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British Columbia's active lifestyle has spawned two generations of West Coast athleisure labels. Marsha Lederman highlights the brand names to know the next time you're getting dressed for the gym, brunch or a volleyball game on Copacabana beach

The 10,000-square-foot lab that the Vancouver-based apparel giant Lululemon calls its "Whitespace" is a high-tech playground for its athletic-wear designers. Large-scale treadmills help track the movements of runners, cyclists and athletes using wheelchairs. There's a swimming treadmill, a sprint track and a full-sized studio where yogis flow through poses. Sensors measure brain, muscle and heart activity, as well as thermal comfort. The frosted windows to the hallway outside become transparent with the flick of a switch, so employees who drift by sporting their own Wunder Unders and Intensi-Tees can sneak a peek at pieces that may be in development for another decade before they hit stores.

It was here that the movements of the Canadian beach volleyball team were motion-captured and tested with a dynamic 3D body scanner to create their Olympic uniforms. The machine maps the ripples and vibrations of soft tissue, and helped the company's design director, Clare Robertson, create performance clothing – bra tops, especially – with maximum support, minimal breast movement and zero distraction to the wearer. They were then sent to a climate chamber, which can simulate most conditions, including a typical August in Rio. Elite athletes do the testing in the Whitespace, but the resulting innovations trickle down to Lululemon's customers. Because even if you're just wearing your yoga pants to venture out for a latte, it's good to know they can withstand a windstorm.

When Chip Wilson launched Lululemon in 1998, he not only contributed to the global yoga boom, but also created a new category of clothing altogether. Yoga pants in particular went from the studio to the street and into mainstream fashion. Form–fitting, flattering and comfortable, they took sweatpants from elastic-waisted shlub-wear to sleek – even sexy – club-wear. The category is now called "athleisure." Even if some industry members cringe at the term, it has stuck and is now defined in the Oxford dictionary as "casual, comfortable clothing designed to be suitable both for exercise and everyday wear."

Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas model the uniforms they collaborated on with Lululemon’s design director, Clare Robertson.

Jamie Broder and Kristina Valjas model the uniforms they collaborated on with Lululemon’s design director, Clare Robertson.

Mark Blinch for The Globe and Mail

The athleisure field has become crowded with competitors, with everyone from sporty companies such as Under Armour, fashion brands like Tory Burch and Rebecca Minkoff, and ubiquitous chains like Old Navy and Victoria's Secret offering their own versions. It has inspired fashion-sport collaborations, such as Adidas and Stella McCartney, and Nike and Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing. Celebrities are getting in on the game too. Beyoncé's Ivy Park brand is available at Topshop and Kate Hudson appears often during TV-commercial breaks pitching Fabletics. And in June, the Miss Teen USA pageant announced it would replace its swimsuit competition with athletic wear – athleisure. But the epicentre of athleisure is Vancouver, fuelled by Lululemon's success and the outdoorsy lifestyle that inspired the company to begin with.

"I don't think it's an accident why companies like us exist in Vancouver," said Tom Waller, Lululemon's Senior Vice President, during a recent tour of the company's head office, which is right on a major cycling path and a few short blocks away from the beach. "It's like a very big, experimental space." Vancouver is home to a number of companies that make athleisure wear and more performance-focused technical sports apparel. They include Kit and Ace – another Wilson family venture – and RYU, which stands for "Respect Your Universe."

The chic, award-winning RYU flagship store speaks to the brand’s commitment to creating athletic apparel that’s pleasing to the eye

The chic, award-winning RYU flagship store speaks to the brand’s commitment to creating athletic apparel that’s pleasing to the eye

"It's a hub for innovation, technical apparel, talent – the brainpower's here," says RYU's President, CEO and board chair Marcello Leone. RYU's flagship store opened in Kitsilano last November across the street from Westbeach, the snowboarding outfitter Wilson owned before starting Lululemon. The stunning RYU retail environment won Best Store at trend forecaster WGSN's Futures Awards in London in May. More boutique than sports shop, it has a minimalist, uncluttered feel and subdued colour schemes, including lots of black. Vancouver Eco Fashion Week held its launch party there in April, giving the place a fashionable stamp of approval. Further credibility came from Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, which sold RYU at its San Francisco pop-up in May and offers it on its website.

RYU's leadership team is a blend of brains from the fashion and performance worlds – Leone founded an eponymous high-end Vancouver store; Treya Klassen, vice president of product and brand, is a veteran of technical apparel manufacturing. The pattern-maker is a 65-year-old retired Italian tailor. "If you can make a suit fit, you can make a rain jacket fit perfectly," says Klassen. They use the term "urban athletic" to describe their clothing (they are in the haters' camp on the athleisure term) and hope to appeal to the woman who doesn't want to look like everybody else at the yoga studio. The label's men's-wear sales accounts for about 45 per cent of its business, compared to about 17 per cent at Lululemon.

The brand's clothing is simple and well structured. A triple-band waist on women's tights offers compression ("it holds everything in," a salesperson assures me) and stays up – no awkward adjustments after jumping through at yoga class. The Everywear Joggers are flattering men's sweatpants (women buy them, too) that easily transition to casual wear. And in the centre of the store, sleek unisex backpacks and duffel bags are hot sellers.

The influence of fashion on the high-end yoga market continues to grow. Last fall, Lululemon named Lee Holman its first creative director. His background includes stints at Nike and Burberry. This fall, Holman will launch Lululemon's Featherlight Collection, a collaboration with Paris-based textile designer Janaïna Milheiro, who has worked with Chanel and Valentino. Lululemon will also introduce Nulux, a new fabric that offers support, structure and compression but feels like nothing on the body, according to Holman.

The offerings at Karma Athletics marry fine-design elements, such as Italian-milled fabrics, with the technical innovations necessary for sports performance.

The offerings at Karma Athletics marry fine-design elements, such as Italian-milled fabrics, with the technical innovations necessary for sports performance.

Another Vancouver yoga-wear manufacturer, Karma Athletics, is going for that naked feel with its own new textile, Karmaluxe. Developed at an Italian mill, it's meant to offer control and comfort – "like a second skin," says designer Carlie Wong. A bonus for Vancouver's pooch-focused culture: dog hair doesn't stick to it, she says.

"Lulu put Vancouver and Canada on the map for this," says Karma Athletic's e-commerce manager Raymond Tong, who believes Vancouver's global athleisure reputation has helped the brand. "That's not to say that another company can't take their spot. And so we're hoping that Karma can do that."

Vancouver's contribution to performance fashion goes beyond yoga and running. Its mountain culture begat performance clothing giant Arc'teryx, which is best known for its outerwear. "What we were trying to do was make jackets that were lighter, stronger and more comfortable, but we appreciated that the easiest way to get people to try these ideas was to create really beautiful product," says design director Carl Moriarty. "So instead of having an outdoor jacket that really looks like you should be out in the woods, there's a level of refinement that allows people to get more versatility out of the product because they can wear it in an urban environment." The company is now a global concern, but, he says, was most definitely created by the necessity for certain clothing in Vancouver. "The passion for creating outerwear is driven by our climate here and by our access to the mountains."


Cycling is also a huge part of Vancouver's lifestyle, but posed a problem for clothing manufacturing veteran Gary Lenett. Looking for a healthier lifestyle at 55, he gave up his car lease and started riding his bike to work. "But if I had an important meeting, I couldn't find anything to wear," he explains. This led to his new venture, a denim company Dish & Duer. "I say this only half tongue-in-cheek: I was really only trying to find some stuff I could wear," he says. "If you can't find what you want, you make it."

Lenett says Dish & Duer flips athleisure on its head. Rather than selling gym or yoga apparel that can pass at the workplace or on a night out, it has designed fashionable performance jeans and "no-sweat" pants that work for active living. They look like regular, higher-end bottoms, but they're moisture-wicking, anti-bacterial, lighter and stretchier. The company's flagship store in Vancouver's Gastown includes a playground: a padded gym floor, wooden swing, monkey bars and a bike on a mount. When people emerge from the change rooms, they inevitably give the jeans a workout, with squats, high kicks and gyrations. "In an instant we solve a problem they didn't know they had," says Lenett. "They're just so surprised that they can move in their jeans."

Dish & Duer will soon be going head-to-head with another Vancouver start-up, Boulder Denim, which plans to launch this fall with ultra-stretchy jeans for fashion-conscious rock climbers. "People want to look good and still be comfortable, and in the past they would always sacrifice one for the other," says co-founder Brad Spence. When he took up climbing a few years ago, Spence noticed how many people wore jeans, but he found denim too restrictive and hot. He tried climbing in Lululemon pants, but didn't feel right wearing them out for a beer afterward. Still, he can't deny the originator's influence on his label.

"If it wasn't for Lululemon, we might not exist," says Spence, who believes Vancouver's reputation as an athleisure hub helped Boulder Denim's successful crowdfunding campaign. "We want to be the Lululemon of rock climbing."