Athleisure may have driven the UK sportswear market to reach the heady heights of £2.5 billion in 2017, but as well as some obvious winners, there are also some notable losers, with more change to come.
Established names such as Nike and Under Armour once ruled the roost with mid-market athleisure lines that reconciled functional sportswear with fashionable lifestyle apparel. Yet consumers are increasingly drawn towards more affordable equivalents from high street retailers such as Primark and H&M; ASOS recently attributed some of its 23% increase in UK sales to athleisure category growth.
This trend is not unique to the activewear industry: US retailer J Crew closed 39 stores in January after a steep drop in sales, losing customers to high street competitors offering similar styles at lower price points.
At the higher end of the market, we are seeing the emergence of luxury athleisure ranges, with newly-founded companies, Free X Rein and Offtrack, incorporating fabrics such as suede and leather into their products, selling women’s leggings at $250 and $550 respectively. Athleisure manufacturers such as these are using their originality and innovation to try and squeeze the market share held by specialist retailers such as lululemon, who themselves have been contending with the diversifying market since expanding their business to include stores in the UK.
As it becomes clear that consumers are more focused on the price and perceived quality of athleisure items, there is ample opportunity for start-ups to get in on the action. Cotopaxi, for example, offers a VR experience in its flagship outlet that allows customers to tour its factory in the Philippines; the company believes that its transparency surrounding its manufacturing process gives it more credibility than many major sportswear corporations.
So, what does the next phase of the athleisure trend have in store?
According to those trying to crack the market, it’s all about branding. Laurent Potdevin, former lululemon CEO, believes that consumers are ‘drawn towards the brand that reflects who they are and who they want to be’. Outdoor Voices (seen above) has recently secured a $13 million round of funding from investors including General Catalyst Partners, who were early supporters of Airbnb and Snap Inc. Outdoor Voices has moved away from conventional performance-focused branding, instead claiming to ‘eliminate the pressure to perform’ and targeting consumers ‘who approach activity with ease, humour and delight’.
For most activewear manufacturers, the key to effective branding is vertical integration. By selling directly to consumers and alleviating their reliance on third-party retailers, they can take control of their entire product supply chain and, above all, define the retail experience for customers. Path Projects boldly asserts that it is ‘on the web, not in the shopping mall.’ There is a general sentiment amongst similar start-ups that they suffer when retailers such as department stores, with a short-term focus and less appreciation of the brand, are the point of transaction for their products.
With the recent news that Nike has agreed to begin selling its products on Amazon, direct-to-consumer sales may give start-up athleisure companies a significant competitive advantage in the future.