Shakedown in athleisure

Affordable fashion brand Gap sells athleisure under the Gap Body label.
Affordable fashion brand Gap sells athleisure under the Gap Body label. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The $1.3-trillion athletic leisurewear industry is being stretched by increased competition

NEW YORK • The beams are still bare in Yogasmoga's first Manhattan store, juice bar and fitness studio. But Mr Rishi Bali raves that he is building the next Lululemon - only better.

He certainly brings a hip pedigree to the table. He is from the foothills of the Himalayas, a birthplace of yoga, which he says flows in his blood. He honed his business skills at Goldman Sachs, where he was an operations executive.

And he is off to a fast start. His company, which started in 2013 selling yoga gear online, has already expanded to 12 brick-and-mortar stores. He plans to open as many as 25 stores this year, including the store in Manhattan's chic NoHo neighbourhood, which opens in June.

He is investing his venture capital money - he has raised US$12.5 million (S$16.9 million) - in high-tech performance fabrics and American manufacturing.

"We're going to be better than Lululemon, just more authentic," he said. "We're different from other brands jumping on that athleisure bandwagon."

More women are blending running, fitness and sports style in their lives,and this shift is fundamental to how this business operates.

MR TREVOR EDWARDS, Nike brand president, explaining why the company is going stronger into the athleisure market

That may be easier said than done.

Seemingly every clothing brand and retailer wants in on athleisure, a category that has become so prevalent that it has won an entry in the next update of the Merriam- Webster dictionary: casual clothing meant to be worn both for exercising and for doing almost everything else.

Louis Vuitton is selling athleisure. So are Victoria's Secret, Gap, Tory Burch and H&M. Online-only portals have introduced options: Net-a-Porter now runs Net-a- Sporter. Gyms and workout companies, such as SoulCycle, are creating clothing lines.

Nike, Under Armour and Adidas, the traditional sportswear giants, are all stepping up their offerings for the yoga-mat-toting demographic, promoting splashy collaborations with celebrities such as Pharrell Williams and Rihanna. Sweaty Betty, the fast-growing British athleisure brand, is expanding in the United States.

A result: The US$970-billion athleisure market is being stretched more than Lululemon's stretchiest yoga pants.

Already, some signs of strain are showing. Nike spooked investors - many of whom had bought into the athleisure boom - by reporting slowing sales on Tuesday. The athletics giant warned that revenue growth could slow further this year, to the mid-single digits, down from initial estimates of almost 10 per cent.

That came after Urban Outfitters in October scaled back its promotion of the company's athleisure brand, just a little more than a year after introducing it. Theory said early this year that it would not move forward with its stand-alone activewear line, Theory Plus.

Kit and Ace, the start-up operated by the family of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson that specialises in a soft, washable, stretchy fabric it calls "technical cashmere", laid off about 35 people or 10 per cent of the staff at its headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, last month.

Even Lululemon, the athleisure pioneer, has been struggling with falling profit margins and rising inventory.

"There's a lot of wannabes out there creating noise," said Mr Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm. "The shakedown's started. A lot of these brands are going to go away."

Few retail and fashion analysts expect that athleisure and active wear, as a category, will stall.

A cultural shift in the workplace, led by start-ups and other newer companies, has made it more acceptable to wear sneakers, and even sweatpants, to the office.

Still, the growing athleisure universe makes it harder than ever for brands to stand out.

Even companies that specialise in the athleisure category, such as Lululemon, are having to adjust. The company is fighting back against the competition by expanding its men's business and growing globally.

The company has said that it intends to open 60 stores this fiscal year, including eight stores each in Europe and Asia, where Lululemon runs just a handful of stores. It has 354 stores worldwide.

Mr Trevor Edwards, the Nike brand president, signalled that Nike would double down on athleisure trend. "More and more women are blending running, fitness and sports style in their lives, and this shift is fundamental to how this business operates," he said on a call with investors on Tuesday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2016, with the headline 'Shakedown in athleisure'. Print Edition | Subscribe