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Performance with Purpose

The consumer love affair with athleisure sealed the fortunes of Lululemon, Sweaty Betty and other gym-to-street brands, but no doubt caused significant hand-wringing at companies like True Religion and Lee Jeans.

However, there are indications that people now have enough leggings and track pants in their closet and have finally started to restock their denim wardrobes again.

Leslie J. Ghize, executive vice president at the TOBE Consumer Culture + Creative Think Tank, says the renewed interest in denim started with “a few hero pieces, style definers, that have brought denim back into the crosshairs for the consumer.”

She cites the cut-off jean with frayed edges, first seen at Vêtements and now in just about every branded denim line, as holding extra appeal because customers can alter it themselves. “Everyone looks good in it. It can be worn with other heroes—Gucci fur-lined slipper, high heel sexy sandal, close hugging ankle boot, sneaker. Add the ubiquitous bomber jacket and a great statement earring…good to go.”

“People are realizing they shouldn’t have to sacrifice style for comfort.”

And, as the term ‘athleisure’ has given way to the more permanent-sounding phrase ‘active lifestyle,’ we are finally seeing performance denim—once limited to niches like skate and workwear—move into the premium space.

Denim with a technical twist from brands like Dish and DU/ER, Diesel, and G-Star Raw are being snatched up by consumers who want the same multitasking capabilities from apparel that they expect from the other products they buy.

“People are realizing they shouldn’t have to sacrifice style for comfort. With new fabric innovations, clothes that you want to be seen in feel like clothes you want to wear,” said Robin Rowley, Dish and DU/ER marketing director.

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Rowley sees two clear trends taking hold: one is to have more stretch and other performance features in traditional styling and the other is to have a more traditional heritage look. “Versatility is also always key, people want denim they can wear to do more in,” Rowely said.

TOBE’s Ghize has also noticed a shift from true active as streetwear to a more elevated streetwear-inspired design aesthetic as a tool for consumer to make a statement, with brands like Supreme, Off-White, Gosha Rubchinskiy and others taking streetwear, whose origins were in skate culture and hip-hop, to a new level. “Wearing active and sport-inspired pieces becomes more of a self-expression game than an I-put-on-my-workout-clothes-and-never-worked-out play. Thus, with customers comfortable being comfortable, they can maintain the comfort factor but up their style game, look more polished,” she said.

Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, also sees the end of the yoga pant as streetwear. “We are seeing the pendulum swing towards more refined dressing while still incorporating comfort and performance.There are more styles with denim dressing in shirts and dresses this season and cleaner looks in denim.”

Lorena Bott, cool hunter at Brazil-based global denim producer Vicunha Têxtil, said “People are calling for garments with versatility, styles that can be worn from day through to the evening, adaptable to both casual and formalwear. When you have a product that is highly fashionable and at the same time keeps you dry, for example, you can be confident to go to a night out straight from the office.”

Consumers are not about to give up the comfort they got accustomed to during the athleisure years, so fabric producers have been hard at work developing the next generation of denim and other bottom weight fabrics that deliver the comfort, performance and utility of activewear with the more tailored, constructed silhouette of 5-pocket pants. The result? Some of the most revolutionary fabric innovations that this sector has seen since Lycra became de rigueur several decades ago, inspired by the consumer need for garments to do more than just look and feel good.

Thomas Dislich, Vicunha Europe managing director, said “For a while we have observed the growing importance of performance fabrics in the marketplace. Right now, high performance denim is very much in demand and is a large part of our fabric offering.” The company produces a wide range of fabrics that offer performance features like excellent stretch/recovery and temperature control.

U.S.-based Cone Mill has worked for several years now through its Cone 3D incubator with denim brands seeking innovative and unique performance solutions. Its broad collection of fabrics features yarns ranging from Coolmax by Invista to Unifi’s Sorbtek to Dyneema, a high-molecular-weight-polyethylene by DSM.

Going forward, denim fans can expect to see more technical blends, such as cotton with premium performance fiber Cordura and others made of Nylon 6.6.

Pierluigi Berardi, global marketing director at Nylon 6.6 producer NILIT Fibers, commented that “People and lifestyles are changing, and consumers are now looking at denim and other ready-to-wear categories through an activewear lens. They are inspired by new technologies and applications offered by smart fibers, and they want the garments they wear all day, every day to do more.”

NILIT is partnering with several mills to develop performance denim and bottom weight fabrics containing its cooling Breeze, warming Heat, moisture-wicking Aquarius and energizing Innergy yarns—products that deliver the performance benefits of cutting-edge activewear.

Performance with Purpose

Outlier, a Brooklyn-based apparel brand founded in 2008, set out to make innovative and good-looking clothing to improve the way you move through this world. The company’s philosophy is that clothing should be liberating, and never restrict what you do with your day.

“Performance fabrics have always been the future of everyday wear. Denim was a performance fabric, a tent cloth made into pants. We see fabrics getting cleaner, drier and more durable. More than anything, though, it’s the new combinations of natural and synthetics that are super-exciting: linen meets polyester; wool meets nylon; cotton meets Dyneema,” said Outlier co-founder Abe Burmeister. “The best stuff combines the character and feel of evolved fibers with the precision and strength of the man-made.”

Lenzing’s Carey feels performance denim is here to stay. “Life is not slowing down and the consumer wants more versatility in apparel, which is not going away.”