Sweat Couture: A User’s Guide to Performance Apparel

7 trends that are redefining active style in today’s exercise clothing and gear.

There’s no red carpet for fitness fashion and no Project Runway for gym clothes. But the nearly $30 billion sports apparel scene is hot anyway, driven by active consumers (Baby Boomers especially) and a lot of people who just want to look active. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) notes in its 2008 State of the Industry report that only one-third of all sports apparel and athletic footwear is purchased with the intent that it will be used in an active sport. Although growth slowed from 8% to 4% in 2007, sports apparel sales have jumped by over 35% since 2000 and the summer Olympic Games were expected to boost interest (SGMA 2008).

In fact, this year’s Olympics games saw the debut of many dramatic and innovative advances in performance apparel. New swimsuits from Speedo® and TYR®, tracksuits from Nike® and compression clothing from other companies were all rolled out for the international viewing audience. But do these products really offer any competitive advantage for athletes?

In June 2008, the American College of Sports Medicine issued the results of a study on Fastskin® swimsuits, extremely close-fitting suits that use high-tech composite fabrics designed to reduce drag on the water and increase velocity. The ACSM researchers concluded that Fastskin swimsuits “significantly reduced passive drag, and this was associated with a decreased energy cost of submaximal swimming and an increased distance per stroke, at the same stroke rates, and reduced freestyle performance time” (ACSM 2008).

Whether your clients are elite competitive athletes or newbies just venturing out of a sedentary lifestyle, they face a vast and sometimes baffling array of activewear choices. To help them (and you) navigate the world of “sweat couture,” we asked a variety of performance apparel specialists to talk about key industry trends and give us practical selection tips.

Where Do the Trends Come From?

Trends in apparel can be hard to pin down. “It’s funny,” says Steve Monte, chief executive officer (CEO) of innovative clothing company Pooghe Laundry. “You can have a really bad shirt and one athlete wears it—and everybody buys it. Or the wrong athlete wears it and nobody wants it. People don’t understand that sports figures are paid to put those things on.”

While athletes do drive sales of some high-exposure brands, experts say that most of the directions in fitness clothing stem from deeper social trends.

“For example, we’re definitely seeing the trend of ‘taking care of yourself,’ especially in the Baby Boomer generation,” says Patricia Babka, general manager of Skins. “[Boomers] are often very active and not only do one sport but do as many as they can—sometimes even overcommitting to their fitness. They want to have the best, and they don’t settle—that’s why you see this level of technical development in sports apparel. They continue to search for the best thing to wear during Pilates, yoga or hiking. And because they’re aging, they don’t recover as fast as they once did, so they’re looking for every helpful tool they can get. There will also be a lot of crossover to the generation that is being raised by the Boomers.”

It is exactly this evolution of fitness since the days of leotards and leg warmers that is the real force behind the active “look.” Diverse activity choices have led to diverse clothing styles, while fitness megatrends—such as personal training, Pilates and mind-body fitness—have opened up whole new apparel market segments.

“At one time, it was just niche brands doing technical apparel. Then, 10 years ago, the traditional athletic brands like Nike, Reebok and adidas® really got involved and made it more difficult for the smaller companies,” recalls Todd Dalhausser, general manager of Saucony® Apparel. “But now there’s a trend of smaller companies getting back into the market because of the popularity of activities like Pilates and yoga. It’s opened up a lot of opportunity for new brands.”

Innovation-minded consumers and young people are also critical to determining trends. “Early adopters and workout warriors are more apt to know about the new technology, because they understand the problems,” says Nicole Crutchfield, senior product manager for New Balance Apparel. “Younger people also tend to know more from friends, or MySpace and Facebook networks. Busy parents don’t always have time to keep up on technology.”

Trend #1: Compression

Compression apparel (clothing that fits closely to the body) is undoubtedly the trend that’s gotten the most media attention in recent years, and there is a growing body of research to attest to its health and performance benefits. “Gradient compression, [which offers] different levels of compression to enhance circulation, is an idea that has been around the medical field for hundreds of years,” says Babka.

“The medical version [of compression garments] was not user-friendly,” says Babka. “It wasn’t antimicrobial, and you did not feel good or sexy wearing it. Now that’s changed, and independent studies have shown that our compression apparel can increase circulation by 30%. That’s why some people refer to it as ‘legal blood doping.’ Your body becomes more oxygenated, which improves strength, stamina, endurance and recovery time.”

David Ayers, director of product creation for Under Armour®, calls Kevin Plank, the company’s founder and CEO, the pioneer of the modern compression garment. Plank’s idea was born from the groundbreaking research performed by William J. Kraemer, PhD, regarding the effects of compression on muscle performance.

“Prior to Under Armour, athletes did not have a true performance option. If you walked into a locker room or onto a playing field, you’d see athletes wearing loose-fitting cotton garments that didn’t provide on-field advantages,” Ayers says. “Our compression garments have always been built to optimize muscle power and stamina, reduce fatigue, enhance proprioception and speed up recovery, but they have also always delivered moisture management and temperature regulation. UA Compression redefined the ‘microclimate’ between the skin and base layer. The garment is the microclimate because there is no dead space between body and garment. We engineer fabrics and garments to be optimal moisture transport and thermal systems in conditions from extreme heat to extreme cold.”

Strictly speaking, compression garments are prescribed for postoperative healing and for their ability to help reduce swelling and pain due to everything from travel to pregnancy to various diseases. However, compression can be a very broad and sometimes misleading term.

Compression may just mean ‘tight-fitting,’” says Babka. “Exercisers and athletes should explore the compression level that works for them. Skins uses gradient compression, [with] different levels of compression at different areas of the body; tightest levels are furthest from the heart for optimal circulation. It’s the opposite of a tight T-shirt, which is usually tightest where you don’t want it to be.”

Ayers emphasizes that Under Armour focuses on details such as innovative fabrics, superior garment construction and purpose-specific engineering. “Compression means more than just ‘tight-fitting,’” he says. “Authentic, effective compression is built on stretch and recovery. Strategic compression is the engineering platform for all UA Compression products. That means building compression products correctly by understanding the human body in motion and its physical needs. A single type of compression does not answer every need for every athlete.”

Max Hauer, co-owner of Solidea® USA, explains that the compression trend goes well beyond the fitness world. “Shapewear has been the trend in undergarments in recent years—Spanx® is a great example of how compression has become a part of our everyday clothing.” Solidea’s line of compression legwear (shorts, leggings, tights, socks) and shapewear saw a spike in sales after a Wall Street Journal article touted the benefits. “Studies show that compression can act like a second set of muscles, reducing impact, increasing proprioception, lowering energy expenditure, providing natural thermoregulation and helping to prevent injury,” says Hauer.

How do you select the right compression garment? “It should be form-fitting and also anatomically shaped, or it will slip and slide,” says Hauer. “For example, leggings or tights should have the shape of a leg and not just be a tube like pantyhose. Pantyhose or regular tights or leggings made with spandex do have some level of compression, but that won’t last. Medical grade compression, on the other hand, is lasting, and it is measurable.”

The level of pressure exerted by medical compression garments is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), and the measurement is sometimes listed on the label.

“Our leggings have even compression throughout the body, and our tights have graduated compression,” says Hauer. “Our compression garments have 12–32 mm Hg, whereas our socks come in different compression levels. Anything over 12 mm Hg will give the leg more energy. Anything under 10 won’t make a difference. Your basic sock has a level of 2–3 mm Hg.”

Fitlee® Emotionwear, headquartered in the United States and Brazil, uses Supplex® fabrics to add compression to bottoms. “Our clients call them the ‘magic pants,’ because they help with impact exercise and blood flow—and also hide figure imperfections,” says Lee Gulin, Fitlee founder and designer.

For some people, compression apparel can feel too constricting—or too figure flaunting. “The tighter compression garments are not flattering if you’re not in really good shape,” says Sports Stylist® and ex-pro skateboarder Cindy Whitehead, who works with athletes and apparel companies. “Some of these items are not practical outside of competition. The Fastskin swimsuits, for example, can take 10 minutes just to put on—you’re like a sausage in a casing. You wouldn’t be wearing it for fun on weekends.”

Trend #2: Moisture-Wicking Synthetics

So what’s with all this wicking, anyway? “Wicking is a big buzzword when it comes to today’s performance clothing, but it essentially means mesh fabric, because the fibers move moisture away from the body,” says Monte. “Wicking capabilities makes it sound more complex than it really is.”

Complex or not, synthetic performance fabrics have transformed an industry that once was basically all about cotton. “Fitness professionals are probably already aware of the advantages of synthetics,’ says Dalhausser, who helped launch Saucony’s first performance apparel line in spring 2008. “But there still is education to be done with consumers, about benefits such as UV protection, or moisture transfer for thermoregulation so the body can stay cool and dry—and participate longer in an activity.”

Dalhausser explains that synthetics are inherently hydrophobic, meaning moisture doesn’t penetrate the yarn, whereas cotton is hydrophyilic, meaning moisture penetrates into the fabric, so that cotton gets wet and heavy and can sometimes feel chilly on the skin.

“The real trend is making synthetic fabrics that are as soft as cotton,” says Dalhausser. “The early synthetics were itchy, not soft or comfortable. We’re brushing and softening synthetics to give them the superluxurious feel of cotton. We’re working to infuse better shape and more fashion into synthetics.”

It’s not a matter of cottons versus synthetics anymore. More and more manufacturers are mixing the two fabrics in a blend, which represents yet another important direction in performance apparel, according to Susan Wexler, vice president of design for Danskin®.

For example, a company called lucy activewear inc. is looking at cotton-based fabrics that also have high-tech properties. “We may not go back to cotton completely as a fiber, but cotton-handed nylon or polyester fabrics are options, and you would never know the difference, because they feel so much like cotton,” says Kathleen McNally, vice president of design for lucy activewear inc.

Trend #3: Antimicrobial Advances

Another buzzword in performance apparel is antimicrobial, denoting clothing that can prevent or inhibit the growth of microbes, such as bacteria, to provide odor-minimizing properties. Most performance fabrics today, whether synthetic or natural, offer some level of antimicrobial protection. “Antimicrobial is the price of entry right now,” claims Wexler. “Performance apparel has to have it.”

Shock Doctor™ Inc., a company that produces sports protective gear and apparel, uses not only antimicrobial fabric but also antimicrobial plastic in mouth guards, chin straps, and chest and pelvic protectors. “We are very serious about using technology for innovation,” says Jay Turkbas, vice president of product development for Shock Doctor. “We create less of an environment for bacteria in all our products. We even have a system that uses a free-standing blower to direct ionized, ozonated air into our gear bags to dry and deodorize equipment in the bag. It doesn’t just kill germs; it reduces the opportunity for them to grow.”

Turkbas speculates that growing concerns about locker room health threats, such as staph infections, may be contributing to the interest in antimicrobial properties. Also, any product that can reduce odors is always a good sell.

Socks and insoles are perfect candidates for antimicrobial innovation. “Cotton socks are not good at moving moisture; they suck it up, stay wet and create irritation,” say Turkbas. “I’m a big believer in wool, which is naturally antimicrobial, for socks.” However, consumers need to know that there are different levels of antimicrobial effectiveness, he warns. “Some don’t work, but consumers should expect a relatively high level of antimicrobial capability, because it’s not that expensive to offer,” he says. “You can certainly tell products that don’t have it. For example, there are some polyesters that pick up odors very quickly.”

One of the most intriguing antimicrobial materials is silver, sometimes used in silver thread, or nanotechnology, which embeds silver into fiber. Pooghe Laundry integrates SmartSilver™ antimicrobial/anti-odor nanotechnology into its high-end luxury cotton line of underwear, undershirts and socks. SmartSilver is a product of a technology company named NanoHorizons™.

“Silver is the only mineral on earth that bacteria doesn’t have much defense against. Nanotechnology is so new that people don’t understand it yet,” says Monte. “People ask me if the silver is going to set off a beep at airport security. [They] don’t get that it’s invisible to the eye, and you would never know that there was nanosilver in the fabric. But when people try it, they’re amazed. It’s got a real wow factor.”

Antimicrobial innovation has even found its way into cleaning products for activewear. WIN High-Performance Sport Detergent was designed to get rid of embedded sweat and odors in workout clothes and is an official licensed product of the U.S. Olympic Team. “I went on a string of running marathons and realized I couldn’t get my clothes smelling fresh again,” says Mark Konjevod, co-founder and CEO of WIN Products Inc. “There were all these performance fabrics out there, but no products to clean them.” Konjevod sought out detergent chemists to develop a cleaning product that would be effective with both high-tech materials and cottons.

“We’ve worked with some of the largest apparel manufacturers in the world,” he says. “Some of the high-tech fabrics have oil-based fibers that are attracted to bacteria, and after a number of washings, sometimes the odor just re-animates when you wear them again. This is a way to preserve or revitalize clothing you might have had to throw out otherwise.”

Trend #4: Eco-Conscious Design

Sustainability is a rapidly growing trend in fitness clothing, featuring natural fabrics such as wool, bamboo and coconut. This particular trend resonates with younger consumers, says Crutchfield. “The environment really hits home with younger generations who are looking to what the world will be 50 years from now.”

“Fitness clothing is going green in a big way,” says Whitehead. “More and more of us would rather spend a few extra dollars now to save our earth later. Many companies are starting to infuse natural substances like coconut shells, soy and aloe into their apparel lines to help create fabrics that keep you dry, comfortable and maybe even in some cases ‘fresh’ smelling while you work out. Coconut has the ability to suppress odor and has an excellent dry time, which are both important for a less sweaty workout. Bamboo, aloe and soy all help to keep fabrics soft, subtle and able to drape well.” Whitehead notes that companies are also using recycled materials to create new garments and gear such as yoga mats. Products are becoming more biodegradable, so they break down faster over time but don’t add to landfills.

“Sustainable apparel uses raw materials that are less harsh on the earth to grow and sustain,” says McNally. “Bamboo or soy, for example, grow quickly and don’t need as much water as cotton. Bamboo is very interesting because it’s a lot like rayon—super soft and drapy. There’s so much demand right now that a lot of manufacturers can’t keep up with [it].”

“The market is clamoring for anything made with recycled or organic materials,” says Whitehead. “Over time, the price may come down, but right now [these materials] do add to the cost of the items.”

For the spring 2009 season, Danskin is launching a new organic cotton yogawear line. “People aren’t just interested in organically grown but also organically dyed, finished and printed with organic labels, and that’s what we’re offering,” says Wexler.

Some synthetic fabrics have environmental advantages as well. “There are some recyclable polyester fibers out there,” says McNally. “Also, polyester and nylon are petroleum-based, but both are highly durable, so if they have a timeless design and are quality, they can be eco-friendly in their way. Durability can mean reselling or recycling, which doesn’t impact landfills.”

There are a variety of ways to be eco-friendly, says McNally. “A style in our holiday collection is a longer jacket that is an alternative to a sweatshirt and is made out of recycled T-shirts.” But there are situations when it isn’t feasible to insist on organic production practices, McNally cautions. “You just have to think about every step of the process. If you have a sustainable fiber but are shipping it all the way from Taiwan, that’s not good for the environment, either.”

Trend #5: Lifestyle Integration

Today’s performance apparel is often designed to “perform” well outside the fitness club. “Although Saucony is a technical running brand, we also recognize that working moms, whether they’re at home or not, are busy,” says Dalhausser. “They want to do everything in one outfit. After they work out, they want to feel comfortable around town.”

Whitehead calls it “double-duty” apparel. “We are going to see a lot of pieces that easily go from the gym to the street and still look great. Everything from workout leggings with a roll-up skirt attached, to jackets that have zip-off sleeves to wear as a vest after your workout if it’s hot outside.”

Crutchfield notes that New Balance is also focusing on lifestyle-oriented, user-friendly details. “We make sure there’s a storage pocket in everything so you can carry money or a hotel key card, and ear phone ports for MP3 players. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have thought about these things.”

Fitlee offers a multipurpose unitard with a flare leg that you can tie up while working out and then take down to go back out into the world. “Everybody’s always on the go, so we use styles, prints and designs that will work in the studio and out of it,” says Gulin.

Fitlee has found another way to integrate lifestyle and apparel: it opened a concept store in Brazil, featuring a Zen garden and Pilates and yoga classes to introduce body-mind modalities to the community.

“A lot of our yoga clothes can go out of the studio,” says Wexler. “People like to wear our cotton tops with jeans, for example. Someone in the office here calls it clothes for ‘coffeeshop yoga.’”

For the spring 2008 season, Danskin offered a diverse and highly successful new apparel selection, which includes clothing designed more for low-impact leisure than serious athletics; a high-end performance apparel line geared to cross training, triathlon participation, tennis and cycling; and a yoga line. The highly functional collections include sustainable fabrics, antimicrobial silver technology and soft titanium underwire in sports bras. “Sometimes people still think of us as being mainly about dance,” says Wexler, “but we’re way beyond that now.”

Trend #6: Focus on Fit

While fabric development is a main focus of the performance apparel industry, fit is also increasingly taking center stage. Lucy activewear, in particular, is known for its attention to fit. “The trend is to have a clear fit strategy and story that customers understand, so if a woman doesn’t have a lot of time, the label explains or illustrates how [the garment’s] supposed to fit,” says McNally. People don’t always have time to try things on. It’s helpful to see on the hang-tag, for example, how a low-rise or crop pant is supposed to fit.”

Lucywear offers a wide range of sizes from XS to XL, or 0 to 18, with most pants styles featured in short, regular and tall lengths. Consumers can opt for either a sleek performance fit, an active fit that’s more skimming but not supertight or a relaxed fit that’s loose and casual.

“As a designer, I equate fit with performance,” says McNally. “If the design is so low-rise that you can’t do a deep knee bend without your butt sticking out, that’s not good performance. One can’t trump the other. Compression is a big part of fit today—it has to enhance, not detract, from your workout. You have to have range of motion but also support, and something that makes your butt look good. Everything has to work, has to be cute and has to fit.”

McNally says one of the most common mistakes people make is buying items that are too big. “Less is often more, so that you can move better.”

Trend #7: Fashion Infusion

Sophisticated fashion is teaming up with high-performance function in activewear today. Jenny Ury, product department designer for SPIN Fitness™, came to the activewear industry with a background in men’s and women’s sportswear. “We try to make jerseys fashionable rather than just about fitness, because many people who take our classes are very fashion-conscious,” she explains. “In cycling apparel, black is still a predominant color because it’s classic and slimming, but there are also a lot of color designs and details, especially on side panels.”

Crutchfield agrees that more color is making its way into sports apparel. “Stretchy black pants and shorts are still staples, but men like sport team colors, and we’re including plum and lilac colors for women.” Fitlee is featuring a lot of blues, violets, lilacs, reds, bright greens and earth tones in its line.

“Naturals and neutrals are also coming back,” says Whitehead. Lucy activewear is now offering expressive fabric treatments that include tie-die, embroidery, foil, graphics and animal prints.

In addition to color, well-designed function is also a key trend. For example, elastic is disappearing from many lines, to avoid pinching. Danskin is featuring pants without drawstrings; wider waistbands that flatten the tummy; and ergonomic seams that are rounded rather than hard, molding the body.

Garment length is also important. “If a cycling jersey is too short, customers won’t like it,” says Ury. “They want to be covered and don’t want [the jersey] to ride up, especially if they are older or working on weight loss.” Coverage is critical, and skorts are making a a comeback among women who don’t like the look of shorts.

Whitehead agrees that modesty is important: “Women’s tops will have longer silhouettes so midriff showing isn’t so much of an issue when working out. The longer look can also be more slimming because the body is not cut and defined by the waistband of the pants. For men, we’ll be seeing longer technical running shorts.”

Men’s and women’s preferences are also important, says Dalhausser. “Men typically don’t buy outfits; they buy items. They want to get the most use for multiple activities. Women tend to think about fashion more, and how clothing fits into market trends.”

Whitehead advises fitness pros and their clients to have a mental list in mind when they go shopping, pay attention to fit, keep it simple and stay away from anything that’s too hyped or they’ve seen on late-night TV. Says McNally, “Shop with your hands, and go with what feels right.”

In the end, there’s no substitute for personal experience. With so many choices, the fitting room is more important than ever. “Some of these options are so new that you can’t really imagine what they feel like unless you’ve worn it,” says Monte. “The best test is just to try it on.”

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Mary Monroe

IDEA Author/Presenter
Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in the Los Angeles area.
References
American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). 2008. Effect of fastskin suits on performance, drag, and energy cost of swimming. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40 (6), 1149–54.

Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). 2008. The State of the Industry: SGMA’s Annual Report on the U.S. Sporting Goods Market.

October 2008

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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