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Long Live Yoga Pants: Why Gym Apparel's Bound to Stick

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Sneakers at NYFW in February. Photo by <a href="http://peladopelado.com/">Driely S</a>.
Sneakers at NYFW in February. Photo by Driely S.

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You don't have too look far to notice the trend because it's everywhere. It's your co-worker decked out in Nike, or the girl in front of you at the coffee shop in Lululemon, or the mother in line at the bank in Athleta, or maybe your friend that's sporting sneakers with $400 jeans. Fitness apparel is hot right now, and it looks like it's here to stay.

This trend has become a movement of its own, according to Topshop creative director Kate Phela, who noted in March that "we're in a sportswear revolution at the moment. Fashion is really driven by what's happening in the sportswear world, it's at the top of the radar."

The athletic apparel industry has grown four times as fast as the clothing industry as a whole, according to the analyst NPD group. Women's activewear sales jumped nine percent last year to $11.5 billion, and according to Reuters, a Global Industry Analysts report forecasts that the global category will hit $126 billion in sales by 2015.

Athletic apparel hasn't been this in-style since the nineties, when Juicy Couture's velour jumpsuit was all the rage, noted NPD Group's Chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen.

"Have you noticed how many people…are wearing yoga pants (by day and by night) to the gym, in the gym, and after the gym? These pants are now perfectly acceptable by most standards. Consumers have inspired their own fashion trend, and many manufacturers and retailers are just now catching up," Cohen wrote in a company blog post titled "Activewear Is Not Just For Athletes Anymore."

The Topshop for Adidas collection. Photo: Topshop

What is spurring this fitness fashion craze? According to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Americans are now working out more than ever. From 2001 to 2009, the number of Americans exercising increased 17 percent for males, and 18 percent for females, with that number continuing to grow.

Working out no longer means belonging to a gym and running on a treadmill: the options have expanded exponentially. If you like spinning, there's Flywheel, SoulCycle, Crank or Revolve. For toning, there's Tracy Anderson, Barre, or CrossFit. If you're looking to dance, there's Zumba, Twerkshop, or Brukwine. It goes on. The fitness industry is stretched with choices and has Americans wrapped around its fingers—and even more so with yoga. A whopping 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, according to Yoga Journal's 2012 study.

"Working out used to be a luxury activity, but now it's part of everyday life. With lifestyle changes come adopting the wardrobe and its silhouettes. Years ago, you would never see a mom pick a kid up from school without getting fully dressed but now she'll pull up in Lululemon and a hoodie," Trend Forecasting Agency WGSN's Sheila Aimette told Racked.

A Lululemon-sponsored yoga class. Photo: Getty Images

Wendy Liebmann, a retail analyst at Wsl Strategic Retail, is less optimistic about everyone's shvitz ambitions, and attributes much of the trend to laziness.

"Socially, we've been a much more casual country for some time. And as we move into casual lifestyle, companies are saying it's okay to be casual—look at casual Fridays," Liebmann said. "Plus, once the economy got bad, we wanted comfort and now it's become a social trend. The market has only seen a general pick up in dressy clothing over the last year or two, but the general sense of wanting to be comfortable has kept the door to this trend open."

At a certain point over the last few years, fitness apparel merged into the category of lifestyle apparel. 93 percent of activewear consumers wear their apparel for activities other than exercise, according to the Sporting Good Manufacturing Association, and many companies are even marketing their products to fit that niche (GapFit's tagline is "For life as you live it".)

Consumers have made it clear they are willing to pay a pretty steep premium for fitness apparel. Just look at Lululemon's sales, which increased by more than $1 billion from 2008 to 2013. Liebmann compared fitness apparel shopping choices to that of denim. People will spend hundreds on a pair of jeans if they like the design and brand, and Aimette said activewear consumers are strongly label-driven.

Photo: Nike

High fashion brands are eager to capture a piece of the pie. With fitness apparel companies crushing the market—Under Armour reported a 36% increase in 2014's first quarter last month—multiple luxury brands have signed on for fitness apparel collaborations. Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci has teamed up with Nike, Stella McCartney and Raf Simmons have collaborated with Adidas, and Opening Ceremony produced a colorful line for Puma. Fashion designer Trina Turk just launched a fitness line of her own, and Tory Burch plans to do the same next year.

"Fitness and exercise is part of the modern lifestyle. More and more there is a demand and desire for luxury fitness wear because like a pair of jeans, it is something you wear day in and day out. When you wear something so often you want to look stylish and you want the pieces to last which demands both quality and technical research," Tomoko Ogura, the fashion director at Barneys, explained to Racked over email. "Styles such as leggings and yoga pants have transitioned into being wardrobe staples. At Barneys, we are excited to introduce collections like Stella McCartney x Adidas, VPL and Live The Process. They are using luxurious fabrics and looking to the performance and technical aspect of each of the styles while still infusing a strong design and point of view."

Photo: Flywheel

But like the Juicy Couture days of yesteryear, will consumers regret wearing leggings to the office, whether or not they were paired with a Proenza Schouler blazer? "That does seem to happen with these kind of trends, unfortunately," said Liebmann. "The 'what the heck was I wearing' aftermath, whether its following a trend of being fit or wearing hot pink velour pants that nobody in the world should wear," she laughed. But there's good news: Liebmann thinks the trend won't fizzle out any time soon.

"Not when you've got David Beckham running around in his underwear for H&M, or Macy's, who did really interesting marketing at the Super Bowl shop [in New York City] by pairing typical bomber jackets with yoga pants," she said. "This would have been unacceptable a decade ago, but now it's dressed up with high heels. With companies like Lululemon and Nike doing the casual life right, there's an opportunity to make well-designed fashionable fit lines and that's why the trend is here to stay for the immediate term."