The “new normal” has already turned out to be a change in lifestyles. This has led to a boom in sales of athleisure products across the globe. A cursory look.

In some ways it is a trend that has skyrocketed. In still other ways it is a market that has mushroomed out of a virtually barren and dead landscape. The perspective depends on who you are talking to. Existing players perceive a trend that has suddenly boomed; other players see a new category to cater to altogether. The trend or the market that we are talking about here is athleisure. Some, however, prefer the term activewear. But the idea holds.

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It was a trend waiting to pick up, and a market marking its time to burgeon—with trends for sure driving the market—since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic itself unfolded with widespread and untold devastation. Shops first shut down with the lockdowns the world over, and then for good, unable as they were to sustain themselves without footfalls (read, sales/revenues). The strict lockdown measures meant that people stayed confined to their walls.

Many did exercise in their homes to stay fit and avoid putting on some pandemic weight, but with the easing of lockdown restrictions by and by, people broke free from the confines of homes, and into the empty streets and trails through the wild. Some ran, others cycled. Minus the obvious variations due to geographies and socio-political realities, the story has been the same all over.

If one sees and understands fashion as a lifestyle issue, then this has been a classic case of how lifestyles drive or even change fashion. It’s also about how and where people buy apparel.

The lockdown categories

There were some who were quick on the uptake, as it started to slowly dawn as to what the new normal would be like. In early May itself, London-based fashion brand COS announced the launch of COS Active, a 15-piece collection of activewear. The collection included seamless leggings in neutral tones, sports bras that were supportive and stylish, sweatproof t-shirts, outerwear, no-show socks, and a tote bag to carry them all. In short, it was ready for the new normal.

The trends were there from the very beginning, but it was only a quarter or so later (in August) that the trends could become more tangible in terms of numbers. Gap Inc’s only brand to post a sales increase in the second quarter of the year was athleisure chain Athleta, “while its worst drop was at the office garb-focused Banana Republic, which saw its business halved.” Apart from its obvious importance of being a big brand owner, the trend here was worth taking note of—it is often seen as a barometer of apparel spending among Americans. The guesstimates, therefore, found a mooring.

Those already dealing with athleisure/activewear were the first to benefit. In early August, shares in Asos saw a surge after the online retailer said a shift in shopping habits among customers had delivered an unexpected boost to its business. Asos said sales and profits for its financial year were now expected to be “significantly ahead of market expectations.” The realities were the same with German online brand Zalando which said second quarter sales had jumped by 27 per cent, driven in part by demand for leisure clothes, sports clothes, and beauty products.

It is certainly time to make hay. Retailer Kohl’s Corp announced in May that it saw over 100 per cent increase in activewear sales in the last quarter. Online sales went up by 60 per cent in April and then continued to grow even as the chain gradually reopened stores. Within four months, it had gone into activewear. Early September, Kohl's Corp and Adidas AG announced a partnership with actress-activist Zoe Saldana on a line of clothes and accessories for women.

Others have got a chance to break into athleisure. Dia&Co, the clothing and lifestyle brand dedicated to serving the plus-size community, also in early September announced a capsule collection with sportstyle brand Fila. The capsule is part of Fila's new Curve Collection. Since launching activewear, Dia has built a large selection of plus size fitness apparel. Its past partnerships have included a fitness apparel collection with EleVen by Venus Williams.

It should sound relatively easy for swimwear brands to venture on to land—new terrain so to speak. That's what Summersalt did later in September, with its maiden activewear collection.

But then not everyone has been buying into the athleisure argument. Levi Strauss & Co President and CEO Chip Bergh in August spoke to Yahoo Finance about the "myth" of the athleisure boom affecting jeans sales. "Non-active apparel is still 70 per cent of all waist-down wear," he said. "Of that, denim is about 50 per cent... men's jeans and women's jeans are both bigger than athleisure." According to Bergh, sweatpants and pajamas are on their way out as people emerge from quarantine.

Beyond the pandemic

The entire matter, in hindsight, would appear to be a no-brainer. Athleisure/ activewear and other kinds of comfortwear were bound to be the only categories to see any kind of sales during the lockdown periods earlier and the slowdown pandemic subsequently. When people don’t go to offices or attend events, sales in all such categories are bound to go down, and that it has been. Athleisure and other associated categories have, thus, turned out to be a saving grace.

Therein also lies a problem. If this is the only segment of the textiles-apparel-fashion industry that is going to see any activity or even growth in the foreseeable future, then it would become one tiny pie from which everyone wants a share to survive. For one it cannot grow beyond a point, and second the entire industry cannot be conflated into one segment, that is probably just fleeting in nature.

There are some problematic areas at hand. First, there are many who believe and also propagate that the trend is here to stay, and that this would be the future. It could well be, and it might well turn out to be something else altogether. No one knows how long the pandemic will last, and worse whether we could see other outbreaks as well. It is the certainty of those arguments that is misleading. For the moment, it would be wiser for brands, manufacturers and retailers to simply see this as a passing phase, and not to put all their hard-earned eggs into the athleisure basket.

The second is a danger of cannibalisation. Since athleisure and related categories are the only ones likely to see some sales in the near future, it is likely that this entire segment will see more players diversifying (out of sheer desperation or by just sensing a business opportunity) into it in the days to come. One could see price wars, and bigger players gobbling up smaller ones in a do-or-die market scenario. More online sales would also mean more returns. At a time when products are moving much slowly along the supply chain this could lead to new challenges for companies in terms of inventory management as also logistics from a broader point of view. That ought to come with the territory—new markets and trends come with their own new flipsides and challenges.

And then, there is also that hidden threat posed by over-consumption of activewear. If those are not sustainably produced (with circularity in mind, for instance), the fashion industry could well land up with another blot on its image that it can well avoid. The use-and-throw culture (particularly of t-shirts) that was willy-nilly encouraged earlier by the countless marathon organisers, meanwhile, still needs to be studied.

But for now, it is only athleisure that is cutting through the pandemic.

This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of the print magazine.