Fashion over Function? Athletic Wear Hits the Runway

VPL Spring/Summer 2014 Source: The Carpet Bagger NYC

VPL Spring/Summer 2014
Source: The Carpet Bagger NYC

 
If following the fashion world has become one of your side jobs, you (like us) will have noticed by now that something strange is taking off on the runways. We’re talking about activewear hitting the realms of high fashion, where sky-high heels are being traded in for sneakers and powersuits are being replaced with sweatshirts and trackpants. But, does the rise of athletic wear in high fashion contribute to the performance aspect of activewear?
As recently as two weeks ago, something was amiss at the Christian Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2014 Fashion Show. Rather than send models wearing elaborate outfits down the runway on sky-high shoes, the fashion house focused on an alternative footwear: sneakers.
Wait, what?
 

Christian Dior Spring/Summer 2014
Source: The Citizens of Fashion

 
That’s right – this year, heeled shoes were swapped for the more casual (and comfortable) sneakers. Just a few days later, Chanel also followed suit in their Spring/Summer 2014 Fashion Show.
 

Chanel Spring/Summer 2014
Source: The Citizens of Fashion

 

Chanel Spring/Summer 2014
Source: The Citizens of Fashion

 
Recently, the world of haute fashion has taken a drastically different turn in order to appeal to consumers and fashionistas. Designers are not only trading in sky-high heels for sneakers, but also floor-length gowns for sweatshirts, track pants and other sporty ensembles. Here is a snapshot from Jay Ahr’s Resort 2014 collection,
 
Source: Going Teen

Jay Ahr Resort 2014
Source: Going Teen

 
The most intriguing part of all this is the fact that a decade ago, we wouldn’t see sneakers or fashionable sportswear on the runway. In fact, some consider sweatpants to be the opposite of high fashion; as Karl Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, once said, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” What Karl is referring to is the association of sweatpants with the idea of losing control over one’s life and the physical effects of doing so. Sweatpants were not so much associated with their functionality as they were their comfort.
VPL Spring/Summer 2014 Source: Vogue UK

VPL Spring/Summer 2014
Source: Vogue UK

So, why has athletic wear suddenly become so fashionable? Marshal Cohen, NPD Chief Industry Analyst, wrote an insightful blog post last week about the rise of activewear in the fashion industry. According to Cohen, the rise of athletic wear in the fashion industry is directly attributed to consumer trends toward sportswear. Though the rise of athletic wear on runways is recent, fashionable and trendy wear appeared much earlier. Starting in the late 1990s, retailers such as Lululemon began to appear offering fashionable athletic wear. The slow rise of the sweatpant and its accompanying family saw huge collaborations between sportswear retailers and designers, such as the 2004 Nike collaboration with Stella McCartney. Rather than say that the appearance of sportswear on runways is striking and (a little) taboo, it would be more correct to say that the appearance of sportswear on runsways is part of a larger consumer trend toward an active and healthy lifestyle.
Streetstyle Activewear Source: zanita.au

Streetstyle Activewear
Source: zanita.au

As Cohen was quoted in this Business of Fashion article, “this is not a fashion trend, it’s a lifestyle trend. The difference here is that there’s functionality mixed with fashion, not just solely fashion.” With the rise of athletic wear in the fashion industry, the focus of high fashion has suddenly become transfixed not on creating an alternate fantasy of elaborate outfits and intricately designed pieces, but on incorporating high fashion designs into an increasingly appealing lifestyle. Though it’s hard to pinpoint why active lifestyles are growing on people (and not that we’re complaining!), it’s clear that both retailers and fashion houses have noticed.
We might be asking ourselves at this point, “okay, but how does fashionable activewear contribute to the performance part of activewear? Or, does the fashion side somehow diminish the functionality of activewear? In a Reuters Article published earlier this year, Berenberg Bank analyst John Guy notes the difficulty in achieving a balance between function and fashion. “It requires research and development to get the performance element to go with the fashion side,” he says. His comments are not grounded on nothing, as we can see the difficulty in achieving this balance in Puma and Nike. Puma’s focus on sporty fashion has led to its performance wear taking up one third of the retailer’s sales. Conversely, Nike continues to emphasize function more than fashion in its athletic wear, a fact contributing to its place in the global market as the leading brand in athletic wear.
Although retailers and fashion houses have caught on to the active lifestyle, achieving a perfect balance between performance and fashion in activewear will remain a challenge. Perhaps we will see a shift in the coming years where both retailers and fashion houses come closer to achieving that balance in their products; for now, the focus on supplementing an established lifestyle will suffice until active products can be deemed both fashionable and high quality performance wear.