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When was Sportswear in Fashion? Answer: Always

By on February 20th, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes

In January 2020, reputed British auction house Sotheby’s revealed their collection of art-inspired streetwear created in collaboration with sneaker blog Highsnobiety. This, I think, is a perfect example of how far we’ve come in blurring sports, fashion, culture, and society.

Today, it seems the world is driven by sports. It’s a billion-dollar heavyweight that’s present in everything from entertainment to fashion. Because there’s so much money to be made, there’s room for everyone: professionals, amateurs, enthusiasts, and haters. This also means sportswear can be anything you want it to be.

In this blog, we’ll reflect on the history of sportswear in fashion to see where we are today, and three trends to consider when building a business in the athletic apparel industry.

Evolution of activewear: evolution of society

Sports and fashion have always been there to respond to our changing society. For example, before the industrial revolution, fashion was tailored mainly for the upper class (Wear day clothes to the theater? Barbarians!). Pre-emancipation, sports was heavily gendered (Women in sports? What nonsense!).

Sports used to be a pastime for those with means for the gear and energy for the game. With industry replacing manual labor, physical exertion could finally become fun for the working class, too. Photo and film made sports accessible to those who couldn’t go to the games, and allowed moments in sports to live (and be monetized) forever, giving reason for fans to become attached to their favorite athletes. Sports turned into a competition of nations without war.

Today, gender barriers are coming down, and both consumers and brands are making enough money to let fashion and sports be accessible to everyone. Money is the dealbreaker—the more of it you have, the more leisure time you have. And fashion, sports, and entertainment are all brilliant for spending that time and money.

Sportswear trends: customer desires, reflected

You wake up early to hit the gym. Post workout, you slip out of your limited-edition gear and change into an outfit that includes either a t-shirt, a hoodie, a polo, or a pair of sneakers. After work, you unwind at home in your coziest sweats. 

Unknowingly, you’ve spent most of your day in sportswear. Sneakers (aka tennis shoes) and polo shirts were made for the tennis court. Hoodies started out as performance wear, but are now a fashion staple with luxe versions retailing as much as $2,000. 

So how did the humble hoodie rise to such fame?

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Designer hoodies at Neiman Marcus

In early 20th century New York, the Feinbloom brothers began a sports apparel company they would rebrand as “Champion” by the 1930s. Their prototype of a protective shirt for working outdoors transformed into Champion’s much-loved sweatshirt, a garment for keeping athletes warm before and after training. To have the sweatshirt trap body heat even better, Champion fitted it with a hood. 

College students started wearing their hoodies off the court and field, and the garment quickly gained favor outside campuses for its utility and versatility. Once 1970’s and 1980’s subcultures grabbed hold of the hoodie, they turned it into a symbol of anti-establishment. In no time, the hoodie was all over sports, music, and streetwear.

Today, with the hoodie making rounds in the fashion arena, Champion has revamped their identity for the modern customer who’s willing to pay top dollar for a brand with roots. The tale of the hoodie is an example of smart business, and sports and fashion responding to our desires.

As a business owner going into sportswear, how are you going to respond to your audience’s changing lifestyles and desires?

To help you figure it out, here are three major trends that are impacting the present and the future in the athletic apparel market.

1. Women’s sports apparel: an unstoppable market segment

In 2018, the largest share in the global athletic apparel market was held by the men’s segment. However, the women’s segment is expected to see the highest growth with an annual rate of nearly 6% throughout 2019–2026.

Again, this is the market’s response to societal shifts.

In the early 1900’s, women’s sportswear, like women’s sports, was often limited, limiting, and designed to preserve the athlete’s “femininity,” as per the social norms of the era. Even when the sports apparel industry gave way to streetwear in the late 20th century, the styles were dominated by men’s fashion.

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It’s called sportswear, look it up. Source: Powerhouse Museum via Flickr

Today, women are in sports for good—professionally, recreationally, and culturally—and brands are recognizing the business potential. Due to the unforeseen impact of the modern health and fitness industry, there’s sales to be made in women’s performance gear, health & fitness apparel and accessories, and on-trend collaborations with fashion designers.

Big-name sports companies are also taking the next steps in securing the women’s segment, and are becoming financial and ideological supporters of global female sports.

Now’s an exciting time for women in sports. It’s a good opportunity to empower athletes by providing them with the quality resources and support they deserve.

2. Sports, apparel, and ecommerce: universes colliding

One of the learnings from 2020 so far is that it’s a good idea to put at least part of your apparel business online. This also applies to sportswear.

In the global sports apparel market, discount stores and ecommerce remain the top distribution channels, yet it’s ecommerce that’s forecast to see the biggest growth. So if you want to get your target customer to choose your online store over their nearest sports outlet, you’re going to have to give them more than just a good deal!

To do this, acknowledge and appreciate how fine the line between “digital” and “real” world is right now: especially for Gen Z and younger audiences. Going online means finding a connection with the offline, and vice versa. You’re going to have to create your image and tell your brand story in a way that makes sense in both worlds.

For a high-fashion example, consider Balmain, the iconic fashion house. It’s keeping up with next-generation consumers who appreciate the merging of couture, streetstyle, and sportswear in the fashion industry.

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The BALMAIN x PUMA line. Source: Balmain

There are many reasons why Balmain has returned to the limelight. One of the biggest may be the involvement and passion of the house’s creative director, Olivier Rousteing. His personal Instagram account has 5.9m followers to Balmain’s 10.6m, showing that being physically and digitally invested in your brand pays off.

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Source: Olivier Rousteing’s Instagram account

The world is saturated with products and brands, so your presence is what matters. In sports and fashion, it’s quality, heritage, innovation, and collaboration that sticks.

Take the time to make your brand presence meaningful to your audience: from user experience to social media posts to advertising campaigns to offline events.

3. Selling sports apparel: selling the dream 

Few of us will ever train to be part of a national sports team. And even fewer of us will ever be famous enough to be recognized in the street. However, we all desire to be healthy, and on some level, we all want to resemble our idols.

Sports and fashion are two major industries currently catering to these affordable desires. The business in sports apparel is in the shrinking difference between “sportswear”, “activewear”, “athleisure”, “streetwear”, and “fashion”.

The everyman has no need for hard-core performance gear or couture. What they need is to feel those Kurt Cobain or Ramones vibes while wearing a pair of Chuck Taylors. Or Rocky Balboa vibes while running up some stairs in a grey sweatsuit. That’s why sports and fashion are dipping their fingers in a number of cross-cultural pies that consumers find irresistibly delicious, like art, music, cinema, and social media.

So, next time you see someone wearing leggings outside the gym, don’t think of it as a style abomination. Think about how it came to be, and you’ll realise the leggings are any combination of the following:

  1. the wearer imitating their fitness or fashion role model 
  2. the wearer non-verbally informing you about their tastes and lifestyle
  3. a purchase based on a marketing campaign or influencer recommendation
  4. a symbol of a society that values speed, comfort, and affordability
  5. a demonstration of the textile industry’s technological advancement (did you know you can now DTG print on polyester?)

(Or maybe it’s just that leggings are very comfortable.)

Like I said at the beginning of this article, sportswear can be anything you want it to be, and so can the dream you’re promoting with your brand.

Whether it’s sports merchandise for global esports, or sustainable activewear made from coffee grounds, there isn’t a sportswear niche you can’t tackle.

Future of sports apparel: quality and messaging

Sports is an exciting industry to be part of because it celebrates the past, present, and future.

That’s why the demand for sportswear in the fashion industry is constant, and it’s booming in emerging countries where people are getting more disposable income and free time. However, what’s restricting the overall growth of the sports apparel industry is the amount of poor quality and counterfeit products.

So if you want to be a part of the game, you have to go all in, recognize the times we’re living in, and focus on quality. The history of sportswear in fashion shows that brand success comes from creating a product that fixes a problem for a specific group of people and then adapting that product for other groups taking interest.

Start small and take your idea to the level you need—like in sports, if you stay true to what you’re doing, your fans will stay true to you.

A language lover constantly on the hunt for all things brilliant in life, from polished writing and sparkling conversation to bright ideas and shiny things.

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