The Epic Rise of Athleisure Wear
In today’s fashion marketplace, the number of brands available in every category of clothing and at every price point is almost limitless. Garments coined as “athleisure” come with the dual promise of supporting us in our workouts and helping us look good even when we’re not at the gym (brunch, shopping, running errands, etc.). In March, I went searching for a new sports bra online. I am 5 feet tall and brands design most clothing for women 5'4" and taller. The very common and ever-popular racerback sports bras aren’t comfortable for me. My ideal sports bra has a full coverage back and longer line (hitting mid-ribcage).
My sports bra search led me to the popular website Carbon38.com. They carry dozens of brands of athleisure wear. Here I discovered that pricing for sports bras exceeded the $50-$60 range I have become accustomed to and now went up to $200. My observation, brands bombard consumers with messages about purchasing up — buying an item that is more “luxurious” that <fill in celebrity name> wears. That almost always requires the buyer to spend more money. I was a reasonably early adopter (around 2008) of athleisure brands. In the early 2000s, Alo, Beyond Yoga, and Nux followed the expensive Lulu Lemon brand’s footsteps — offering stylish leggings, sports bras, and tops in appealing colors and prints. Some of these brands were also introducing new fabrics into the marketplace that provided increased comfort, were better performing, seamless work, etc. When I made my first athleisure purchase, I spent 2–3 days a week in a Pilates studio for rehab and workouts. My desires for comfort, to look good, and for product quality were of equal importance.
What’s Quality Got to Do with Price?
What I’ve learned over my years of product purchases and wear is that price points across certain brands are very comparable, but the quality of materials and life of the garments varies. Some brand’s fabrics maintain stretchiness for much longer, don’t pill or are far less likely to fade. Any garment that contains stretch like Lycra (spandex/elastane) is worn for workouts, sweated in, and washed a lot will hold its original day of purchase shape for about a year. After lots of wear, legging knees can get baggy and waste bands gap. Garments worn only as streetwear may have a longer lifespan.
A quick survey of sports bras in the $60-$90 range offered on popular athleisure websites revealed that brands manufacture the bras in the U.S. or offshore and make them from similar fabrics. They made most of the bras with either polyamide or Polyester blended with spandex (elastane, Lycra, etc.). A few brands provided fabric properties like a four-way stretch or moisture-wicking, but most provided only the fiber content. Without knowing the country of origin of the fabric, it’s impossible to verify fabric quality. It’s widely known in fashion production that Italian or Japanese milled fabrics are of superior quality and typically cost more per yard. Polyester also comes in a wide range of grades and prices.
A Little Product Knowledge Goes a Long Way.
An $88.00 sports bra style called the “Leah” led me to question current athleisure prices and examine my buying habits. At first glance, the “Leah” was a contender for my sports bra purchase, with thicker straps, a longer line, and a straight-cut back. What kept me from placing it in my cart and checking out? The bra was black with multi-colored stripes, and the lines of stripes did not match at the side seams. Mismatched stripes are a pet peeve of mine. In the world of sewing and garment construction, it’s a major no-no. And with higher price point brands, it’s expected that stripes will match. In ready-to-wear (mid to low price points), garments are cut in bulk, and it has become acceptable not to match stripes. Not matching stripes at garment seams is now widely practiced, especially by lower price point brands. This practice became popular because it is financially beneficial for brands. The upside is that it also happens to be helpful for the environment.
Not matching stripes during cutting:
- Reduces fabric waste: The amount of fabric leftover after cutting the pattern pieces will be less, which means less unused/fabric scraps going in the garbage.
- Reduces cost: By not matching stripes, a designer/manufacturer minimizes the amount of fabric they must purchase for production and allows for the fabric to be cut several layers at a time, saving time.
The unmatched stripes were a personal annoyance, but would I have paid $88.00 for a sports bra if the stripes had matched? Contemplating this question led me to additional questions. What increased benefit do consumers receive when purchasing an $80.00 sports bra? What quality of fabric, performance features or manufacturing standards justify the $80.00 cost? How expensive does a garment have to be to allow for finishing details like matched stripes?
I’m not calling out just one sports bra style, brand, or website. I’m questioning how many consumers and I have bought into the pricey athleisure wear trend, purchasing expensive garments without asking what we are buying and why.
To be aware and intentional when making purchases in today’s fashion system requires consumers to independently search for truth. For me, this process starts with analyzing my own thoughts and behaviors and then extending this analysis to the fashion industry. I find questions are helpful for reflecting on and better understanding my behavior.
To be aware and intentional when making purchases in today’s fashion system requires consumers to search for truth independently. This process starts with analyzing my thoughts and behaviors and then extending this analysis to the fashion industry. I find asking questions me help reflect on and better understand my behavior.
Here are some of the questions I have asked myself:
- Did I visit the Carbon38 website because it is the best site for purchasing workout clothes or because a celebrity that I admire often wears the brand?
- I believe in empowering women and working for gender equity. Am I willing to prioritize purchasing from women-owned, privately-held brands over male-founded or publicly traded brands?
- What about Black women-owned businesses? The U.S. has a history of discriminatory lending practices, and even today, Black-owned companies struggle to get the capital/loans they need to grow and develop. Am I willing to research to find Black-owned athleisure brands and use my dollars to support their success?
- Would I prioritize buying from a brand that uses recycled materials and is transparent about their manufacturing practices even I didn’t like their styles as much as mainstream brands?
I’ve learned that I shouldn’t buy something when I’m unclear about my wants, needs, or intentions. When I make purchases without clarity, I end up returning the item(s) or regretting the purchase over time, never feeling fully satisfied. After all of this reflection and analysis, I hit the pause button on my new sports bra purchase. I limited myself to searching resale websites only and ended up purchasing two sports bras from very reputable and popular brands for less than the cost of the new $88.00 bra. Both garments were “like new” or “new with tags,” and I’ve been thrilled with my purchases so far.
I encourage you to spend time reflecting on your purchasing habits and buying behaviors. What do you already know about how you shop for and buy things? What might you learn about yourself through further evaluation and reflection?
Industry Insider: Increase Your Product Knowledge
Poly/spandex is a very common fabric combination especially in workout /athleisure garments.
Polyester is a synthetic petroleum-based fiber. It is not bio-degradable and when polyester garments are washed, microplastics are released into the water. Evidence of microplastics has been found in our oceans and drinking water.
Lycra (a brand name), spandex, or elastane is a synthetic fiber known for its exceptional elasticity and is widely used in workout/athleisure wear. It is a petroleum product. Fun fact: the name spandex is an anagram of the word expands.