Activewear Evolution

I believe activewear is changing. I mean this in terms of the industry and the garments, but also how people think about sport, fitness and the clothes they wear to do their activities. This is mostly about women’s specific activewear, but is somewhat applicable to menswear as well.

There are a few things driving this evolution. The first is what I would describe as “fitsbo fatigue”. In other words, fitness inspiration isn’t enough. In real terms of total adoption rates, more and more people are getting into fitness (which is awesome). But once a person gets into sport or fitness, there’s only so far to go before he/she has to start making real-life choices about time, money, commitment and even relationships. This is the moment at which one might wonder: is my life now largely defined by my sport/fitness activities? Another word for this has been simply described as old-fashioned burnout.

Burnout has always been difficult, particularly for elite athletes, to deal with. But within the context of lives documented and shared across social media, anyone who is “into sport/fitness” come quite close to facing the kind of pressures that really only used to effect elite and professional athletes. People want to know why you’ve stopped posting about your trips to the gym. Your followers have participated (even if just vicariously) in your journey so-far, and there’s a very real sense that you might be letting them down by changing your narrative. And the pressure mounts, without the daily dopamine hit of a notification deck full of likes: What if I’m doing something wrong by stepping back from the total commitment I once displayed?

Most people bounce back from burnout and find a balance in their lives, because training like an elite athlete is difficult, and largely an unnatural state of living. Even elite athletes have off-seasons. Some even take a year or two out before returning. And while a huge number of people are using social media to inspire a balanced lifestyle and keep motivated, the narrative of constant improvement that is so prevalent across fitness inspiration social media can actually be more destructive than constructive in the long-run. Fitness inspiration, in the “fitspo” style, stops feeling inspiring. Is looking good and being “fit”, or competing and being fast (indeed very different things), actually enough motivation to keep me going, and make me really want to sacrifice other aspects of my life and personality?

Fitness inspiration across social media and conventional media can shift from motivation to feeling inadvertently excluded, badgered, even bullied. Gym selfies start getting described as “smug” rather than inspiring. To simplify: those Instagramed washboard abs (etc, etc) are no longer motivating. They’re just not enough.

Another reason is simply to do with age. The early adopters of perhaps what could be called ‘contemporary commercialised fitness and sport’ in the last decade, (yes, there have always been people into non-commercialised sport and fitness but there are fewer and fewer of them around), are reaching their 30s and even 40s and realising they have other commitments in life. Children, work, finances, ageing parents, are just some of these pulls, and particularly for women, sport and fitness often have to take a back seat. This is nothing new and there is ample data demonstrating this to be one of the major reasons women, in particular, struggle to keep into sport/fitness throughout their lives.

These people are looking for their sport/fitness activities to fit into their lives rather than having to fit their lives around sport and fitness.

The trend for wearing activewear for work/casual-wear (yes, this is just a trend but still a growing one) is more a reflection of living life on the move and a more relaxed work culture than it is about simply shaping one’s life around going to the gym.

One major issue I can see emerging from this discussion is the conflation of sportswear with activewear/fitness apparel. They are often very different things. Usually sportwear has more of a technical-sport-specific job to do. Fitness (conventional activewear) apparel is less technical and more about looking good at the gym, yoga, or running. Fitness apparel doesn’t usually understand the passion behind sport that has nothing to do with being fit/looking good. This is one reason I think so many (female-focused) fitness brands struggle to get sportswear right (see Sweaty Betty’s skiwear range). And so often, if we’re talking now specifically about womenswear, traditional sports brands (Nike, Adidas, Reebok) conflate “women’s sport” with fitness. This is not a good thing, in my opinion. It belittles women’s sport to the level of looking good. Fitness stops being about physical conditioning and starts being simply about looks and shape and one’s sexual attractiveness. This is an issue, but is also one of the reasons so many sportswear brands have started looking and behaving a lot more like fashion: using conventional models, doing catwalk shows, adhering to seasonal colour trends and releasing in seasons.

However, if sportswear-as-fashion gets otherwise sedentary people into sport and fitness, that’s probably an overall win.

The third major driver is simply the sheer number of new sports-fashion brands. Brands like Lucas Hugh, Outdoor Voices, Lexie Sport and numerous others are beginning to put the major incumbent brands like Adidas, Nike, and Lululemon through their paces. And good on them. They are experimenting with materials, colours, and silhouettes that were once taken for granted. The number of new activewear brands alone almost can’t help but push the general aesthetic of sportswear along into interesting new places. These brands are completely and utterly shifting the way people thinking about activewear and what it means to be into sport/fitness.

But given the speed of trends these days, some of these new brands already feel tired and me-too.

The single biggest issue I can see with the women’s activewear industry is that it focuses too much on fitness: gym, yoga, and running. Almost everything indoors (or variations on the gym — I.e. “the park is my gym”). It is to be applauded how much this industry encourages women to be active and healthy, but I can’t help but wonder if this is just more of the same traditional message to women everywhere: your worth as a person is intrinsically attached to your looks, health, and thus your ability to procreate. In other words, sweat/strong is still about within the realms of “sexy”.

I personally struggle with this, because as a heterosexual female, of course I want to look good for my partner, and for myself, but my longest-lasting feelings of achievement (sport-related or otherwise) have virtually nothing to do with the shape I’m in. Fitness becomes a secondary aspect to a larger accomplishment, whether that is finishing a big mountain bike race, hiking a mountain or competing in a triathlon. I might like the way I look in the mirror after accomplishing these things, but I didn’t do them to look in the mirror or fit into a smaller pair of jeans. This has personally been difficult for me to grapple with because I want to be fit (conditioned) enough to be able to do things I enjoy with the people I love, but fitness (looks, size, etc), isn’t motivation enough to get there.

I believe something is about to change. And as my dear friend, mentor and colleague Richard Seymour once said, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The mood across social media has exploded with a newly connected and re-defined feminism. Conventional media messages aimed at women are changing at light-speed. Women are no longer depicted as the one-dimensional stereotypes advertising of just five years ago would have had us believe. Women are entering the boardrooms of major companies at an explosive rate (though probably not quickly enough), and our voices are getting heard and actually often listened to. So perhaps, and this is a best-guess hypothesis, the orthodox message to women about our looks and fitness as the primary source of our social worth, is going to change too.

This change starts by taking women and our multi-faceted values very seriously. Until “Women’s-” (active/fitness-wear) stops being a sportswear category unto itself (alongside Basketball, Cycling, Running, etc.), women’s values and personalities will always be simplified. I also think that with this sports/activewear brands and marketers have to take men’s values more seriously too — we’re all pretty clear now that men who are into sport/fitness are not all just meatheads or jocks. There are a lot of awesome ways of being into sport/fitness and they don’t all look alike.

And the outdoors industry isn’t much better.

This is where Bowndling comes in. I want Bowndling to encourage women to go outside, whatever that means to them. Adventure isn’t just about climbing mountains or chasing singletrack. Adventure is and has always been a state of mind defined by your own courage and sense of comfort. Every entrepreneur, every ground-breaking scientist, every business leader who has shaken up the norm, or stepped outside of their comfort zone, facing fear, challenges, and numerous mistakes — are all adventurers. But I also believe outdoor adventure can bring incredible courage and strength to people; something you then take back into your everyday life.

Bowndling is an evolved activewear, with a major difference. It’s not about going to the gym. It’s not about getting fit. Bowndling is about supplying women with the clothes they want to wear to do the things they love to do. We will never tell women to get fit. You don’t have to look a certain way to feel an incredible sense of accomplishment during an adventure. Adventurewear is not defined by physical fitness, but rather defined by one’s ability to feel amazing whatever you’re doing. For some people, this is simply about going outside in the rain.

And here is the crux of it all. There are a few lucky women in the world who define themselves as “outdoorsy”. But I think this is a dying stereotype that tells women we have to choose a type to be. I am proud that I got to grow up in an outdoorsy family, and have once or twice felt myself to be outdoorsy. But this never sat quite right with me. I love fashion, I love art. I love living in a cosmopolitan city. I love reading and cooking and learning and teaching and being creative. I love the outdoors and I love to travel and explore and set myself challenges, but the outdoors and the activewear industries refuse to take me and my multiple values seriously. The outdoors industry hasn’t changed its silhouette in 30 years. I am expected to look either like an 19 year old hipster snowboard chick, slightly dumpy, or like a sexy billionaire snow-bunny. I’m none of these. If I go swimming, I’m expected to either sit by the side of the pool (and thus be fashionable), or wear a speedsuit that has zero taste and does nothing for my figure. If I want to go hiking in dry-wicking pants, I have to look like I’ve got elephant legs. And I know I’m not the only one.

There are three generations of incredibly fashion-savvy, multi-faceted, interesting, confusing, active and awesome women. These women are walking around in activewear all the time now; often cheaply made lycra designed to look good in a gym mirror and hide sweat marks. And you know what? We’re outside. We’re outside every day. But only a few of us think of ourselves as outdoorsy. Bowndling is about dropping the style barrier to the outdoors. Because the world would be a much better place if it were filled with courageous women (and men), who feel like better, more capable people because of the activities they do outside. Whether we are fit, thin, chubby or whatever(!) we should feel encouraged to explore the world, to challenge ourselves and the people and limits around us. This is what it means to be adventurous. This is why we’re making clothes that are not defined by your fitness but rather by the adventures you seek.

It is time for a new category of clothing. One that takes movement and activity for granted. One that is a high-quality and brings dignity and pride both to its makers and wearers.

Activewear should not be limited to the gym, to the mirror, to the scales. Technical prowess shouldn’t be confined to ugly garments or a few specific sports. Our lives are surrounded by technology, why should we accept the ugly technology the outdoors industry expects us to wear on our backs? Why should we be OK with fashion that will get destroyed if we wear it in the rain? We shouldn’t. Technology can be beautiful, and it should be. Technical fabrics don’t have to look technical. They should simply look beautiful. Adventurewear is going to help deliver this change. Come be a part of it.



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