by Brian Lipton


activewear Rhone
Image courtesy of Rhone

Some men may still go to the gym in stained tees and ratty shorts, and a huge market still exists for mid-priced active wear that could be found in places like Modell’s and JC Penney. Still, more men are choosing items to work out in that provide maximum comfort, technical elements, fantastic fit and up-to-the-minute fashion detail. An outfit that gives you the ability to leave the gym in the same clothes you just worked out in and then go out to dinner or even the office (if it’s suitably casual). An outfit that usually costs at least three figures.

Indeed, high-level performance-based activewear is one of the apparel industry’s fastest-growing categories. “This trend continues to be exceptionally strong, with our customer’s demand for newness and innovation creating the momentum,” says Durand Guion, men’s fashion director at Macy’s.

“We’re seeing a real intersection of performance and fashion in activewear,” says Tom Speight, president and CEO of 2(X)IST, which launched its active wear line in 2014 “Guys want something that can go from lounging at home to taking a spin class to having a drink at the bar and letting them feel perfectly dressed in all those places. Yet, this same guy has also become so much more knowledgeable about fabrics and technology. For years, cotton was king, but men now know it can only do so much. For example, microfiber is cooler in hot weather. And while they’re looking for the advantages of technology, they’re also practical, so it’s not about technology for technology’s sake. It has to do something positive for them.”

Those sentiments are echoed by many of the players in the active wear market. Industry, a year-old Canadian brand, is focusing on greater breathability in its product, often through the use of mesh, along with adding fashion elements such as heat-sealed zipper to its latest collection. New Orleans-based TASC, which has been in business since 2009, has found success by using a bamboo-based proprietary fabric that keeps its technical elements (including odor-prevention and moisture-wicking) intact over time.

activewear eysom
image courtesy of Eysom

Mission Athletecare finds its male customers are particularly interested in apparel that keeps their body temperature better regulated and has an anti-odor element. One-year-old California-based Eysom uses an all-natural, sustainable fiber called Tencel that is great for wicking away moisture. And Connecticut-based Rhone Apparel’s biggest selling point is incorporating four-way stretch fabric in all its garments for comfort.

“People want to wear fabrics that will stretch, move with them, yet hold their shape,” says Rhone co-founder Nate Checketts. “The fact is as more men are living more active and healthy lifestyles, they are looking for products that are incredibly strong.”

Adds Daniel Shapiro, founder of e-tailer Fourlaps, which launches a collection of mid-priced workout wear this summer: “It is so important to be comfortable when working out. You want to wear the garment, not have the garment wear you.”

“The important thing about stretch is that elevates functionality to another level,” adds Stan Cheung, founder of Eysom.

Retailers concur that comfort is what’s selling. “We hear over and over how lightweight and comfortable Rhone’s shorts and pants are,” says Katherine Mason, founder and CEO of Atlanta’s SculptHouse. “Our customers are definitely looking for superior comfort along with technology.”

“With the category getting very crowded, men are focused on brands that promise two things: comfort and style,” says Frank Rappa, senior director of retail for gym chain Equinox. “We are truly seeing that our members are balancing fashion and functionality within their wardrobe.”

AUG16-Active-Imagination-Pull-QuoteNaturally, as the number of active wear players keeps climbing, brands are working hard to keep their customers, from expanding their retail outlets to partnering with famous athletes. For a small company like Industry, frequent updates on their Instagram and Facebook feeds help keep their products visible, and the company also relies on brand ambassadors to spread the word. Eysom’s Cheung has begun talks with such high-end stores as Neiman Marcus and Barneys and may test there next year, while Rhone is beginning a relationship with major sporting goods retailer REI (which also currently carries TASC). “What we like about our position in the market is that we’re a pure player,” says Rhone’s Checketts. “We’ve found what people want is consistency in the brand.”

Intriguingly, the much-larger 2(X)IST, which sells in the nation’s largest retailers including Macy’s, has also been stepping up its e-commerce presence, says Speight. “While the customer understands this new way of dressing, some retailers are still figuring this out. So it’s a little easier to tell our own story in e-commerce,” he says.

“The good news is that consumers are aware of our know-how from our underwear business,” he adds. “So they understand that the concepts of style, fit, functionality and fashion are fundamentally in our DNA.”

Activewear - INDUSTRY
Image courtesy of Industry

No matter where or how they sell, these companies (and retailers) concur that men are willing to pay for items in this category — up to three figures when necessary, if the product is right.

“My shorts may cost $100 more than some other companies, but once men try them on, they notice the difference in quality and begin to stock up on them,” says Cheung. “My biggest personal fear when I started the company was that the consumer wouldn’t get what I was trying to do. But they have. We’re starting to do a lot more wholesale and some retailers want to carry the full collection, not just one or two pieces.”

“I think price is less of an issue in this market than value; men care about what they’re getting for their money, and they’re willing to spend it on fabrics and details,” says Checketts.

Adds Equinox’s Rappa: “Price resistance has not been an issue in this category. If we continue to provide the right quality product with the education behind it, then we are on the right track.”