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The Globe and Mail

How top designers are putting the fashion into fitness gear

Natasha V/The Globe and Mail

Michelle Watson's fitness habits have fallen victim to the success of Michi, her line of workout clothes. The Torontonian, who developed a knack for creating chic training gear while living in New York and working for Ralph Lauren's performance-clothing division RLX, calls her current exercise regime "pathetic."

Despite that, Watson can often be spotted sporting a pair of her Psyche leggings to work. She's not alone. Fitness fashion is being transformed to meet the needs of both high-intensity workouts and fashion-conscious wardrobes, changing what women wear to the gym and beyond.

If the slouchy "before" of workout clothing was represented by flared jogging pants and Juicy Couture leisure ensembles, the streamlined "after" includes contoured printed tights, satin bomber jackets and mesh tops that could be worn out for dinner. While ready-to-wear designers are incorporating athletic elements like insulating materials and aerodynamic silhouettes into their clothing collections, up-and-coming athletic brands like Michi, London-based Lucas Hugh and California label Vimmia are working lace and digital prints into sports bras and yoga capris.

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Following in the footsteps of established, fashion-focused athletic clothing collec– tions like Adidas by Stella McCartney and Y-3, these labels are tapping into a growing segment of the garment business. An article about active apparel that appeared on The Business of Fashion website last month quoted a figure from Boston-based research company Trefis that estimates "the global sports apparel market – which includes women's active wear – is set to grow to $178-billion by 2019."

For Watson, a business wasn't the end goal when she launched Michi in 2010. She simply couldn't find clothes that addressed how she wanted to dress both in and out of the gym.

"A lot of workout gear has bright colours – and that's not really going to work on the street," she says. "But when it's very subtle with mesh inserts and when the design lines are flattering … I've never heard anyone complain that this stuff should stay in the gym."

Even members of the globe-trotting international fashion press agree. Flaunt magazine's co-founder and style director Long Nguyen will often attend a day of runway shows in an Under Armour compression top with a Tom Ford fur bomber.

"Consumers are learning the difference between athletic wear for athletic sake and high-fashion athletics," he says. "Active clothes have gotten more design-oriented and there's far more knowledge about fabrics than before."

Lucas Hugh founder Anjhe Mules sources her moisture-wicking, stomach-slimming fabrics from a factory in Portugal that produces racing suits for Olympic athletes. In an especially fortuitous coup, she estimates that she supplied a third of the costumes for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

"The head of wardrobe Googled 'futuristic sportswear' [and found Lucas Hugh]," she said by phone from London.

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Lucas Hugh is typically merchandised in a store's contemporary area alongside ready-to-wear labels rather than in the sports department. It also debuts new collections according to the fashion calendar – Mules will unveil her fall 2014 line during Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in New York later this month.

Both Mules and Watson are keen to set themselves apart from the default activewear brand of choice for most women today: Canada's own Lululemon.

"Women tell me they don't want to be wearing the same thing that the girl is wearing right next to her," says Mules. "So it's important for us to maintain a boutique feel and create pieces that are limited edition."

What our athletes are wearing in Sochi

While team Canada will be sporting a wardrobe of Hudson's Bay pieces at the Games' opening ceremony and during their down time in the athletes' village, you're more likely to see them training in gear by Adidas. The brand's 170-item Canadian Olympic High Performance Collection features compression tops, ventilated long tights, insulated gloves and other workout separates designed for sweating it out in sub-zero temperatures. Also included are lightweight sneakers in a patriotic red, white and black, which competitors will slip into for medal ceremonies. The entire line is available at Sport Chek stores. For more information, visit – Andrew Sardone

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