Photographer: Catwalking/Getty Images

Sportswear Is Officially Too Popular for Haute Couture to Ignore

Donatella Versace gives athletic clothing the high-fashion treatment, giving the industry a definitive nod of approval.

When she opened a week of haute couture fashion shows in Paris on Sunday, Donatella Versace trotted out a sight not often seen on those catwalks. Calling her Atelier Versace collection "Athletic Couture," the designer replaced her usual ultra-sexed glam, with something altogether ... sportier: Models wore racer tanks, mesh bodysuits, and lots of bungee cords. Silicone gel details popped up on her cut-out dresses. Bits of neon yellow and orange, hues typical of Nike performance pants or Under Armour compression shirts drew the eye. It was as if a hip barre studio had somehow converged with a posh cocktail party.

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 24: Joan Smalls walks the runway during the Versace Haute Couture Spring Summer 2016 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 24, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Joan Smalls wears a dress embellished with climbing-style rope during the Versace Haute Couture Spring Summer 2016 in Paris.

Photographer: Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Activewear was long considered unworthy of upscale couture, viewed as a product of necessity, not creativity. Utilitarian, not elegant. Gyms, the thinking went, were decidedly nonglam. When it came to sports, high fashion largely limited itself to the après ski crowd or country club tennis circuit. Spandex racerback tanks and nylon sports bras were designed for the elliptical, not nightlife. 

Yet more casual street style has forced its way up the fashion ladder. It seems the style's just gotten too popular to ignore. Slowly, sporty garments crept onto men's and women's ready-to-wear runway shows, a trend powerful enough to go upstream rather than trickle down.

Gap's activewear label Athleta made its debut at New York Fashion Week in 2014, with a choreographed performance on trampolines and fitness models harnessed to ropes and soaring through the air. That same year, Alexander Wang put plenty of leggings and neoprene sweats on his runway for a collaboration with H&M, and Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci had a basketball theme for one of his shows, with sweatshirts galore, and partnered with Nike. Tory Burch started a sportswear line that she's shown twice in runway shows. Some pieces from Stella McCartney's show last fall seemed a nod to her activewear line with Adidas. And now, Versace has taken things truly haute couture.

The fashion industry calls it "athleisure"—workout clothes that can be worn at the gym, over the weekend, perhaps even to work or a party. Yoga clothes, on the back of Lululemon's success, became more than just something to wear to the studio. Other brands rode the boutique fitness craze, led by such workout spots as SoulCycle, Flywheel, and Pure Barre. Leggings ate away at denim sales and kept the pressure on, suggesting that they be more than a passing fad.

Models walk in athleisure inspired looks from the Versace Haute Couture show in Paris, including racerback silhouettes, sports bras, and snug jackets.

Models walk in athleisure-inspired looks from the Versace Haute Couture show in Paris, including racerback silhouettes, sports bras, and soft, snug jackets.

Photographers, from left: Dominique Charriau, Pascal Le Segretain, Victor Boyko

Now everything's gotten the luxury treatment, from cashmere sweatpants to stretchy jersey jumpsuits with pinhole mesh. In the ready-to-wear world, such retailers as Carbon38 and Bandier started selling all kinds of fancy, stretchy workout items. Fancy department stores such as Bergdorf Goodman followed along with their own activewear sections, offering up such gear as $500 Monreal track jackets and $250 Lucas Hugh leggings. Even online luxury fashion ship Net-a-Porter opened a section on its site called Net-a-Sporter. 

Sneakers are being merged with wedges, bodysuits with blouses, chinos with sweats. Iggy Azalea is wearing yoga pants on the red carpet. Cara Delevingne is wearing Pumas to the White House. It's chaos.

Chaos that'll likely continue. Sorry, Tim Gunn.

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