Business

Sweatpants forever? Why the 'athleisure' fashion trend may outlast the pandemic

Your sweatpant size isn't the only thing that might be ballooning in this pandemic — the number of stores selling them is expanding like an elasticated waistband.

The pandemic has changed fashion trends — and experts say our desire for comfort is here to stay

So-called athleisure clothing, such as yoga gear, is hugely popular, as consumers are increasingly blurring the lines between office attire and what they would wear around the house. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

Your sweatpant size isn't the only thing ballooning in this pandemic — the number of stores selling fashion-forward comfort clothing is expanding like an elasticated waistband.

When millions of office-dwellers moved en masse to work from home in the early days of the pandemic, it sparked a change in fashion trends, too, since people no longer needed the same clothes for the same activities they were used to.

Men who typically wore the classic suit and tie to the office found themselves putting those Oxford shirts and three-pieces to the back of the closet, and grabbing something less staid for their phalanx of Zoom meetings.

And women who'd normally dress to impress with a blouse and slacks or pencil skirt were now donning something more comfortable while on the job.

That forced clothing retailers to change what they do, too.

Apparel sales overall fell in Canada in 2020, but have come roaring back by 20 per cent so far this year, according to Tamara Szames, an industry adviser to fashion and retail with the research firm NPD Group.

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The move of millions of people to work from their homes sparked a change in fashion toward comfort — specifically sweatpants and ‘athleisure’ wear. But even as Canadians return to the office, retailers are finding those pandemic staples are sticking around. 0:00

"It's athleisure and those comfort categories that are leading the way," she said in an interview, using the industry portmanteau for clothing designed for both athletic activity and everyday life. 

Two years ago, such "active" clothing made up about 25 per cent of the apparel that Canadians were buying. Now it's more than one-third — and sales are growing twice as fast as other forms of clothing, said Szames.

No wonder retailers are trying to cash in on the trend. Denim pioneer Levi Strauss announced earlier this month that it will buy the Beyond Yoga brand for an undisclosed sum, citing the need to "diversify its business" beyond their iconic jeans.

The Gap, along with its flanker brands Old Navy and Banana Republic, is also reinventing itself on the fly, closing stores and beefing up its online operation.

That's a painful transition that has seen the ubiquitous retail chain close down more than 200 Gap stores in North America since 2019. But it also now has almost that many physical stores of its athleisure brand, Athleta.

Retail analyst Tamara Szames says sales growth in the athleisure category is outpacing just about every other type of clothing. (Jacqueline Hansen/CBC)

Athleta is opening two new flagship Canadian stores — in Toronto and Vancouver — because they are confident that the athleisure trend has staying power.

"We know the Canadian customer is super active … she's hiking, she's swimming, and our performance lifestyle product offers the ability for her to do all of those activities in really comfortable activewear with performance qualities," said Jennifer Steichen, the chain's North America vice-president for stores and operations.

With 199 stores currently, Steicher said the company expects the athleisure category to double by 2023.

Athleta is targeting people wanting to be stylish and comfortable while being active — not necessarily those sitting in their home offices all day.

And while the company is banking on the fact the sweatpant trend is here to stay, that doesn't mean schlubby is in.

Far from it.

Michelle Watson is the founder and creative director of Michi, an ethically made clothing label that describes itself as a maker of  "active lifestyle clothing that combines high performance and high fashion."

She dreamed up the idea for comfortable, well-made and stylish workout gear while living in New York more than a decade ago. After some positive early reviews for her handmade prototypes, she took the company back to her homeland of Canada in 2012 to try to expand.

Today, her clothes are sold in shops around the world, including major department stores like The Bay, Holt Renfrew and Selfridges.

The iconic Gap shopping bag may be on the decline, but the company's yoga-focused brand Athleta is rapidly expanding, including into Canada, with two flagship stores opening this fall in Toronto and Vancouver. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While the pandemic made things harder in many ways, Watson said it helped in other ways by fuelling existing trends toward more online shopping, and a desire for more versatile and comfortable clothing.

"I always believed in making products that can be worn in the gym for your most intense workouts, but also incorporated into your standard wardrobe," she said. "I've been wearing the product to work every single day, working really long hours, and I can't go back to anything else."

She's not alone.

At Yorkdale Mall in Toronto, where Athleta is poised to open next month, shopper Sarah Mohavir said comfortable clothes have become her "go to" while working from home in the pandemic.

"I don't even know if I could go back to wearing dress pants," she joked.

Fashion is always reinventing itself, and Szames said the new consumer push to demand comfort and style in office wear is just an extension of what came previously.

"We saw the trend start with people wearing Lululemons to the grocery store or on the weekend — and that really evolved and trickled into our everyday wardrobe," she said. 

"Now we're seeing more athleisure move into a different segment of the market and we're starting to see it move into going out and even work wear," she said.

Wherever the desire for stylish comfort goes next, Watson calls it an idea whose time has come.

"Comfort is a movement … not a trend," she quips. "It's here to stay."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Evans

Senior Writer, CBCNews.ca

Pete Evans is the senior business writer for CBCNews.ca. Prior to coming to the CBC, his work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, the Financial Post, the Toronto Star, Canadian Business Magazine and — believe it or not — Circuits Assembly Magazine. Twitter: @p_evans Email: pete.evans@cbc.ca Secure PGP: https://secure.cbc.ca/public-key/Pete-Evans-pub.asc

With files from Jacqueline Hansen and Laura MacNaughton

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