The Impact of Athleisure

The athleisure market has been a bright spot in both the sports apparel and apparel categories. Market research firm NPD group estimates the “sports leisure” style has become the largest category in US sneaker sales, beating performance oriented footwear1. Fashion oriented brands like Coach are expanding on the one side, while Adidas has well known partnerships / collaborations with Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Stella McCartney on the other.  This category has grown at the expense of performance sports apparel.  Under Armor’s North American decline in sales can be attributed in part to shifting fashion preferences for lifestyle away from “purely” performance products.

The category is filling with players seeking opportunity. The category allows athletic brands to go up market (and allows fashion brands to go down market) for new audiences and occasions.  The rise of athleisure can be traced back to the last century, that’s right, the 1980s.  Actress Jane Fonda led a fitness revolution of aerobic workouts.  The workouts caught on, as did the corresponding active apparel, with a boomer generation then entering its “me” phase of evolution.  Wearing leggings and leotards outside of the aerobic activity was seen as empowering, especially for 1980’s women living in a predominately business suit wearing culture.

A few things to think about

New Market / Familiar Attitude

Today the “me” generation is millennial and there is a striking similarity. This is connected to the new generational rise of fitness-conscious consumers and how that consciousness is expressed in product preference.  A majority of millennials look at athletics not as simply a singular activity but as an empowering life choice.  Combine that with today’s relaxed dress codes and you can see the increased desire for clothing to be comfortable and functional.

Different Influence

Athleisure products can be helped by the growing cadre of micro influencers across running, yoga, rock climbing and more.  These micro influencers can be often amateur athletes that are keenly aware of top pro products.  Nike made a splash in the women's market by using the "#BetterForIt" digital marketing campaign that featured everyday women rather than supermodels and pro athletes. These “fitfluencers” (a great word, wish I’d thought of it) help create positive brand associations among participating audiences.

Think Next Generation

Consumer expectations are rising. From following the Instagram accounts of their favorite fitness influencers, the amateur athlete or active enthusiast is educated on products like never before. And brands are responding with new products that include embedded sensor products that deliver experiences that provide feedback, whether at work or hiking a trail in Sedona.  What’s common to them all is that they elevate measurement for information or performance. Smart clothing is the true wearable.  It comes to you as a garment, footwear, or sensor device.  But it can measure a specific biometric attribute.  These products set up an entirely new set of quantified-self experiences for health, fitness and performance.

So if you’re playing in or entering the athleisure space.

  1. Know the market is expanding due to deep seated recurring psychological mindset,
  2. Finding the right influencer may also mean attaching your brand to the next active living trend
  3. If you’re in it for the long-haul, think embedded sensor technology sooner than later.


1 NPD Group – 2.6.18 - Sport Leisure Footwear Sales Outpace Performance, Capturing Largest Market Share -

Feel free to contact the author – Rick Shaughnessy, Group SVP, Integration, ICF Olson,