The A-Z of athleisure
By now, you might be dimly aware of athleisure, and even understand what it means. But just in case, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: “Casual, comfortable clothing designed to be suitable both for exercise and everyday wear.”
Athleisure is a terrible word but a great idea, which is why the concept has caught on even if the nomenclature is lagging. While we walk around most of the time in wool tailoring, denim jeans and leather shoes that have barely changed in centuries, sportswear takes advantage of the latest garment technology, making it comfortable and practical. Restricting it to the gym is as dumb as an unqualified bro scientist.
Moreover, sweat has equity: it’s never been more fashionable to look like you exercise. And while straight-up fashion can seem like an unjustifiable indulgence – unethical, even – athleisure is inextricably linked to looking after yourself, allowing you to have your cake and eat it (actual cake, too – you’re going to burn it off, after all).
While the definition of athleisure is as hard and fast as Tabata circuits, in use it’s prone to slippage. So like the activewear equivalent of Dr Johnson,MHhas compiled an A-Z of athleisure as a handy reference. You could call it an “athlexicon”. Or, you know, you could not.
A is for Adidas
These days, it’s three stripes and you’re very much in. Adidas has impeccable sporting pedigree dating back to 1949, when Adolf “Adi” Dassler registered a familiar-looking shoe design following a fall-out with his brother Rudolf (who founded Puma). In recent years, though, it’s Adi’s brand that has felt more relevant than ever, thanks to canny collaborations with everyone from designers Raf Simons to Rick Owens to some guy called Kanye West who – wherever you stand on him – knows how to sell trainers.
Not that Adidas needs to rely on its trendy friends either: its iconic Stan Smith (pictured)has practically become standard issue for fashion show attendees over the past few seasons. The high-tech Boost, meanwhile, with an energy-returning foam sole that remains the most genuinely revolutionary piece of shoe tech for some time, has been embraced by streetwear aficionados who don’t run unless it’s for the latest Supreme drop.
B is for Brandblack
Getting an NBA player like Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers to wear your kicks (pictured) is a pretty good way for a new brand to stand out in a land of giants. And with its jet logo, Brandblack is taking off. Founder David Raysse has two decades of experience in trainers, first at Fila, then Adidas, where he made shoes for Kobe Bryant as head of the basketball programme; he also worked for industrial designer Philippe Starck, while his dad was a founder of fashion house Kenzo.
Designer Billy Dill, meanwhile, has a background in streetwear: both are in evidence in the baller shoes and apparel, which have a distinctly LA aesthetic. Alas, Brandblack doesn’t currently ship to the UK from its own site, but mercifully a selection is available on discerning multibrand e-tailer matchesfashion.com, which should give you a good indication of how frickin’ cool it is.
C is for Champion
As Levi’s is to jeans, so Champion is to hoodies, in America at least. Founded in 1919 in Rochester, New York, the brand claims to have invented the garment which, since it was intended to be worn on the sidelines and not the field, was arguably the first-ever piece of athleisurewear. Champion also pioneered “reverse weave” in 1934 to prevent shrinkage and is now reigning again in the cool stakes, thanks to a combination of nostalgia and what marketing types would no doubt call “clever repositioning”.
So-hot-right-now fashion label Vetements’ spring/summer 2019 catwalk collection is just one of a line of cred-boosting collabs, including Supreme, Stüssy and Wood Wood… MH, though, is a particular fan of Champion’s line with designer Todd Snyder (pictured). No newfangled sweat-wicking fabrics here: just retro hoodies, tees and sweaters that wouldn’t get any dirty looks in a spit-and-chalkdust weightlifting gym or a chichi brunch spot.
D is for Dusk
Dusk takes an admirably lo-fi attitude to performancewear. “There’s nothing sporty or active about this tee,” reads one online product description. “But we don’t run in slick tees that are stretchy and shiny. They’re just too weird looking.” (But as it also points out, the supima cotton has a “cool hand” and a weight that mops up sweat.) Founder Jordan Schiff’s CV includes Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, and Dusk is designed to help you express your personality style-wise. So alongside the compression leggings, you’ll find, er, “Found” pieces such as military field jackets, saving you from rummaging through vintage stores.
No luddite label, Dusk applies tech, but in unexpected ways, for example by waterproofing lumberjack-style flannel shackets. They’re intended more for before and after a workout – although the copy does muse: “What if River Phoenix trained for a marathon?” – unless you’re planning to do cable woodchoppers and strongman log lifts.
E is for EA7
Giorgio Armani was ahead of the athleisure game, kicking off EA7 way back in 2004 as a sportswear diffusion line of his Emporio Armani brand. It’s since expanded to become an entity in its own right, covering you for everything from working out in the gym to hiking in the great outdoors, via basketball, tennis and golf, plus watersports and winter sports. It’s not just snazzy branded tracksuits either: EA7 is fully tricked-out technically and worn by pro athletes in the aforementioned disciplines. (There was even an EA7 snowboard one season, although sadly the skateboard seen on the spring/summer 2019 catwalk hasn’t been made available to buy.)
Mr Armani also owns the Pallecanestro Olimpia Milano basketball team – now known as EA7 Emporio Armani Milano – and EA7 is sponsoring this year’s Milan Marathon on April 2, which frankly makes London look embarrassingly basic. At least Virgin Money is a bit better than Flora. Or Mars.
F is for Falke
Yes, Falke: the German brand best known for making standout socks – in quality, that is – including those nifty secret ones that allow you to show off your bronzed mankles in summer without getting sweaty feet and shoes. What began as a humble knitting mill founded in 1895 by a roofer called Franz Falke-Rohen (presumably he was also handy with a pair of needles) dipped its toe into technically advanced activewear as early as 2005, and almost immediately earned plaudits from the likes of Runner’s World.
Being German, precision engineering, supreme efficiency and all the usual positive national stereotypes apply; it’s also uber-classy, with premium fabrics, grown-up colours and low-key branding, all of which means you’d be happy to sport the products outside of exercise. (Not that we’re saying Germans aren’t classy, you understand.) Again, Falke’s activewear is stocked at the extremely discriminating matchesfashion.com – along with its stockings, naturally.
G is for Gap
Gap has always been a go-to for filling a t-shirt- or hoodie-shaped hole in your life. And the high street institution was one of the first to box-jump onto the athleisure bandwagon with its GapFit collection of activewear. There are more tees and hoodies here, but they’re decidedly more technical than the cotton basics you already know, love and live in. Here come the science parts: four-way stretch so the garments move with you without losing their shape, moisture-wicking to transport sweat away like an Uber driver who’s overdosed on Red Bull and flat-lock seams to avoid the dreaded chafing.
Speaking of which, there are also running tights and base layers that – thankfully – don’t come in denim. (Remember that stonewash-effect Napoli third kit? Shudder.) This being Gap, nothing is garish, but it’s not boring either, with graphic prints, camo patterns and something called “spacedye”. Warm us up, Scotty.
H is for Huez
Named after one of the Tour de France’s most famous ascents, Huez was founded in 2014 by bike-mad Lorenzo Curci. Between pedalling seven miles down London’s Embankment to Canary Wharf every day to his job in equity derivatives and completing the occasional Étape du Tour, he felt the lack of truly innovative and stylish cyclewear in both sets of the athleisure Venn diagram.
As such, the mountain-ready range comprises seamless jerseys, gilets and shorts that are optimised for peak performance in the most literal sense. But in tandem with those are bomber jackets, sweats and jeans that make your two-wheeled commute less of a strain (thanks to the elastane) and your transition to office-appropriate attire as non-existent as the MAMIL comments. Huez designer Nick Bond used to work for Paul Smith, himself a known cycle-path, and it shows in the quality and attention to detail: even the imagery on the website is absolutely tip-top.
I is for Isaora
Pronounced “eesa-ora”, like Rita Ora’s less famous sister, Isaora combines bleeding-edge tech and cool, which have all too often been mutually exclusive. That was the whole inspiration behind why fashion industry vets Ricky Hendry and Marc Daniels founded the brand in 2009: to create performance clothing that didn’t sacrifice all semblance of style. Isaora’s of-the-moment urban sportswear was picked up by exclusive stores such as Barneys and Opening Ceremony, but the duo made the decision to go online-only in order to have more creative control and less prohibitive mark-up.
Unfortunately, Isaora no longer ships internationally, so unless it’s stocked by a Mr Porter, matchesfashion.com or the Active Man – a new e-tailer catering for athleisure – then it’s a case of browser window shopping and taking ‘outfitspo’ (ahem) from one of the most on-point labels at the intersection of sport and fashion. If you’re reading this, guys, then here’s hoping you’ll reconsider...
J is for J Crew
Hitherto, J Crew was known for effortlessly stylish wardrobe basics with a heritage vibe that – with the possible exception of its tees and sweats – you wouldn’t want to perspire in. And breathable as those lightweight Italian wools may be, its athletic-fit Crosby suit – with more room for your torso, quads and glutes while still maintaining a trim silhouette so you don’t look like a boxy bodyguard – is a tad too formal for the gym.
Now, however, J Crew has teamed up with New Balance to produce bona fide activewear that combines the latter’s technical fabrics with the former’s tastefulness. The materials are heathered and horizontally striped, making them feel a little more sophisticated than your run-of-the-treadmill polyester. The palette includes eye-pleasing (not searing) blues, greens and oranges in harmonious shades – with matching trainers, natch. All of which makes it easy to assemble a workout outfit that wouldn’t offend a colour-blind superhero.
K is for Kit & Ace
The crucial thing to understand about Kit & Ace is that it’s not activewear. The confusion is understandable: Kit & Ace was set up by JJ and Shannon Wilson, the son and wife of Lululemon founder Chip. It incorporates space-age fabrics such as “technical cashmere” which can be chucked in the washing machine with no danger of shrinking. And it’s designed for people who live what JJ calls a “full-contact lifestyle”. But it’s not – repeat not – activewear.
Instead, the Wilsons set out to imbue traditional pieces such as blazers and trousers with the qualities that led us to stay in our sportswear all day in the first place: stretch, breathability and, yes, machine-washability. Given that it’s not for working out in, you could argue that Kit & Ace isn’t really athleisure at all. Or you could argue that it’s the truest form – and the next evolution of how a modern, active man should dress.
L is for Lululemon
Lululemon might still be a name more familiar to women than men, but the Vancouver company has been a driving force in the athleisure movement since its establishment in 1998. With technical fabrics and no hippy-dippy overtones, its reassuringly expensive yoga pants became a staple off the mat because they were comfortable, covetable and made you look like someone who did yoga on the reg. Suddenly, it was acceptable for ladies who lunch to “table pose” in sportswear.
As with yoga, though, you’d be missing out if you thought Lululemon was “just for girls” (not to mention a little patronising). And it’s not just for yoga either – Lululemon also makes elegantly muted activewear for other activities such as lifting weights (grrr) and running (less grrr) that’s abrasion-resistant and anti-stink, plus casualwear to cover you to and from. And if you’re still concerned about emasculation, its men’s pants feature ABC tech – which stands for “Anti Ball Crushing”.
M is for Manduka
Not to be confused with manuka, which is a type of honey, Manduka makes some pretty sweet yoga gear. Named after Mandukasana, or frog pose, the brand was spawned in 1997 when former architect Peter Sterios, who had already converted himself into a yogi, hopped onto a pleasingly simple black mat that was impressively grippy and supportive.
In fact, Manduka’s launch offering was just that: one solitary mat. Eventually its inventory stretched to blocks, straps and some more mat options, but it wasn’t until last year that Manduka extended to apparel with what it calls “the lifestyle appeal of streetwear”. Translated: nothing that gives the impression that you got back from a fortnight’s namaste at a retreat in Bali. And although the fabrics include organic cotton and hemp, there’s a strong technical focus, splicing natural materials with the best that textile science can offer for maximum comfort and movement, whatever mat you’re on.
N is for Nike
Need more proof that athleisure is a A Thing? Last year Forbes ranked the sportswear behemoth as the world’s most valuable clothing label full stop – and underlined by a big tick. Which is all the more remarkable when you consider that, as retold in his unputdownable autobiographyShoe Dog, Nike founder Phil Knight started out importing Onitsuka Tiger (now part of Asics) trainers to the west coast of the United States.
When the Japanese started playing footsie with other distributors, Knight decided to get his own kicks. He was torn between two names – Falcon and Dimension X – and was just about to put pen to legal paper when an employee called: he’d had a dream that the name should be that of the Greek goddess of victory. Combining game-changing tech and unrivalled cultural cachet, the mighty swoosh dominates the field like its high-profile ambassadors, while its iconic styles are household names in their own right.
O is for Outdoor Voices
Outdoor Voices founder Tyler Haney also hates the term athleisure, but she’s as guilty as anyone of propagating it, having set out with the intention of making activewear that looks like casualwear. Since 2015, the brand has been making noise with its quiet workout gear, replacing shouty neon with softly spoken shades of grey and navy, shiny fabrics with matte.
The most ringing endorsement? APC – AKA the place where stylish Frenchmen get all their clothes – collaborated with it. Ironically given its name (“use your indoor voice”), perhaps the best thing about Outdoor Voices is its tone, which is inclusive and fun, putting emphasis on “Doing Things” al fresco and away from self-flagelletion in a windowless fitness dungeon, or sitting on the sofa scrolling #fitspo posts and hating yourself. Because activewear should be for all kinds of activities, not just the relentlessly single-minded pursuit of gainz. And playing frisbee is still exercise.
P is for Puma
Two of the world’s biggest and most longstanding sportswear brands were born of a sibling rivalry. The Dassler brothers set up their eponymous shoe factory in Herzogenaurach, Germany in 1924 and shod quadruple gold medallist Jesse Owens for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But the only thing they could reliably agree on was to disagree and Rudolf opened a rival plant across the river; in 1948 he registered Puma.
When Rudolf fell out with the West German football team coach ahead of the 1954 World Cup, Adidas gained a priceless marketing opportunity, and a lead that it’s never lost since. But Puma is bouncing back in a big way, with ambassador Usain Bolt winning all of the medals, vowel-averse artist the WKND and rapper Young Thug (pictured) repping the label in different stadia and collaborations with fashion brands BAPE, McQ and Trapstar generating hype. The gym-friendly link-up with Stampd is particularly cool for cats.
Q is for Quality
Athleisure is a much-maligned term but it’s also much-misused, often interchangeably with “sports-luxe”. Strictly speaking, athleisure denotes clothes that you would conceivably exercise in, whereas sports-luxe is hot-off-the-catwalk interpretations of activewear pieces in precious fabrics that it really wouldn’t be advisable to sweat in. (An Hermès crocodile hoodie is not athleisure: it’s sports-luxe.)
The grey-marl area exists because some athleisure brands make their products so nice and/or pricy that you’d be mortified if even a single drop of sweat broached their fabric – and because certain individuals are wont to flex at the gym in attire that’s entirely too fashionable or expensive. The best illustration of this are those astonishing photos of Vladimir Putin training in a £2,000 silk-and-cashmere tracksuit by Loro Piana (pictured; handwash only, with natural deodorant). And we’ve all laughed at the picture of the guy working out in Yeezy Boosts. It’s still exercise, not a fashion show.
R is for Reigning Champ
Drake, Justin Trudeau and Reigning Champ: Canada may as well change its national anthem to “Everything Is Awesome” fromThe Lego Movie. Founded in 2007 by Craig Atkinson, who also created fashion-forward brand Wings + Horns, Reigning Champ makes minimalistic athletic staples like tees and sweats of such quality that they defy the term “basic”.
The almost Japanese attention to detail stems from Atkinson’s time across the Pacific where classic American menswear is practically a religion and they make it as good as the originals – and whisper it, sometimes better. Increasingly, the same is true of Canada; small wonder that long-established activewear brands are queuing up to collaborate: Adidas Athletics, ASICS and New Balance, to name but three. The terry cloth take on Adi’s Superstar tracksuit is killer, but perhaps the key piece is the jersey cotton robe with Reigning Champ on the back. Ideal for resting on your laurels.
S is for Satisfy
You’d expect a running brand from Paris to be chic AF and Satisfy doesn’t disappoint. Founder Brice Partouche, who used to run music-suffused denim brand April77 and might just have the coolest name ever, worked with former Nike product developer Carly Beumel to make sure that his garms don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk – or, rather, run the run – too.
But while Satisfy is practical, it’s by no means utilitarian. You could almost be browsing the wares of a fire streetwear label were it not for the telltale presence of singlets and skimpy shorts among the graphic T-shirts and sweats bearing slogans such as “run away”, “leave them all behind” and “running cult member”, all in a Hypebeast-mode colour scheme of black, white, grey, burgundy and olive green. It’s just a shame that the other runners won’t be able to fully appreciate your next-level swag from the back.
T is for Topman
Never exactly slow off the mark, the high street’s fast fashion retailers are all over athleisure like a powerful moss. But unlike its competitors, Topman doesn’t just follow the trends: it also sets them, with its directional Topman Design collection commanding its own catwalk show during London Fashion Week. For spring/summer 2019, one of the major key pieces was the zip-up tracksuit top.
Although the seaside-themed yellow towelling version with palm tree prints is maybe a bit much for the gym, more sober versions have made it into the main line along with all the slim tees and sweats. And uniquely on the high street, Topman is pushing the related trend of wellness, hosting rest and recovery sessions for redlining customers at its flagship store on London’s Oxford Street. Which you may well need after shopping both of the vast menswear floors.
U is for Under Armour
Under Armour more or less invented the base layer market, and sure as hell cornered it. Founder Kevin Plank was a football player at the University of Maryland who decided to improve on the sweat-soaked cotton undershirts he wore and started the business from his grandmother’s basement. Now his compression gear is protecting the “house” of serial Superbowl collector Tom Brady, and even the most retrosexual gym bro feels comfortable squeezing into a pair of tights.
The chink in Under Armour’s carapace is that it doesn’t yet boast the style credentials of Nike, Adidas et al, or a clothing or trainer style that you’re as likely to see in the street as the gym. (Plank recently told investors on a call: “We need to become more fashionable.”) But with designer Tim Coppens overseeing its new “fashion” Sportswear line – not to mention a range by one Dwayne Johnson (pictured) – it’s building from a Rock-solid base.
V is for Victor Athletics
If Rocky had decided to cut his losses after that first defeat to Apollo Creed and launch a fashion brand, the result might be something akin to Victor Athletics. Fighting out of its flagship store in Cincinatti, Ohio, the scrappy upstart makes old-school sweats with a contemporary cut. Not only that, it makes them 100 per cent in the USA, from growing the pesticide-free organic cotton to knitting it at its partner factory in Tennessee and dying them at the local wash house to achieve that worn-since-the-Seventies look.
Vying to revive American garment production – just 2% of clothes sold in the US are made domestically, down from 80% in the Eighties – Victor is fighting the good fight: five per cent of its profits go back to its factories to invest in their workforces. And because it’s direct to consumer, prices are lower for you too. In short, everyone’s a winner.
W is for West
As in Kanye, of course. He divides opinion (for the record, MH is a lover, not a hater) but there’s no denying his enormous influence. And Ye has done as much as anyone to propagate athleisure through his label Yeezy, which was sniffed at initially by fashion insiders but still sold like exorbitantly priced hot cakes. Yeezy is emphatically not activewear, especially not at those prices (unless you are a rapper). But the aesthetic is pure athleisure, and Yeezy – which started as a collaboration with Adidas – has both reflected and amplified the trend.
“People just wear yoga pants and sweatshirts, and I wanted to make the most beautiful version of that possible,” he told Vanity Fair after showing season two in New York in 2015. Kanye being Kanye, he also suggested that sweatshirts might be this civilisation’s historical legacy, our Colosseum or pyramids, while at the same time being the future: “Sweatshirts are fucking important.”
X is for, er, X
As in the universal symbol of collaboration between brands or designers, which is where the crossover of sport and fashion frequently reaches its apotheosis: X marks the spot where athleisure is most, well, athleisure-y. Some notable collabs have been mentioned already in this A-Z: J Crew’s entire range is made in conjunction with New Balance, while Yeezy’s first steps were with Adi (which still makes the kicks).
But it’s when vertiginously high fashion meets previously base activewear that peak athleisure is truly summitted. For example, Alexander Wang x H&M in 2014 (pictured), which with its technical fabrics and high street prices you could have exercised in if you didn’t immediately list it BNWT on eBay for multiples of the RRP. Or NikeLab x Riccardo Tisci, the former Givenchy creative director, which was expressly designed for working out even though it looks like it should be reserved for posing moodily on streetwear Instagram accounts.
Y is for Y-3
But it could also – and maybe should – be for Yohji. And for Yamamoto, come to that. Since 2003, the Japanese design legend has been mashing up fashion and sportswear under the auspices of his unique “cooperation” with Adidas and sending the ahead-of-its time hybrid down the catwalk before the term “athleisure” was even a twinkle in a trend forecaster’s eye.
Having paved the way, Y-3 has come full circle with the launch last summer of a range that, unlike its very much leisure mainline, is intended for actually ath-ing. Y-3 Sport brings all of Adi’s technical big guns to bear – Boost, Techfit and Primeknit – with Yohji doing the aiming: the result is maybe best described as a futuristic ninja’s capsule wardrobe. You probably won’t see many guys stealth flexing in this at the gym, given that it’s on the expensive side for activewear – but then you probably won’t see them at all.
Z is for Zlatan
The never knowingly understated goal – and quote – machine is capable of showing restraint. Designed to take you from Amateur to Zlatan, A-Z is minimalistically Scandi, with white, black and grey accented by the odd flash of red or gold. The author of an autobiography titled I Am Zlatan hasn’t made it all about him either: although he appears in some of the photos, he also lets others play up front. And Ibrahimovic has deliberately kept the prices accessible so as not to exclude the kind of aspiring youngsters that he once was, growing up in Malmö’s deprived Rosengård district.
Perhaps most refreshingly though, A-Z is realistic about just how much its products will or rather won’t help you hit your goals. (The tagline reads, “It’s not about the gear”.) At the end of the day, the most important thing is what you put in, not what you put on.
Video: HOW TO STYLE: Athleisure wear ~ refashion | OTTO
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