'Athleisure' wear blends athletic wear, fashion, casual clothing

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

From the street to the studio, athletic wear is shedding its sweaty gym association and slipping into something more fashionable.

Influenced by street styles, “athleisure” clothing is a burgeoning apparel trend breaking down the lines between athletic wear, high-end fashion, and casual clothing.

“I never call it that (athleisure wear), but I do wear it all day from the studio to the store and then lunch,” Perrysburg resident Emily Servais said. “I like the material, the comfort, and look of it. Now they are making it stylish.”

Miss Servais, 26, said her go to piece, the Lululemon Wunder Under Pant, is perfect for planning full outfits around.

“I love the material, it has stretch and is comfortable. I can mix and match outfits. And I glam it up with jewelry,” she said.

Besides the slimmed down and body pleasing designs, today’s athletic pieces can handle an hour or two of working out and still maintain a cool composure. A Saturday afternoon in a Starbucks, here or anywhere America, you may notice everyone is flaunting their gym gear. But did they really just workout?

“The fabric is super moisture wicking and you can literally take it from the yoga studio to the street,” Miss Servais said. And she does exactly that as an instructor at Tonic Studio in Maumee.

Maribeth Phibbs, 35, keeps Tonic’s on-site boutique stocked with the latest athleisure pieces. She calls this style of dress a movement, not a trend.

“Life has gotten a lot more casual. Here in Toledo people still want a metropolitan look and wanna look nice,” Ms. Phibbs said. “There has really been a huge movement in the athletic industry in the past four or five years. It (athleisure wear) has exploded.”

While Lululemon is credited with introducing the masses to athletic wear that can double as street or even social gathering-appropriate clothing, designers are responding to the customer-driven trend. Luxury sites like has an exclusive sportswear section, Net-A-Sporter, that recently featured loud, graphic looks from Cynthia Rowley and high-end leggings from Fendi fetching as much at $540. Pieces sport eye-catching details, like hardware, mesh, or multi-straps. Lisa Marie Fernandez’s Hannah striped leggings make a statement with its zig-zagged pattern and shiny metallic zipper.

Big box chains are also riding the athleisure wave, such as Target and H&M. Gap also answered the athleisure call. It purchased Athleta in 2008, a retailer that competes with the fashionable Lululemon.

Ms. Phibbs said the clothing is not all about cosmetics.

"I remember when I first started practicing yoga 10 plus years ago, I would stress out about what to wear in the class, not because what I looked like, but your shirt would come up, or pants roll down. There has been an adjustment and these brands cornered the market on function, comfort, and style. It's huge.

"In general it is all about crossover right now, but there are total junkies who want their athletic wear solely for its performance function. … It is a movement about letting your own creativity come out. So you see fun hippie-dippy pieces that allow you to be you, instead of the standard Nike pair of shorts with spandex," Ms. Phibbs said.

As Tonic's buyer she selects fashion forward pieces that function, as well as transitional clothes, from brands Lululemon Athletica, Los Angeles based Hard Tail Forever, and Alo.

She trend shops, which pairs some stylish performance gear with stiletto-heeled models. According to the site it "scour(s) the globe to curate the hottest, most hard-working sportswear labels that make style statements from the gym to the streets and beyond."

Athleisure is not all about fitness. Mariana Mitova, a lecturer for Bowling Green State University's Apparel Merchandising and Product Development studies, said people are buying into the sporty persona for the healthy image.

"The majority are buying it just for comfort. It is breathable, moisture wicking, extremely stretchy. It is very nice to the touch. The majority of this is very well designed fabrics," she said. "I think it really started with the preferences of the Gen X-ers and then Millennials rethinking lifestyles. It really goes along with the movement of people trying to live a better life, eat better, exercise more, maybe they don't at the end of the day. I believe it started with the movement of the time. And it is not one thing or one company," she said

Mrs. Mitova spoke to The Blade via Skype from her homeland Bulgaria, where wearing sweat pants out of the house and flip-flops for non-beach dates were once taboo. But these days the laid-back look is catching on. This segment of apparel is gaining momentum.

"It has grown between 12 to 18 percent on average, depending on category of clothing you are looking at: top, bottom, outer wear …" said Marshal Cohen, NPD Group's chief industry analyst and retail industry expert.

Leggings are the new jean.

"When I look at athleisure bottom business -- the yoga pant, sweat pant, sweat short -- it has displaced the jean business one to one. For every jean we are not selling or used to sell we are selling an athleisure bottom. It has become as important to the market as denim would be," he said.

What makes this trend unique, is that it is consumer born. Although sports apparel brands created the pieces, unbeknownst to them "it got to be everyday street wear."

"A fashion designer did not wake up and say ‘Let's make pajama pants to wear on the road,'" he said. Because of that, designers and brands are trying to play catch-up, with some denim brands figuring out how to make it work into their "sweet spot."

Mr. Cohen did not credit Lululemon for starting the trend. Lululemon and its shapely "A" logo made athleisure "more status oriented. It made it acceptable to wear by today's standards. They did create that transitional and cover up product. You wanted to buy a jacket that came from their store so you could wear it all day long over your athletic wear."

The trend was about 20 years in the making, and, surprisingly, he credits men for it.

"Five years ago on a weekend you go to the grocery store or the coffee shop, you see a guy buying the coffee. The coffee he is buying is not the story. What he is wearing is the story: T-shirt, gym shoes, and shorts. It is the uniform for the casual man and he may not even be going to the gym," he said.

The younger generation of the skate and surf industry influenced the acceptance of wearing athletic shoes.

"They broke the rules to wear these shoes all the time and treat them as any other shoe. That is where mixing the harmony of the suit with the more casual athletic shoe came from: the skate generation," he said.

Although the global information company NPD Group does not track athleisure as a grouping, according to its Consumer Tracking Service, activewear apparel sales in the U.S. increased by 13 percent in the 12 months ending in April, to $37.8 billion.

Maureen Conway, Marketing Director for Saks Fifth Avenue's Troy, Mich. store, said she also observed men were the first to make a foray into this style, with the gym shoe and the track suit. Men today are dressing up athletic type pants with more tailored shirts, and then vice versa.

"You'll see men with hoody type track jackets and paired back to khaki pants or jeans, definitely incorporated into a more casual look. You do see sort of that cross-pollination where people are wearing things that you wouldn't have traditionally thought in that setting that you would wear them, but it looks fantastic," she said.

She said the Detroit-area near Troy is fashion-forward and many people were rocking the style for several years.

Although she noted she was not in the business of predictions, she couldn't imagine the trend slowing down anytime soon.

"We definitely have a solid representation on our floor and I don't see that changing," she said. Saks also has a dedicated Activewear Shop at It features bold looks from top designers, some of them new to the sports scene.

"Everyone is owning it in their own way that is loyal to their brand, which I think is probably the most interesting part. You'll see now [Elie] Tahari has a Tahari Sport and they embrace it in very traditional Tahari sense, which is fantastic. And as I mentioned Brunello Cucinelli [does] the same thing. It is a very sophisticated, very chic, very tailored athleisure look, which is very loyal to their brand," she said.

She also admits that her closet has morphed into two sections: work clothes and athleisure.

She said don't be shy in pairing athletic inspired pants with striking high heels.

"We see people wear them with a neutral monochromatic tone pant with a powerful heel. In very compelling colors," she said. "This spring we saw an emergence of brightly patterned shoes, with more understated tones in the actual clothing. It is a very chic and shaped look. It is not always paired with athletic inspired shoes, as you might think. So it is stepping out of the box and looking at how you are pairing these looks together."

Contact Natalie Trusso Cafarello at: 419-206-0356,, or on Twitter @natalietrusso.