Feeding off the rise of workout gear that can be worn in or out of the gym, activewear labels have become status symbols, much like any other pricey designer clothes. Premium yoga pants, made popular amongst the masses by Lululemon, can run anywhere from $80 to $200. A horde of brands battle each other in this segment as upstarts such as Outdoor Voices, Michi, and Vie Active jostle with superpowers Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas.
Yet there's little available for women searching the racks for even more expensive, higher-end performance wear. Fear not, luxury shoppers. It won't remain like this for long.
Quietly, a smattering of new true luxury activewear labels have appeared, each with the hope that affluent shoppers are willing to shell out $300, $400, or more on a pair of pliable pants. Think about it this way: If you're a luxury shopper who buys $1,500 designer dresses, pays $250 a month for an Equinox gym membership, and totes around a $4,000 Chanel bag, why would you spend a mere $100 on the leggings that you wear to the gym, on errands, and on the weekend?
“Some of the newer brands that are emerging are going to give activewear a whole level of status we haven’t seen in this business before,” says Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at trend intelligence firm Doneger Group. The “designer casual” look is prominent these days, championed by luxe labels like Brunello Cuccinelli and Isabel Marant. Once dismissed by couture circles as unworthy, luxury fashion houses started selling some adapted forms of fitness wear, using their longtime reputations to justify selling $400 jersey leggings. The next phase involves specialized companies touting luxury leggings under new performance-centric brands, says Morrison.
Take Charli Cohen, who launched her eponymous activewear line straight out of college in 2013. After graduating from Kingston University in 2012, the young British designer went into fitness fashion immediately because she saw technical sportswear as the next big thing. Now she sells leggings, tops, and jackets that run for $300 or more, targeting women who spend a lot of money on their eveningwear wardrobe who want equally chic, quality garments for the gym.
Thus far, Cohen has pushed hard to present her designs in a fashion context, rather than pigeonholing herself as an athletic brand. It’s difficult to prove yourself as a fashion label, said Cohen, because you’re limited on shapes and can’t get cheap exposure by outfitting a celebrity on a red carpet. She’s currently working on her next collection, which will be showcased in New York before hitting a catwalk in London this fall. “You still need to be able to show people that there is that gym-to-daywear crossover,” says Cohen. “If anything, you need to push the fashion side harder because the fitness side is already assumed.”
After a career designing for the likes of Alexander McQueen and Mark Jacobs, Anjhe Mules took a leap in 2010, starting her own luxury activewear label, Lucas Hugh. It took two years of research and development to ready the brand for launch— a marriage of fashion and function, says Mules. Lucas Hugh is sold in such swanky department stores as Bergdorf Goodman and luxury marketplace Net-a-Porter, right alongside legacy fashion labels. Mules uses heat-sealed seams all over her garments, the type of technology used in Olympic swimsuits. The pants wick moisture, dry quickly, resists UVs, and can cost more than $400.
One of the most recent entrants is Callens, which founder Claire-Anne Stroll launched in September during fashion week in Milan. A pair of leggings from the Italian label costs nearly $500—a price Stroll said her customers are willing to pay for fine craftsmanship, without much persuading. "I’ve never actually thought about convincing customers," she says. "When you see the product, its superior quality and value comes across so clearly."
Luxury activewear labels once devoted to single sports are also recognizing the power of the overall fitness market. Monreal, a tennis brand that released its first capsule collection in 2013, offers up sophisticated dresses that promise functionality with a fashion spin. Some of its most recent goods aren’t focused on the courts, however, as the company started to adapt the technology from its stretch-jersey tennis track pants for other purposes. One such item is a $340 performance legging for “running, pilates, kickboxing, yoga and more,” sold at upscale department store Saks Fifth Avenue. Though she plans to stay loyal to her tennis roots, designer Stefani Grosse says she see limitless opportunities to grow in the broader fitness world. “That’s really the future, and it’s a big market,” she says.
Indeed, U.S. activewear sales are up 9 percent in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same period last year, according to data from NPD Group. The total market clocks in at around $35 billion as of October, NPD reported.
Demand for luxury activewear is bolstered by the culture of fancy boutique workouts such as SoulCycle and Pure Barre, says Caletha Crawford, a professor at Parsons New School for Design. Women care about how they look when spinning or on the mat doing yoga or pilates, she says, and they're looking for items to elevate their status.
Still, sportswear remains burdened by a longtime fashion industry stigma—neglected as utilitarian clothing better served by companies like Puma and Reebok than on the haute couture runways of Paris and Milan. Yet it's possible to overcome this. In the early 2000s, another pragmatic pant found itself enjoying a designer craze: jeans. Fashion houses such as Dolce & Gabbana and Roberto Cavalli sold some denim styles for $1,200. All sorts of fancy niches popped up, such as Japanese selvedge denim and sustainable, organic denim.
How expensive can yoga pants and leggings get? High-end sportswear exists in certain circles of the fashion industry. Take skiwear, which requires performance to be embedded in the garment, lest the wearer freeze. Swiss label Mover touts luxurious insulation and elegance with its high-end ski clothes, with price tags to back up its splendor: A pair of wool-lined shell ski pants can cost nearly $1,000. But in order to get people to pay those kinds of prices for workout pants, a serious amount of education is needed, says Crawford. Without explaining to customers why the technical fabrics, the better fit, or the chic aesthetics matter, it’s impossible to get shoppers to drop a tall stack of cash on a gym item. “I need to understand why I’m paying more than for Lululemon,” she says.