Getting Comfortable with the Future of Athleisure

I live for lounging, and last weekend was no exception. After a relaxing morning, I met my friends for lunch. They asked me if I had been for a run that morning. Decked out in spandex pants, neon sneaks, a tank top, and a hoodie, I could see their point. This, however, has become my weekend garb — and if I could wear it every day to work, I probably would.

Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, recently (and boldly) proclaimed that “leggings are the new denim.” This fashion trend, deemed “athleisure,” is here to stay.

But why? What’s driving this shift in consumer mindset? Busy Millennials? Fast fashion? Health-conscious living? For years we have seen images of celebrities in skinny jeans, fierce tops that cost hundreds of dollars, and heels. What changed?

It’s simple. Comfort is comfortable — both on our bottoms and on bottom lines. Last year alone, athleisure clothing generated $35 billion and made up 17% of the entire American clothing market.

Lululemon spotted this trend ahead of every other clothing brand out there. With both stylish and versatile apparel, they are the market leader in the fashionable athleisure market. In a recent Fast Company article, Jill Chatwood, Lululemon’s director of global trend and collaborations, says that the company’s “passion for innovation comes as much from within as it does from seeing what others are doing.” They are continuing to focus on “inventing the future of the market [they] created.”

And they need to. Not only are athletic brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods launching athleisure lines, but so are established apparel retailers like Abercrombie and Old Navy, whose aim with their new line is “to establish performance credibility in the space through an Old Navy lens … [which] means being much more democratic and inclusive and fun and conversational than [competitors] would be,” said Old Navy’s CMO, Ivan Wicksteed.

Athleisure is having its high-fashion (and high-priced) moment, too — luxury labels from Alexander Wang to Tory Burch have embraced the trend. But, as Burch herself tells Vogue, “[t]his didn’t feel like a trend to me. It really seemed like a change in the way women were dressing.” And with that change comes massive opportunity — to differentiate and truly meet the unique needs of the people wearing the clothes. “I started to think, How do we make this stuff chic again?” Burch continues. “What a lot of sports brands miss is femininity, unless it’s a garish femininity in the form of exposed body parts and neon colors. I was thinking more The Royal Tenenbaums.”

Beyond its functionality and comfort, athleisure offers something for everyone, at every price point. But what will it offer tomorrow? As consumers’ tastes and needs shift, it will be fascinating to watch and see how the clothes evolve accordingly.

Take, for example, smart clothing (already here thanks to up-and-comers like Athos and AiQ). This may be athleisure’s next evolutionary phase. And, with Google’s Project Jaquard well underway — weaving conductive yarn into basically any fabric on earth to sense touch and monitor haptic feedback — what will be the Project’s implications for sport and athletic wear? “This is not a technology problem,” Ivan Poupyrev, technical program lead inside Google’s ATAP division, tells WIRED. “Adding a full wearable LCD thing on your wrist, that’s easy. It’s really a design problem. Design, and cultural understanding.”

Poupyrev is right. And achieving that understanding is the harbinger for athleisure. For men and women, the clothes must check the boxes of form, fashion, and function. But that’s not all there is to it. Every person has his or her distinct need inside the trend, and it’s up to brands to listen to (and learn from) consumers themselves — the ultimate athleisure aficionados — and design clothing around that understanding.

While trends may come and go, athleisure is here to stay. It’s even ready for the next level. And, when brands let consumers lead the way, they will grow, innovate, and endure…with customers by their side, and their clothes on customers’ backs. That’s something we can all feel comfortable with.

Originally published at on August 19, 2015.