Spandex and moisture-wicking fabrics were once the uniform for exercise, but over the past 18 months, we’ve all started wearing athleisure for everyday pursuits, swapping non-stretch jeans and restrictive underwire bras for flexible waistbands and loose silhouettes. As The Globe reported last month, from June, 2020, to June, 2021, athleisure sales increased by 23 per cent, while overall women’s apparel sales dropped by 12 per cent.
But with athleisure now ubiquitous and many starting to return to working in an office setting, how do designers keep leggings, sweatpants and bike shorts interesting and relevant? For Athleta, founded in California in 1998 and now owned by Gap Inc., the key is designing pieces that are equally appropriate for a morning jog and a lunch meeting. The brand recently launched its Canadian online store, with a physical location opening later this month in West Vancouver’s Park Royal Shopping Centre and one coming to Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall in November. The Globe spoke with Athleta’s senior director of design, Casey Schumacher, about how athleisure has evolved in the pandemic, the rise of “workleisure” and whether sporting yoga pants on the regular will continue.
How have you seen trends in athleisure evolve because of the pandemic?
We’re seeing a lot more of it. Small brands are popping up and bigger brands are paying more attention to lounge and sleep styles. Athleta is ground in basics – our pieces are made with intention in fit, quality and material – so what’s the next step for us? That’s fuelling us in this new environment where there’s so much competition and noise. We still pay attention to craft and colour, but we need to make things that are more versatile.
Athleta has a few pieces, like a white collared shirt and pants with back pockets, that look fit for the boardroom. Are you designing “workleisure” for people who are heading back to the office but don’t want to compromise on comfort?
For sure, but Athleta has always had this performance lifestyle portion of our business that’s “safe for work.” Our Urbanite collared shirt is made of the same featherweight stretch material as our Run With It shorts.
A survey released last year by the research group NPD found that only a quarter of all U.S. activewear apparel was purchased for the intended use of exercise. Do you think this trend will continue as pandemic restrictions ease?
Yes, but along with a sense of comfort, people also feel the need to dress up again. So, it’s not one or the other, and people are going to ask more out of their performance gear and layer it up more seamlessly with a button-down shirt, or a dress or a blazer. I think we’re changing how we’re dressing in general, and performance wear is the underpinning of that.
As a designer, is that exciting for you?
I want to give people better choices. I want them to look put together and we can do that through our design aesthetic and how we use feminine utility, how we’re always solving through movement, how we use craft, colour and print. I love seeing people wearing tights out and about. I was in New York a couple months ago and I was shocked how many people were dressed in their tights and Louis Vuittons. Even younger consumers are here for it, and I think it gives some of our older customers permission to wear them out. They feel held in and covered. We want to make it easier for women to feel put together, but not sacrifice the comfort.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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