Fashion

Active is the new casual, as stylish tech fabrics are putting us on the street ready to work it as much as work out. By Alyx Gorman.

Activewear is crossfit for purpose

When the 2010s are reduced to a single silhouette in a “History of Fashion” book, the figure will look naked, except for her sneakers. She will be wearing form-fitting tights, in a high-tech fabric, a racer-back singlet and perhaps, if she’s cold, a boxy but feather-light plastic running jacket.

A version of that jacket, albeit more refined, appeared on the runway at Australian designer Dion Lee’s Spring 2015 show in New York. Lee has always played with themes of athleticism and the body, but this garment was one of his most overt nods to activewear yet. Its thick, ribbed standing collar and matching cuffs and hems probably wouldn’t be ideal trackside, but they gave the jacket a sort of structured mystery, somewhere between James Dean and Star Trek

Lee is hardly the first designer to take sports and utility garments as his muse. In fact, it’s hard to find a high-end label that hasn’t borrowed from the gym at some point since 2010. And the public has bought into the image.

We’ve all gone from raging against tights-as-pants to calmly accepting translucent Lululemons as a form of outerwear, though it’s not the trend’s prevalence that has caught Lee’s eye. “If anything, an oversaturation of an idea can make you conscious of moving away from it,” he says. Rather, it’s the activewear fabrics that have inspired him. 

Lee is particularly adept at using innovative fabrics, which this season have ranged from metallic and flashy, to light but stiff, with an almost silken lustre. He finds working with a blend that’s just this side of unnatural can give an otherwise relatable strapless dress or pencil skirt an alien coolness. 

“Performance fabrics and fabric technology seems to be the only sector within the industry that is seeing true innovation in fashion,” Lee says.

Fabric innovation isn’t just driving activewear as a fashion trend. It’s also driving an entire category of clothing.  

“As head of design for a sports brand, it’s really fabulous for us,” says Tahnee McIlwraith of Speedo Australia. “Those high fashion trends start to filter down, and your general customer sees activewear more as an everyday item, and not specifically a training item.” Speedo has just released a line of “cross training” garments including racer tops and training shorts that can be worn straight into the pool. “I think the ease of not having to change into a traditional swimsuit was a big part of our reasoning in launching the line, especially for women. But also that the active aesthetic is quite a trend.” 

McIlwraith has found that even these specialist items are being worn as regular apparel, and she also credits this to the fabric. “People initially buy something based on the aesthetic, but the importance of technical fabric development is that when they wear a garment, the fabric makes them more comfortable. That means they wear the garment for longer and are more likely to buy from us again.”

Billing itself as “the perfect balance of style and function,” one suspects Country Road’s new activewear offering is going after the “everyday” apparel market, too. The collection employs the prerequisite technical fabrics, but with its pretty pastel palette, flattering curved panelling and contrast stripes, it’s easy to imagine the range being worn on those days one doesn’t quite make it to yoga class. 

From the runway to the pool to the high street, we’re surrounded by the sporting life at every turn. So it’s no surprise that the fusion of fashion and athletics has found its zenith in “wearables”, the buzz-term Silicon Valley and the rag trade are using to describe fitness tracking bracelets, heart monitoring singlets and other forms of wearable technology. 

The wearables category has been pegged by tech analysts Canalys to grow 350 per cent this year. Right now Jawbone’s UP bracelet leads the pack as the wearable tech fashion types prefer – it is the only one stocked on trendsetting luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter. Unlike the Fitbit or Nike+ FuelBand, the UP has no interface, which allows it to have a slender, minimal design. Indeed, at Dion Lee’s show, thin blue and white bracelets encircled several models’ arms just above the elbow. From afar, at least, they looked very much like UP bands. 

However, Jawbone will soon lose its crown to Apple, which is launching the Apple Watch in 2015. To help create and sell it, the company hired former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts and former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve. Just this week, the Apple Watch made its first public appearance, during Paris Fashion Week, in a pop-up at the achingly hip boutique Colette. While the Apple Watch will presumably be more than just a fancy pedometer, “fitness tracking” is one of the device’s key selling points.  

Activewear and wearables create a self-perpetuating cycle, because as more of us slap trackers around our wrists, we’re increasingly reminded that everyday life is full of opportunity for movement – and therefore an opportunity to wear running shorts. 

In addition to being spurred on by trend, activewear is also driven by the same engine of innovation as other areas of technology. It was only recently that training gear (track pants aside) became comfortable enough to wear on the street, let alone more comfortable than regular clothes. McIlwraith says, “Fabric innovation is like all advancements in technology in that it’s moving very quickly. And it’s an area where customers are becoming incredibly aware. They’re looking for the next best thing.”

“There have been many changes in global lifestyle, where activewear has become more integrated within the lifestyle that people lead,” Dion Lee agrees. “Comfort and ease have become paramount within the modern idea of luxury. ”

For women especially, replacing casual wear with activewear offers a different kind of ease. It gives them freedom from high heels, make-up and blow-dried hair when they’re going about their business. After all, no one needs to put on a full face of foundation or a pair of pumps if they’re about to do a core-foundation or pump class.  

Performance clothing finds the wearer more than just comfortable. They’re conveying to the world that they care about fitness and intend on looking after themselves. It’s a very modern message that an increasing number of us are keen to project.

And, as specialist training brands such as Speedo have profitably discovered, as long as you’re seen wearing gym gear, you don’t even need to work out in it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 4, 2014 as "Crossfit for purpose". Subscribe here.

Alyx Gorman
is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.