Women’s Activewear: Not Just About Yoga Anymore

women's activewear yoga

Courtesy of Benjamin J. DeLong via Flickr

In the 1980s it was leotards and legwarmers. In the 1990s, it was running gear. But for the past 10 or so years, it’s been yoga pants. Ah…yoga pants. Those ubiquitous black stretchy pants paired with a moisture-wicking tank or hoodie.

In fact, the explosion of yoga and yoga pants launched a slew of women’s activewear brands and retailers in the US: Lululemon, Athleta, Sweaty Betty, VSX by Victoria’s Secret…the list goes on and on. The yoga boom also energized the big names in the activewear space – major brands like Under Armour and Nike launched highly successful yoga lines, as did Gap with its GapFit brand.  Even kid’s retailers like The Children’s Place began offering yoga pants. If you are a retailer in the yoga business, it has been a great run for a long time.

women's activewear cross-fit

Cross-fit, courtesy of Christina Gloger

But now things are changing – not that activewear is going away. Actually, the women’s activewear market grew 9% in 2013 and is expected to keep growing at a similar rate in the years ahead.  But the key is that it’s not only about yoga anymore.  It’s about activewear appropriate for a variety of activities. Newer fitness trends including spinning, CrossFit, bodyweight training, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and more are expanding the market for women’s activewear.  And accordingly, brands and retailers are taking notice.  Reebok is now the official activewear sponsor for CrossFit, Soul Cycle has launched its own line of spinning-related apparel, and Nike has made running a primary focus at its retail stores. Both Under Armour and Nike have also made the women’s activewear business a key growth focus for the years ahead. Even Target recently re-launched C9 by Champion to be a full-fledged activewear brand.

What does that mean for retailers in the activewear space for 2014?  It’s a great niche to be in – as long as they remember that it’s not just about the black yoga pants.

Bricks & Mortar vs. E-commerce? The Winner is…

You’ve seen the stats – the 2013 holiday season showed 12% growth in e-commerce and a slowdown of 15% in mall foot traffic.  Put them together and the answer is obvious. E-commerce wins and stores and malls everywhere die a slow death, right? Well, maybe not.

First, people who like to shop like to go to the mall (or downtown shopping neighborhoods, lifestyle centers, etc.).  Yes, even millennials, the smartphone-happy generation, still like to shop in physical stores.  And with fit technologies still in their nascent stage, many apparel purchases in particular are just plain easier in person.  And sometimes you just need something today – not in five to seven days, and not even in two days.


Second, bricks and mortar retailers are not going easy into that good night. They’re fighting back and using mobile, social, e-commerce and omnichannel strategies to do it. A few recent examples:

  • Sears just launched a drive-through feature at its stores to pick up items purchased online
  • Gap recently launched a “reserve-in-store” feature in select stores that will soon be available throughout the entire chain. “Order-in-store” is also about to be tested.
  • Neiman Marcus launched a new e-commerce app for smartphones which also prominently features store-specific sales associates and in-store events that help to drive shoppers to the stores.

Mall of America, courtesy of Kimberly Robyn via Flickr

And don’t forget that e-commerce sales are the bright spot for many of these bricks and mortar retailers including Gap, Nordstrom and even J.C. Penney – all of these retailers have recently called out e-commerce growth even while stores have seen declines.

Third, malls are also working to drive foot traffic by becoming neighborhood centers – adding more and better food options, hosting elementary school art fairs, bridal expos, farmers markets and more.

Last, e-commerce is going old school. Many pure play e-commerce retailers are experimenting with pop-ups, showrooms and even full-fledged stores to expand their reach and give shoppers a physical experience.  A few examples:

  • Bonobos – Launched stores and wholesales its clothing at Nordstrom and Belk
  • Warby Parker & Bauble Bar – Have experimented with pop-up shops
  • Blue Nile – Testing “showrooms” at Nordstrom

Well, it’s not that cut and dried.  While many stores and malls may close over the next ten years, we suspect that most will morph and adapt to bring elements of e-commerce and mobile into their four walls, and e-commerce retailers will increasingly use stores to expand their reach and brands.  The good news?  Shoppers will get the best of worlds. The bad news? There will likely be many painful moments between now and then.

Are Millennials and Traditional Retailers A Mismatch?

We’ve all heard about the millennials – at 82 million strong in the U.S, they’re the key demographic for retailers – especially as they are projected to reach $1.4 trillion in annual spending by 2020.  We’ve also heard that millennials dress too casually for work, and are relatively frugal.  But what happens as they get older?  Does this generation take such a different approach to dressing that traditional retailers can’t satisfy them? Are millennials and traditional retailers a mismatch?


Millennials, Courtesy of Erin Nekervis via Flickr

Look at the evidence.  The youngest of the millennial generation is just at post-college age now.  They’ve aged out of the classic teen brands (e.g., Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle) – but even when they were teens, many chose alternatives including Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Free People and Wet Seal – not to mention TJ Maxx and other off-pricers.  Why?  Well, the economy of course – teen spending has been depressed for a number of years and few can afford to buy luxury items – or anything at full-price (especially when there’s a new hot tech item to buy).

But it’s not just the economy.  It’s also a fashion shift – one that has moved millennials from “outfit dressing” (e.g., a head-to-toe look) to a more personalized approach where young women buy a number of different items from different brands and then put them together in their own way – not only personalized, but also in many cases deliberately mismatched.  Want proof?  Take a look at the “ugly-pretty” outfits on HBO’s hit show Girls. Or the mannequins wearing mismatched combinations at Urban Outfitters. As well as the extraordinary success of Nasty Gal.


Mannequins at Urban Outfitters


What does that mean for traditional retailers as the millennials age into their 30s and 40s? Brands like Gap, Ann Taylor, White House Black Market, New York & Co. and Banana Republic are not going to be the millennials’ brands of choice – these women likely won’t dress in that way. But it’s not all bad news. There are a few traditional retailers that are embracing the personalized/mismatched approach – including Saturday (by Kate Spade), J. Crew and Madewell– which means it can be done. The question is, can other retailers follow suit? That remains to be seen.