than in 2019.

Target topped off at $1 billion in sales for its activewear line, All in Motion, which launched right before the pandemic.

New Brands and the Future of Athleisure

With all of the money to be made in the athleisure market, brands of course turned to social media to bolster their sales. As a result of the pandemic, TikTok has aided the boom in new brands as well as new fads from existing brands. 

A burgeoning industry could not exist without Amazon having to get a slice of the money pie. Not only has Amazon gone unfathomably viral on TikTok for home appliances, bedroom hacks, and shower supplies, their apparel revenues have soared. The eCommerce giant has especially thrived in athleisure. 

The Seasum Women’s High Waist Yoga Pants, better known as “The Amazon Leggings” quickly went viral on the app, with the #amazonleggings hashtag garnering 103 million views on TikTok and 19,000 five-star ratings. Amazon has also gone viral for featuring popular dupes for more expensive brands, like Lululemon, for a fraction of the price. 

Even luxury brands are hopping on the bandwagon. Legendary brands from Gucci to Stella McCartney, have been entering the market, launching their own popular takes on the athleisure trend. Not to mention the queen herself, Beyoncé’s famous partnership with Adidas brought millions of dollars and eyes to the German sportswear brand. 

It’s clear that athleisure is here to stay. No longer just merely a fad, athleisure is a fully-fledged sector of the greater apparel industry. Embedded in history, comfortable yet fashionable attire has been bubbling underneath the surface of society, waiting to become actualized. Now, with remote work far outpacing the need for in-office work, athleisure is only going to get bigger, and more stylish.

Photo by Dylan Gillison Unsplash