Athleisure Brands Booming as Wellness Trends Expand

If you think athletic wear is just utilitarian clothing for the gym or that leggings aren’t pants, you’re missing out on one of the decade’s hottest retail trends—athleisure. And it’s not just a passing trend. Athleisure was officially defined by Merriam-Webster in 2014 as “casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use.”

But what the definition doesn’t address is athleisure is about more than just being clothes that combine attractiveness and utility. Athleisure is designed to be an extension of one’s typical day-to-day attire, while at the same time signaling the wearer’s active healthy lifestyle. And it’s becoming a retail apparel bright spot.

Athleisure is designed to be an extension of one’s typical day-to-day attire, while at the same time signaling the wearer’s active healthy lifestyle.

In 2017, activewear apparel sales increased about 2% to $48 billion, representing roughly 22% of total apparel industry sales, according to NPD Group, a market research firm. Driving that growth was primarily greater sales of women’s athleisure merchandise, NPD said.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that Gap’s women’s athleisure brand Athleta has been performing at a much faster rate than that of the industry. The brand had another strong first quarter with double-digit growth (vs. the rest of the brand portfolio’s single-digit growth).

Lululemon’s Instagram post highlights what customers can experience in their physical stores.

Why athleisure resonates

A recent study set out to understand what makes a brand successful in the digital age. It concluded that legacy retailers—like Coca-Cola, BMW, Gillette—focus on positioning their brands in the minds of customers. Digital brands—like Red Bull, Tesla, and Dollar Shave—instead focus on positioning their brands in the lives of their customers. The study defined these two groups as “purchase brands” (focus on sales) vs. “usage brands” (focus on the usage of product). And it’s the usage brands that are attracting a millennial fanbase.

Per a Harris poll, 72% of millennials prefer to spend their money on experiences, rather than material things. As we’ve been exploring on our blog, consumers are increasingly buying from brands that are focused on experiences. They are looking to support brands whose values align with their own, and to build a relationship with the brand over time.

Carbon38 offers luxury active apparel that enables ‘women to live their lives on their own terms.’ Photo courtesy of Carbon38’s Instagram account.

Successful athleisure brands are moving to retail’s forefront by tapping into this consumer sentiment. The use of real customers—not models—is one of the ways the brands are connecting with their ideal consumer. Lululemon, whose marketing efforts focus on partnerships with yoga professionals, took things a step further by enlarging photos of local yoga instructors wearing their gear and putting them on the walls of their stores.  

This reinforces for customers that they’re not just buying $90 yoga pants—they’re investing their lifestyle. Lululemon shoppers are focused on healthy eating thanks to their meal kit subscriptions, are wearing an Apple watch, Fitbit or other fitness tracker, and listening to the Headspace meditation app on their daily commute, with their healthy packed lunch in a Lululemon reusable shopping bag.

Building on their customer’s community focus, Lululemon launched Hub Seventeen, a community gathering place in the basement of their NYC Flatiron District store, where shoppers can take yoga workshops, view art or films, and attend concerts. The store will also boast a concierge service to help shoppers book nearby gym classes or other healthy living events.

Fans of Outdoor Voices show off their high kicks and their love for the brand. Photo courtesy of Outdoor Voices’ Instagram account.

Athleisure brands to watch

As the market for athleisure continues to grow, big brands like Adidas and Nike are earmarking significant budget to expand their footprint in the women’s athleisure market, and working with high-powered celebrities. But in addition to those heavy hitters, we’re keeping a close eye on a couple of companies that have a keen focus on creating exceptional experiences in the athleisure market:

  • Luxury athleisure brand Carbon38 is expanding with a permanent brick-and-mortar store in Palisades Village, a pop-up in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and placing its private label line in Neiman Marcus. With a recent infusion of $15 million from Footlocker, Carbon38 plans to offer shoppers a spa-like shopping experience that includes a coffee bar, dressing rooms with flattering lighting, and a thoughtful retail flow.
  • Outdoor Voices Founder Tyler Haney started the company after being frustrated that there wasn’t a feminine and fashionable brand that felt as stylish as her regular wardrobe while being built for “doing things.” The brand has evolved to become a lifestyle brand for people whose daily routines involve casual activity, not just a sportswear brand.

Stay tuned for more insights into the customer experience trends behind the next generation of health and wellness retail brand standouts. And if it’s time to improve your customer experience, get in touch.