Fashion Meets Fitness at Major Retailers

Next time you're shopping for activewear, your favorite store may be your best bet.

Forever 21 activewear

The activewear section at Forever 21 on Newbury Street. Photos by Jamie Ducharme

In Forever 21’s massive Newbury Street store, a bargain-hunting shopper can find many things. Racks upon racks of sundresses, entire walls of jewelry, and a stocked shoe section fill the store. But next time you’re browsing the colorful shelves, something else may catch your eye: Sports bras, spandex shorts, and running tank tops, all part of the retailer’s foray into the sports apparel world.

“We noticed that there wasn’t any activewear apparel that had a fresh and youthful appeal, and that the market was predominantly covered by product that only catered to a competitive athlete,” explains Linda Chang, marketing director for Forever 21. “The Activewear line delivers the on-point fashion that Forever 21 is known for and caters to all different types of workouts and activities.”

The fast-fashion giant isn’t alone. Express is making yoga pants; H&M and The Gap have sportswear lines; Aerie and Victoria’s Secret have thriving activewear lines that go far beyond sports bras; mass-market stores like Target outfit athletes for next to nothing; Urban Outfitters now sells a variety of athletic sneakers in its catalog and online. These stores are part of the growing trend of mixing fashion and fitness, a trend so large that, according to NPD Group data, $5,120,802 of the $30,904,300 worth of activewear sales in March of this year came from apparel specialty stores (stores that focus primarily on fashion apparel, but may have other offerings) and $5,657,135 came from mass merchants. By comparison, $5,654,006 came from sports specialty stores, and in the women’s activewear sector, apparel specialty stores actually outperformed sports specialty stores.

The numbers suggests that a real market niche has appeared for affordable, stylish workout clothes. “Consumers are becoming more conscious about their health and well-being, and we understand that it is just as important to feel good on the inside as it is on the outside,” Chang says of the expansion. “We are not just a clothing retailer, but also a lifestyle brand.”

The trend is a sharp departure from times past, when city sneakers—otherwise known as non-cringe-worthy walking shoes—ruled the sidewalks and wearing yoga pants outside the studio was a major faux pas. “Consumers are beginning to realize fashion and sophistication can come in many forms,” says Jennifer Lynch, senior product manager for lifestyle at New Balance, a brand that partners with Urban Outfitters. “Athletic footwear such as New Balance Classics have become a wardrobe staple for many fashion consumers.”

Lynch says New Balance and Urban Outfitters work collaboratively to create sportswear meets streetwear looks, and notes that she’s noticed an uptick in people wearing the sneakers for fashion as well as function. “We work very closely with retailers to create styles that resonate with their consumers, and there is nothing better than seeing New Balance styles that you’ve worked on being worn in the streets,” she says.

Lauren Blanda, apparel category manager at City Sports, echoes Lynch. “Athletic apparel is looking a lot nicer and more fashionable—less runner-geek, if you will—[so] it’s 100 percent acceptable [to wear it on the streets],” she says. “That’s opened the doors for stores like The Gap and H&M to build athletic assortments into their offerings.” Blanda did admit to some misgivings about the fashion-forward fitness gear, though. “In some cases, you are paying for what you get at these fashion-geared stores,” she says. “If customers want reliable performance apparel, I’d stick with brands they trust and are credible in that space.”

Our verdict? Though fashionable workout gear is great for making a statement at the gym, sometimes it’s nice to keep your worlds—and your shopping destinations—separate. We’ll be sticking to our city sneakers and perfectly comfortable flats, for now.

Forever 21 activewear

Colorful sports bras galore at Forever 21.