The Rise (and Rise) of Luxury Athleisurewear

How high fashion moved in on sport… and made itself at home.

Article by Victoria Pearson

LV High-Top Trainers bu Virgil Abloh. Courtesy of Louis Vuitton.

The highly anticipated collaboration between Gucci and The North Face dropped last month with a sun-drenched campaign featuring a diverse cast of models frolicking across hillsides. The 70s-inspired capsule, a “celebration of the spirit of exploration”, includes both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear, soft accessories, luggage and footwear – think rubber soled ankle boots, nylon windbreakers, canvas trousers and patterned hiking packs. The launch was met with disapproval from some of the California-based outdoor brand’s devoted followers, concerned The North Face was deserting its DNA (a dual-branded half dome cotton tee in the collection retails at $800, for example, while North Face’s original version sits at $35). Yet the collection was by all accounts a success; highly proliferated and well-reviewed online; its monogrammed down puffers adorned by the likes of A$AP Rocky and Jennifer Lopez.

This fusion of high fashion with sport and outdoor wear isn’t a particularly new concept. Jil Sander first merged the spaces with an Adidas collaboration in 1998, Stella McCartney has been designing with the same sportswear giant since 2004, Louis Vuitton incited mass hysteria with its much-hyped 2017 Supreme capsule collection (it sold out in one day, raking in $23USD million in revenue) and Comme des Garçon unveiled an Air Force 1 sneaker with Nike just last year.

The North Face x Gucci Campaign.

A 2020 report from IBISWorld exploring the activewear sector reported the local market to be worth USD$3 billion, and Allied Market Research’s Global Athleisure Market Report estimates the category to reach USD$257 billion globally by 2026. As Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, succinctly noted, “streetwear is the vibe of the time”. Is it any wonder high fashion houses are angling for a slice?

What the The North Face x Gucci collection highlighted, however, is the pervasiveness of the crossover. Once deployed as a unique marketing opportunity – a way for luxury brands to capitalise on the cult following inherent to street, active or outdoor labels – the trend has grown in scope and frequency. And it’s not strictly collaborative either; athleisure is now a key design staple in many high fashion collections (see: LOEWE’s sustainably minded Eye/LOEWE/Nature menswear offering, Moncler’s dedicated activewear line and Rick Owens’ sling cut-out bra).

Sydney-based personal shopper, Gabriel Waller, has built a devoted following tracking down sold-out or high demand luxury fashion pieces, with a client list that includes Elle Macpherson, Hailey Bieber and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Of the luxe-athleisure sector, Waller says customer demand has sky-rocketed over the past 12 months. “Gucci’s recent collaboration with The North Face reached the most amount of sourcing requests we’ve received for one single collaboration collection,” she says. The most desired pieces? “The now-iconic puffer jacket… followed closely by their beanies, hats, boots, and sweaters.”

LOEWE Fall Winter 2021 Men's Runway Collection. Photography courtesy of LOEWE.
LOEWE Fall Winter 2021 Men's Runway Collection. Photography courtesy of LOEWE.

Generally speaking, sneakers are Waller’s most common request from the category. “When Aime Leon Dore collaborated with New Balance for their P550 Basketball Oxfords they were an instant sell out, and the requests came rolling in,” she recalls. Meanwhile, Prada’s puffer jacket was an early outlier of key seasonal pieces. “It is extremely popular internationally… and although we are at the peak of our Australian summer, I still have a lot of Australian clients requesting it.”

Athleisure has had a stronghold in the luxury menswear market for some time now, explains Olie Arnold, style director at MR PORTER. “Add the pandemic, and the category has been more relevant than ever in holding a mirror to how we can, and are, dressing.” Case in point: the search for joggers and sweatpants on MR PORTER has been up nearly 300% since the pandemic began. “As we reintroduce ourselves to hybrid working worlds, the casual opportunity to dress in this manner will only remain.”

Arnold cites Fear of God Essentials, Brunello Cucinelli, Tom Ford and Mr Porter’s in-house brand, Mr P., as examples of both “aspirational and within-reach offerings” in the category. Which is perhaps the most concise rationale for the luxury athleisure space’s cultural appeal: its ability to be both desirable and attainable. Sportswear is no longer strictly for athletes, and luxury items no longer strictly for ultra-high income earners – boiling down, as it always does, to dollars and cents.

Sporter campaign imagery. Courtesy of NET-A-PORTER.
Sporter campaign imagery. Courtesy of NET-A-PORTER.

Where handbags and jewellery have long been a point of entry for fashion lovers to buy into their favourite labels, there’s now also outdoor-ready puffer vests, moisture-wicking leggings and sweatshirts. “Activewear styles come at a good price point in comparison to the brands’ designer lines,” agrees NET-A-PORTER’s Senior Market Editor, Libby Page, who credits the lower cost of the crossover category to its rapid growth in popularity. “[Luxury athleisurewear] reaches a new customer and enables people to buy a slice of their brand.” Additionally, the rise in physical and mental health care has contributed to luxury’s feel-good fitness trend, she says. “There is a movement towards people seeking healthy, active lifestyles and so that offers scope for high fashion brands to expand into new categories.”

Waller believes the success of the luxury athleisure space comes down catering to a broader audience. “It opens the doorway into more markets that [high-fashion houses] may not have reached previously,” she says. “It is more inclusive, everyone can buy into it, which I strongly support.”