Is activewear the new couture?

Posted on by Melanie Bender

Last week fitness fan-brand Lululemon announced a push into streetwear with &Go, a collection of dresses and drapey tanks more suited for the bar than barre. (Note: the &Go landing page has since been removed from Lululemon's site) Nike, Adidas and Athleta are also making conspicuous pushes into street categories. Meanwhile, Gap, Victorias Secret, Topshop and Juicy Couture are among the many fashion brands investing in activewear.

A dress ($198) from Lululemon's &Go line

A dress ($198) from Lululemon's &Go line

Product expansion is what brands do -- you start somewhere and then make play after play for total wallet dominance. But there's a reason why all this action is around activewear and why now. Activewear isn't just another product skew like shoes or handbags. It's a category of expression and aspiration, much like the role couture has played in designer fashion. Couture shows elite taste, craft and access. Activewear shows elite strength, culture and grit. Both are used to power aspirational campaigns -- a model in an unreal setting, an athlete performing an unreal feat. Both create powerful brand narratives, relevance and cache, then used to market mass products. 

Nike campaign image

Nike campaign image

So why now? As with so many things in fashion today, it's an artifact of the Age of the Selfie. With consumers broadcasting their daily runway via social media, where activewear wins over couture is everyday relevance and accessibility. Balancing aspiration with accessibility is the driving tension of any brand, but activewear brands are arguably among those doing this most successfully. While they've lowered the bar of price accessibility, they've added the bar of performance accessibility -- yes, you can shell out $500 for the complete look, but you can't buy the ability to dunk or do the scorpion pose. That may be why activewear is edging out almost any other category in spending growth (9% YoY), and earning more emphasis from top designers (see: Alexander Wang, Derek Lam, Isabel Marant and Kenzo). See-through-pants issues included, Lululemon's 2013 sales alone were projected at $1.6B. Activewear isn't going to replace couture, but it's no surprise it's becoming a sought-after territory for powerhouse brands.

Alexander Wang's Sprign 2012 sport-chic runway

Alexander Wang's Sprign 2012 sport-chic runway