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Activewear Is Poised for Another Banner Year

Driven by health and wellness trends as well as a huge demand for athleisure looks that combine easy style, comfort and function, the active category generated a 7 percent dollar increase totaling $36.1 billion in the 12 months ended December 2014, according to The NPD Group Inc. Industry executives continue to be bullish with sales projections in the mid-to-high single digits in 2015 for the category, which consists primarily of a variety of multipurpose tops, jackets, and pants in high-tech Lycra spandex blends.

But no matter how popular or profitable the athleisure trend is at the moment, the issue of longevity is quickly becoming a key topic of discussion among industry leaders.

A main reason for concern is a fear of over saturation of active-inspired products in both the high-end and low-end wholesale and retail sectors. Filling the burgeoning demand for active apparel and related accessories has not been a problem since the competition on the playing field is already jam-packed with powerhouse sports apparel and fitness brands such as Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Under Armour and Champion, as well as retail specialists Lululemon Athletica and Gap Athleta.

A growing number of designer brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger are expanding or launching athleisure collections. Retailers also know it’s a win-win situation and major stores ranging from Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Dillard’s Department Stores, to fast-fashion specialists H&M and Zara, and Target and Wal-Mart, are beefing up branded and private label assortments and labels in the active arena.

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Like many trends that have come and gone in the fashion apparel industry over the years — hot pants in the Seventies, bodywear worn by Jane Fonda in workout videos in the Eighties, and shapewear glamorized by Madonna on tour in the Nineties — industry executives say athleisure looks have lasting power and are redefining the boundaries of sportswear, ready-to-wear and innerwear, especially loungewear. But executives generally agree the trend will most likely crest by 2016.

Looking back, a key example of the demise of a trend is the rise and fall of shapewear, which was wildly popular and considered to be a cash cow for more than a decade. But marketing efforts failed to convince women they needed a wardrobe of shapers and the category began to lose its luster in 2008. Reasons included a lack of innovation, sameness of product, and a glut of inventory produced by too many brands and private label makers. There also were limited options for silhouettes, fabrications, colors and prints. Business fell flat. The most recent figures by NPD reflect the fate of a bygone category: Overall dollar sales of shapewear in 2014 slipped 3 percent to $678 million.

But unlike shapewear, executives say several factors will provide a silver lining for the athleisure classification: Lifestyle driven trends, an active consumer who will always be a yoga, pilates or spinning enthusiast, and an appetite for multipurpose apparel that can crossover from the gym to the office or be worn as casual yet chic everyday wear.

Here, a conversation with several industry and retail executives on the status of activewear.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of The NPD Group Inc., said he believes the active apparel and ath-leisure trend will slow down and transition to streetwear by 2016.

“We have seen several new entrants in the active arena over the past seven-to-eight weeks, and we are seeing retailers expanding or bringing in new brands. But the low-end is doing a good job with active and ath-leisure and the big challenge for the high-end players will be to do a better job for the prices they charge. I don’t see active going bust to the same degree as shapewear did, because shapewear stopped its potential for growth by a lack of innovation, and people kept introducing product at dramatically lower prices. It was also a niche market, and active doesn’t have the borders the way shapewear did…The next big trend will be streetwear. You can already buy streetwear brands that look active like Polo Ralph Lauren.”

Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates, a global consulting firm. Aronson described active apparel and related accessories as a “big business” with lots more potential.

“It started at Lululemon with soccer moms and as the business became bigger others started getting into it. Under Armour probably has the biggest major department store distribution. I don’t think active has reached its crest yet and there’s still room for growth…Whatever you call it in that kind of genre of active or ath-leisure, a lot of people can wear it from petites and large sizes to beautiful people. It’s for men, women, juniors and children. By 2016 everything will start to go down channel. This is not luxury wear, but there can be style with all of the bells and whistles on it. It can be moderate-priced, higher than moderate, and it certainly can be lower than commodity-priced.”

Barbara Lipton, group vice president of intimates and activewear for Macy’s Merchandising Group, the private brand powerhouse of Macy’s. Lipton said the active category is generating “tremendous growth.”

“We are experiencing tremendous growth in our private active brands, Ideology for women and Material Girl Active for juniors. Both brands are performing above expectations and will continue to grow over the next three-to-five years. We believe the momentum for activewear will be strong with the ongoing focus on health and wellness being top-of-mind for women today. More and more women are enjoying the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, so offering great, easy outfits that take her from the studio to street and/or relaxation at home to sleep are becoming important wardrobe staples in every women’s closet. Activewear has become the new weekend wear, trend right dressing that is comfortable yet functional, and meets the needs of her active lifestyle. Women no longer want to change into several outfits once they get home. Easy loungewear pieces can serve many purposes, from home to walking the dog, to running errands, and then sleep. It’s easy, comfortable, convenient.”

Maureen Stabnau, senior vice president of merchandising for Bare Necessities, noted the active market is robust but crowded.

“It’s year-two for us doing active and it’s still a very good category on a growth trend. Everybody’s on board and a lot of sleepwear and loungewear brands are going after it like Komar, Carole Hochman, Urban Essentials by DKNY, and Karen Neuburger. But it’s getting crowded and there will be a back-off. A lot of people will move out _ I’m already seeing it.”

Ned Munroe, chief global design officer at Champion, a unit of Hanesbrands Inc., believes the active trend has staying power.

“I think the trend will not go away. Athleisure is here to stay and it’s defining a new category of apparel, Munroe said. “Champion is absolutely poised for great growth in the category because Champion is both a performance brand and a lifestyle brand, not a sportswear or fashion trend brand like Zara or Topshop. We are poised for growth because we specialize in innovation. Consumer market research shows that 93 percent of our consumers are wearing our athletic apparel for everyday wear … It’s not just about designer apparel for athletes, it’s about print, color and an everyday fashion component”

Carrie Henley, executive vice president and general manager of activewear-lifestyle brand Marika at FAM Brands Inc., advised brands to continue offering product that is “true to activewear and fulfills a function.”

“We constantly look for the latest and greatest in technology. We are currently planning on expanding our outreach with e-commerce, as well as putting forth research efforts into active tracking devices helping to enhance our customer’s workout,” Henley said. “Our product is considered ath-leisure as it is designed to be acceptable for everyday wear, easily transitioning throughout our customer’s day. We have begun to create a customizable experience for each consumer, making the items they purchase more personalized, Our Marika Tek line now includes our “Trim to Hem” fit, making leggings completely customizable for customers.”

Valeria Velandia, co-founder of Miel, an active lingerie brand, believes there is room for up-and-coming brands. “I think the people who shop at independent stores and organic boutiques want to find new things in active apparel, not what the bigger brands are doing. They are definitely interested in smaller, specialty brands. We launched Miel in 2008 to fullfill the gap between fashion and sexy lingerie and performance wear and sportswear. Our products integrate function and fashion.”