Activewear – a clothing category once confined to gray or navy sweats – now includes everything from designer yoga pants to tie-dyed skirt wraps. There’s also that peculiar fashion statement of wearing tennis shoes – sorry, “athletic footwear” — with suits.

A leading fashion publication predicted that the only market direction activewear could go was up, what with more famous designers unveiling their collections, some of which bring to mind gray and navy sweats with snazzy logos. And nicer drawstrings.

Will Americans get tired of wearing the fuchsia version of the striped knockoff of the classic black yoga pants? How can makers distinguish their brands in a marketplace that’s beginning to feel more crowded with each iteration of casual and cool? And will men wise up and wear decent shoes with their suits? Will women?

Down-to-earth style?

An article in Boston magazine detailed how a number of retailers were adding various items and lines to take advantage of consumer interest in blending fashion with fitness.

The marketing director for Forever 21 explained, “We noticed that there wasn’t any activewear apparel that had a fresh and youthful appeal, and that the market was predominantly covered by product that only catered to a competitive athlete. The Activewear line delivers the on-point fashion that Forever 21 is known for and caters to all different types of workouts and activities.”

And Forever 21 isn’t alone:

  • Express has gotten into yoga pants.
  • The Gap and H&M have expanded into sports lines.
  • Victoria’s Secret will sell you more than a sports bra – and we’re not talking intimate apparel.
  • Target has entered the fray, providing basic activewear for very little cost.
  • Even Urban Outfitters has more than just the retro-appeal of Onitsuka Tigers in its athletic footwear section.

Gym clothes with an attitude

As always, the raw numbers undergird the story. According to a study from the NPD Group, the industry reported strong sales in activewear and athletic footwear for the first eight months of 2014, increasing sales by 4% over the same period in 2013.

Total sales for activewear through June 2014? $33.7 billion. The top three primary uses for activewear are Casual/Every Day Use, Athletic/Sport/Exercise, and School.

An NPD analyst said, “Activewear is booming, with sales growth exceeding that of the apparel market as a whole, and it’s because consumers are wearing activewear not only to the gym, in the gym, and from the gym, but they are working out, going out, and even hanging out in activewear,”

So, it seems, are men – and not just in a sneakers-with-suits way. Which, may we digress, is a deplorable combination. Have men aped their distaff counterparts, donning ankle socks with fluffy balls at the heel, like so many women of a couple of decades ago, lugging their pumps in their oversized bags, sneakering their way to work through urban corridors? One certainly hopes not.

Different strokes

With activewear everywhere these days, how do brands distinguish themselves? Isn’t one day-glow pair of running shorts more or less like any other?

No more so than a cheap pair of day-glow running shoes is the same as a more carefully crafted brand that doesn’t give you the blisters that the cheap brand will.

Americans seem perfectly content to mix business with pleasure, fashion with fitness, relaxation with more relaxation. There’s no reason to believe that a society that, for decades now, has been reclining at the health club will suddenly reverse in favor of starched formality. With the continuing emphasis on all that’s personal over most that’s political (still right on that one, Marshall McLuhan), designers and retailers alike should continue to offer version after version of those ubiquitous yoga pants. And everyone will find the pair that’s just right for them.

Activewear will be here for a while yet. Perhaps reaching its apotheosis on a Super Bowl halftime stage a year or ten from now. Courtesy appearance by Janet Jackson not included.

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