When the concept of “athleisure” was first bandied about, a lot of attention was paid to the word itself.
The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica called the term “unbearable,” while Julianne Escobedo Shepherd at Jezebel deemed it “incredibly stupid,” and InStyle’s Eric Wilson noted it was “ridiculously nonsensical,” even if it was “perfectly descriptive.”
In all fairness, fashion has never met a portmanteau it didn’t love (see also: jeggings, skorts and murses), and like it or not, athleisure is a term that stuck. And so has, it seems, the category of clothing.
Is athleisure actually changing the way we dress and how we view clothing, or is it all a bunch of trend-forecasting, marketing BS?
For the uninitiated, “athleisure” can be defined as clothing that takes inspiration from performance gear and activewear, but isn’t actually intended to perform or to allow for any strenuous activity. Maybe someone somewhere is crushing their Crossfit WOD’s in a pair of $945 Dolce & Gabbana cashmere track pants, but they’re probably easier to spot on someone crushing a kale salad at brunch.
Athleisure is the mainstream version of the "cozy boy" trend that has dudes from SoHo to Des Moines ditching their skinny jeans for Nike Tech Fleece sweatpants and similar skinny knit pants from brands like John Elliott + Co., Aimé Leon Dore, and KITH. It's an aesthetic that's part-streetwear, part-gym rat, and 100% sneaker-oriented. After all, nothing draws more attention to a rare pair of kicks than the cuffed hem of slim sweats.
The trend of wearing workout gear outside of the gym is not new—see, for example, a 2011 article in the Times that bemoaned Alexander Wang sweatpants as a sign that “we are becoming an elastic-waist nation”—but the athleisure movement, if you will, appears to have gained a lot of momentum over the past year. Sneakerheads have especially embraced the jogger pant—a chino trouser with a cuffed elastic hem—in droves, and now you can find multiple pairs at the Gap.
By now, we’ve seen the athleisure trend round-ups. We’ve read about what it’s really like to wear athleisure to work. Athleisure has infiltrated the South, and made it to the mommy blogs, where it’s been declared both a “funky word” and a “big trend.” If you were to believe all of this press, everyone is swapping out oxford shirts for hoodies with thumb holes and chucking their jeans in favor of jogging pants. Or at least not buying new ones, according to the New York Post, which connected a 6% drop in denim sales to the rise of the yoga pant.
But, as a firm believer that a healthy amount of skepticism should be applied to whatever is being touted as the next big in fashion, all of this begs the question: Is athleisure actually changing the way we dress and how we view clothing, or is it all a bunch of trend-forecasting, marketing BS?
Tom Kalenderian, Executive Vice President and General Merchandise Manager, Mens, at Barneys, can verify firsthand the ubiquity of activewear-inspiration in menswear, and the enthusiasm for it at retail.
“The key items in many designer collections today undoubtedly turn out to be the sneaker, the jog pant, the sweatshirt,” he says. “Our core client has latched onto the trend of athleisure in a way we anticipated.”
While he doesn’t use the term to describe his own performance-oriented clothing, designer Donrad Duncan of EFM (short for “Engineered for Motion”), thinks athleisure has signaled a sea change in menswear.
“At some point a new direction is going to come along, but it won't be too far off from athleisure, because we've figured out new fabrics and silhouettes that are comfortable and look good,” he says. “People are not going to want to go back to uncomfortable clothing that is difficult to care for.”
Kalenderian agrees. “I don't see this as a passing trend,” he offers. “In fact, it is a sign of the times.”
So, in essence, we’re living in the midst of a paradigm shift that’s drastically changed how men dress.
Or are we?
Abe Burmeister is a founder of Outlier, purveyor of the type of clothing you can actually wear if you actively lead an active lifestyle. His take on athleisure is a bit more nuanced when taken in a larger context.
“Clothes always started as technical garments and then evolved into everyday wear,” he says. “Look at Levi’s 501, the patented technical pant made for doing hard work and gold mining. Look at a trench coat. It’s called a trench coat because Burberry made it for trench warfare in WWI, and now it’s a menswear staple.”
“What we’re seeing is a new resurgence of a very long-term trend in clothing,” he concludes, “where new ideas often come in through the technical side, and then become adapted by the general use, everyday side of clothing.”
In other words, the next time we step out in our Flyknits, we may actually be treading on very familiar ground.
Steve Dool is a writer and fashion consultant based in New York City, follow him on Twitter.