The Future Of The Activewear Industry

Fashion & Lifestyle Ecommerce15 min read

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the last few years have been a whirlwind: From a pandemic which turned day-to-day life on its head to a stagnation of the global economy to the escalation of tensions in Eastern Europe breaking out into a full-scale war, it appears that we have entered an era of great uncertainty & disruption. Despite these turbulent times, the activewear sector has survived and even thrived, as consumers have prioritized comfort & function in their wardrobes to meet the needs of their changing lifestyles. But as the global economy continues to constrict, will the activewear sector continue to grow? What strategies can brands adopt to ensure they prosper? And what is the outlook for activewear & athleisure sectors in the future? Let’s take a deep dive into the state of athletic apparel:

Why did activewear become so popular?

Fashion has always been a reflection of the socio-political-economic circumstances of every point in history, and the rise of activewear is no exception. Before the pandemic loomed, activewear had already seen a surge in popularity in the United States over the last decades. As a result, more and more Americans had already started integrating sportswear into their everyday style with items from athleisure brands like Lululemon, way before it became a global phenomenon. 

One of the major trends driving the athleisure market is the desire for a multifunctional wardrobe. The demand for comfort, style and performance in clothing and footwear has encouraged consumers to include activewear in their core wardrobe – pairing items with denim, dresses or formalwear.”

Honor Strachan, Lead Retail Analyst at Global Data

Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic where offices, schools, gyms and virtually every type of recreational space are closed, forcing everyone to spend the majority of their time in their homes. With such a monumental shift to everyday life, it’s only to be expected that our wardrobes follow suit. This preference for comfort coupled with an increase in health consciousness among consumers as a result of the pandemic has therefore led to the rapid growth of one sector in particular: Athleisure. While at the height of the pandemic in 2020, the greater apparel industry saw a 12% decrease in revenue year-over-year, the activewear sector proved to be more resilient. The demand for athleisure was especially high with a 57% increase in orders on average (+84% for women and +20% for men) the first year of the pandemic. Some athleisure brands saw even stronger performance than before the pandemic; In 2021, Nike and Lululemon saw their revenue grow 12% and 30% year over year, respectively.

Source: McKinsey Global Fashion Index, 2021

Is activewear just a trend or is it here to stay?

Coming up on the third anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the popularity of activewear is not just a fad but rather it has become entrenched in the fashion world. One of the reasons is that working conditions have shifted permanently. While many companies thought that home-office would not last post-pandemic, the reality is far from that with only 11% of workers going back to the office full-time. With most employees choosing to remain at home, there’s no need to return to stuffy office attire. Another reason why activewear is thriving is that there is a greater emphasis on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Indeed, according to an Ipsos survey, 62% of Americans say that their health is more important to them than before the pandemic. As a result, consumers are wearing activewear more often and integrating more of it into their wardrobes. It’s therefore not surprising that this year, the global activewear market is worth nearly $340 billion and is slated to balloon to over $450 billion in just 5 years.

Source: Statista, 2023

Given this steady growth, it’s only natural that every brand wants in on a sports apparel collaboration. Last year, Gucci turned heads with their Autumn/Winter 2022 runway in collaboration with Adidas, around the same time that Roksanda debuted a collection with FILA at London Fashion Week. Some brands aren’t stopping at a collab, going as far as to launch their own athleisure collections. In early 2021, period underwear brand, Thinx, launched its activewear collection as did the sustainable shoe brand Allbirds and Danish fashion brand GANNI that same summer. Not to mention the flood of entirely new athleisure brands looking to get a piece of the action. In the last 10 years, brands like Sporty & Rich, Girlfriend Collective, and P.E Nation have grown rapidly, rising in popularity among consumers to compete with the likes of Nike, Lululemon & Adidas. 

In a departure from her classic, more formal style, Michelle Obama was seen promoting her new book wearing a jacket from the Roksanda X FILA collection.

What is the future of the activewear industry?

While it’s safe to say that activewear is not going anywhere anytime soon, the active apparel sector is certainly facing some challenges. High inflation combined with increased costs for energy & raw materials, largely stemming from the war in the Ukraine, has left consumers anxious about the future. According to a McKinsey report, U.S. consumers are twice as pessimistic about the current economy than they were during the pandemic. This negative sentiment is echoed worldwide, causing spending on fashion apparel to dwindle. In fact, over 50% of consumers are planning to purchase fewer sports apparel & footwear items. With consumers cutting back on athleisure expenditure, combined with the wealth of brands & retailers expanding into the active apparel segment, competition is fierce. Luckily, consumers don’t show strong brand loyalty for athleisure. Indeed, 95% of respondents admitted that they owned activewear from more than one brand & 90% of shoppers switched brands between 2020 and 2021. This presents an invaluable opportunity for emerging brands looking to gain a foothold in the active apparel market in the future. 

In addition to the challenging economic environment, brands should also be aware of developments that could greatly impact their business in the next few years. Here are some of the trends & innovations that will define the future of activewear:

1. Luxury & athleisure: A match made in heaven

While the rest of the fashion industry will struggle throughout 2023, the luxury fashion sector is forecasted to see a 5-10% growth in sales. This is great news for the activewear segment, where brands stand to benefit by aligning themselves with the luxury segment, whether by offering luxury products or, even better, collaborating with luxury brands. Indeed, collaborations between luxury and sportswear brands have been wildly popular over the last few years, demonstrating a clear appetite among consumers for luxury activewear styles or “athluxe.” After all, one of the biggest consumer groups of athleisure is made up of 25-44 year olds who earn upwards of $100,000 per year. 

2. Activewear meets technology: The rise of wearables

Another trend to look out for in the next few years is the interest in wearable technologies in the activewear sector, such as smart apparel, footwear, watches & eyewear which can monitor heart rate, blood pressure, etc. Consumer interest in wearables is also on the rise with an expected CAGR of 9.8% from 2023-2028. While Fitbits and other smartwatches are the most widely purchased type of wearable in the activewear sector, more innovative wearables such as smart active apparel will grow in popularity among shoppers as technology & accessibility improves. Activewear & fitness brands who are seeking to stay relevant in the coming years should therefore consider investing in wearable technologies.

3. Inclusivity: Activewear for all

The last trend that will define the future of the activewear sector is the movement towards inclusivity. Today’s shoppers, especially Gen Z & Millennial shoppers, are looking to invest in brands that reflect their values. In one study, 82% of Millennials and 61% of Gen Z surveyed stated that diversity & inclusion are important to them. In another survey, 61% of Gen Z indicated that they believe that minority groups are ignored by the mainstream fashion industry, while a further 87% strongly believe that there should be more gender equality in fashion. Some brands have already taken cues from their younger audience and begun creating collections geared towards inclusivity. In 2018, Nike launched sports hijabs and later expanded their Victory line to include modest swimwear. In 2019, Adidas collaborated with Beyonce to launch a gender-neutral collection with hopes of reaching a female audience.

Source: quantilope, 2022

What can activewear & athleisure brands do to thrive? 

We’ve established that athleisure has a promising future, but considering the rocky economic climate, it won’t be easy for activewear brands to thrive. If brands want prove their resilience and keep growing their revenue, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Be inclusive

Consumers want to see activewear for people of all shapes, sizes, genders, abilities, etc. Brands looking to tap into younger audiences should therefore strongly consider offering activewear styles for everyone. This starts by extending the range of sizes available, offering genderless options, and designing garments that can be worn by those with disabilities, by creating laceless shoes or implementing magnetic zippers. Slick Chicks, an adaptive clothing brand which offers side-fastening underwear & loungewear, is just one brand which has made it their mission to offer styles which can be worn by everyone.

Be transparent

Be very clear with consumers on what your offering is and don’t make any false claims. Consumers are savvier than ever and are willing to do their homework to make sure they are purchasing products that align with their values. If you want to stand out by offering conscious products, skip the generic labels like “sustainable” & “eco-friendly.” instead, make sure you indicate specifically how the product is eco-friendly or ethical, e.g. recycled, fair trade, organic, vegan, etc. Size-inclusive & eco-friendly activewear brand, Girlfriend Collective, offers consumers complete transparency, from the facilities they produce their clothes in, to the materials they use. This commitment to transparency has led them to become an acclaimed brand by publications such as Vogue.

Be open to collaborate

Whether it be with luxury or more niche brands or even with organizations in support of a cause, collaborations are a great way to expand your audience and strengthen your brand. Collabs are also a great way to rally a community around the same values, which is especially important for Millennial and Gen Z audiences. A great example of this is the collaboration between Adidas and Parley for the Oceans, an organization which raises awareness for the threats to the world’s oceans. As part of their partnership, Adidas is now turning reclaimed ocean plastics into sportswear, one example being their Parley x Ultraboost 22 sneakers.

Be innovative

If one of the biggest trends which fomented the emergence of athleisure was the rise of synthetics & improved fabric technology, then you can bet that the future of this field is to push that innovation further. Brands should therefore consider investing in new materials and integrating new technologies into their products to meet the demands of health-conscious consumers. Some companies have already begun experimenting with new fabric blends & adding health-monitoring features to their garments. Janji, a brand which focuses specifically on running apparel, uses a variety of fabrics which are geared towards improving performance & durability. One of their newer developments is a polyester blended with volcanic ash which helps to regulate body temperature, wick away moisture & neutralize odors. Another activewear brand, Wearable X, has created leggings with embedded sensors which produce vibrations that guide yogis’ movements to improve their form.

There’s no denying that activewear has transcended from being merely a trend to a wardrobe essential for the modern consumer. Still, even activewear brands that enjoyed growth throughout the pandemic are entering a period of unpredictability with recession looming on the horizon. To survive, activewear players will have to fully align themselves with their consumers to provide a product which marries their consumers’ needs with their values. Moreover, brands need to be in-tune with future developments within the industry to ensure they remain relevant and don’t get left behind.

written by:

Anne Startup

Partner Marketing Manager

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