The athleticwear segment has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, so much so that it’s creeping into mainstream styles. This broader category of performance wear is lending athletic styles to everyday apparel, while holding fabrics to higher standards with functionable capabilities, and all-the-while creating a spring of profits for any wearables decorator.
This surmounting generation of athleticwear is not just for athletes, though it certainly is designed with them in mind. Performance wear is created to work both on and off the playing field, and for that reason as much as any, it’s a trend decorators need to be savvy to in order to compete in any market.
Athleticwear has evolved greatly since most of our days in Pop Warner—when the only thing differentiating sports uniforms from weekend wear was the team associations screened across them. The latest approach to team uniforms is much more in-stride with athletes than ever before. Chad Trollinger, Augusta Sportswear, tells us that many of the big-league retail manufacturers actually look to consumers to help conceive clothing lines. “From ground zero to the market, they field-test this stuff. The athlete’s voice is part of the plan for all of it,” he says.
What these voices have resounded is that they require garments that have adapted as they themselves have. “Athletes are getting better, bigger, stronger, faster, more flexible,” Trollinger goes on, “so the styles have to do the same thing as well. And once the athletes catch wind that this stuff is going to help them with sweat and odor and all of that, they push for it.”
Not to say that athleticwear sells itself, but it definitely helps buyer-awareness that performance fabrics are booming on the retail level. Still, decorators should know more than just the buzz words, but how the various characteristics, fabrics, fits and styles play into the function of the garments. “Education is the key,” says Sion Shaman, Expert Performance T, to competing in the athleticwear market. “Educate the consumers on what the performance fabric is, and focus on the functions rather than the fashion, then bring both together.”
This education involves retraining to a certain extent, especially in regards to one of performance’s principle fabrics. Images of Leisure Suit Larry still linger by simple mention of the word polyester, but Shaman insists the fabric has overcome its cheesy past. “Polyester can communicate with the changes on the skin, where natural fibers cannot” says Shaman. “Moisture wicking and antibacterial capabilities embedded in polyester aren’t inherent to natural fibers.” And for those who like the hand of cotton? Shaman says that the synthetic fiber market is so diverse that manufacturers are creating polyesters that have a cotton-like hand, but with all of the performance attributes. “You have the best of both worlds,” he says.
The composition of athleticwear, that is, the synthetic fibers (namely polyester, nylon and microfiber) are a huge part of what makes the garments perform. But construction details and drape are equally responsible. Our sources agree that athletes look for lighter weight garments, and Les Tandler, GAME Sportswear, adds that special details such as built-in ports for portable audio player headphones really generate interest.
Other construction details—including spandex accents for mobility and range-of-motion, compression fits, and seamless/coverseamed construction to prevent chaffing, to name a few—can be huge selling points for athletes, so long as you’re explaining the detail in relation to its function. So, seamless construction may seal the deal with a runner, but may not be the end-all for a golfer. And yogies seek tighter fits with stretch, where rugby players rank durability highest of priority. Matching a specific garment to a specific customer is always the best bet.
Armed with an understanding of the special attributes automatically gives you a leg-up on your lesser-informed competition, but limiting the lineup of customers to the obvious athletes can be a rookie mistake. “As the science of sports progresses,” explains Tandler, “the garments originally designed for sports professionals will become increasingly sophisticated in terms of materials and functionality. They will find their way very quickly into mainstream athleticwear worn by regular consumers because manufacturing efficiencies will allow everyone to afford them.”
So while team uniforms comprise a generous portion of the market, Shaman agrees and points out, “Our society is becoming more health conscious—exercising more, eating better, organic foods have been on the rise.” Along with that, he says, performance wear is becoming a lifestyle-type product. “People are wearing it in coffee shops, to go shopping with jeans, and so on.”
Perhaps this is a case of the clothes make the man… look fit. Just or not, it’s a fact that our choices of clothing make statements about us. And the statement that performance and athletic wear make is one of activity and health.
This factor is certainly one in this segment’s retail success. “We are seeing this more in retail,” Trollinger says. “It starts with coaches on the sidelines and on the athletes in the element of their sport, but they’re taking it outside the sport and it’s becoming fashion as well.” With the celebrity-ization of today’s sports superstars, Matt Leinart has equal fashion influence on the masses as his ex-fling Paris Hilton. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but there’s no doubt that the target audience of ESPN (males age 18 to 34) look more toward the sidelines than to Men’s Vogue for getting decked out.
It is with this in mind that the manufacturers design athleticwear for the decorated-apparel market—being price conscious while delivering the performance and fashion that consumers want to wear. “As people invest more in their health, they realize this type of product does help with hygiene and help them feel more comfortable,” Shaman asserts. “But the trick is to make the products that are functional fashionable so it looks good on people.” This is where contrast stitching and blocking, fashionable cuts and color come into the mix.
The manufacturers’ expertise on garment shape, color and details combines with our industry’s evolving embellishment techniques to create gold-medal garments. Embroidery, water-based screen printing and innovative heat-applied techniques all enhance the sleek look of performance. Our sources say that sublimation is a chic, colorful way to decorate athleticwear without inhibiting a garment’s performance attributes.
The one thing all our sources communicate is that performance athleticwear is no passing fancy. So stay up on the styles, and get to know the players in order to serve this growing market.