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Once an industry which dealt purely with performance enhancing apparel designed and tailored for different sporting activities and athletics, activewear is now a trend which has permeated not only the sports and fitness industry but also the fashion world, the fashion accessories world, and the home and casual wear industry. In fact, activewear has undergone such a transformation that it is just as common to find it marketed within the casual and lounge wear section of a store as in the fitness and sports section.
As such, the first thing to note about the activewear industry is the fact that it can be separated into two branches: the sports specific garments which are designed to be worn during certain activities, and the fashion industry-led activewear which takes the comfort and flexibility of gym gear and yoga leggings and finds way of bringing that convenient clothing to the high street.
What defines activewear
In its most traditional sense, activewear is designed and manufactured to enhance the performance of an athlete during their sport or activity, utilising several functional features which are built into activewear in order to make it supportive and conducive to high intensity activity. When compared with regular clothing, activewear is flexible and stretchy so allows for a wider range of movement, is often made from a thin material with a wicking quality which removes sweat from the skin and absorbs it into the fabric, and includes thicker fitting around certain limbs and areas of the body which help reduce muscle-related injuries and aches.
Other features which make activewear stand out from the rest of the apparel market include:
- Fabric breathability for optimum comfort in all weather and temperature conditions
- Quick drying fabric
- Static resistance
- Chemical resistance
- Built-in reflective panels and bright colours which help those engaged in outdoor activities stand out to other road users and sportsmen
These are some of the main characteristics of high end activewear, with various brands offering their own innovative solutions to different areas of focus.
While these examples of activewear features are true of many styles and types including running gear and generic activity gear, there is of course a whole other branch of features which can be found across activewear garments and accessories which are designed for specific uses and activities. Some examples include the neoprene wetsuits required for outdoor swimming, spandex and lycra worn by cyclists, and the variety of different protective layers worn by fencing specialists.
And then we have the definition of activewear which sits on the fashion industry-led side of the sector, and which takes the concept of breathable and flexible garments and creates sometimes cheaper (but sometimes more expensive) versions which are available for the mass market. How do you tell the difference? This latter definition of activewear has become such an integral part of the market that now the two are largely interchangeable with retailers and manufacturers increasing the quality of casual activewear in line with increased demand and the rise in celebrities and designer labels which are expanding their collections into the activewear industry.
When we look at a geographical chart to determine the popularity of activewear on a global scale, North America has the largest growth in terms of activewear being worn to the office as well as casually and while out and about – giving the activewear industry a real push and boost into the fashion sector, and creating trends which have an impact on the fashion world as a whole. This is supported by the distinct rise in activewear brands available in the USA, and in the development of many brand names expanding their collections to include activewear, with examples including:
- Victoria’s Secret
- Tory Burch
While this American market is grown by activewear being worn as casual clothing, the European and UK activewear industry is mainly driven by sporting and active participation, as well as the rise in team shirts being manufactured and sold as part of the overall experience of supporting a team: for example a football shirt. Another prominent factor responsible for the rise in activewear being owned and warned across the world is the rise in mass participation events such as mud runs and park runs, with these events all typically handing out sports t-shirts to those who take part.
Top retailers and products in the activewear industry
We have already established just how many designer and high street labels are expanding their collections into the ever-growing activewear market, capitalising on the cross-generational demand for garments which ooze comfort and practicality, and which are made fashionable and uniquely stylish by the variety of brands and retailers which stock them.
Products that these fashion industry names are likely to focus on include:
- Comfy fit t-shirts
- Sports bras (largely available across lingerie retailers rather than fashion retailers)
- Cropped jumpers and hoodies
- Lycra shorts and cycling shorts
- Tracksuit / jogging bottoms
Though this covers a large section of the activewear industry, what these fashion retailers do not tend to focus on is the sport-specific garments which are found across sports retail brands. This loungewear found across fashion industry stores is typically referred to in the industry as yoga apparel – providing it with the status of being fit for light workouts but not necessarily designed for high intensity sporting activity.
If a consumer is looking for high quality activewear which is fit for intense activity, the likelihood is that they will turn towards the activewear-specific retailers and those which have made a name for themselves in the sporting industry, for example:
- Under Armour
- New Balance
- Lulu Lemon
What most of these brands benefit from is the endorsement of athletes and sporting celebrities who operate and play at the top of their game – with a main focus of any mainstream sporting event being on which brands have sponsored the players, and which brand of equipment and apparel any player is wearing or using. Tennis is a good example of this, with the brand of trainers, shorts and tops all being put under scrutiny by the media and industry professionals as they assess the game play of athletes. Of course, it isn’t just the endorsement of athletes and sporting celebrities which makes a difference in the marketing of activewear. In recent years we are seeing more and more celebrities from all industries being photographed in activewear, with mainstream media identifying and showcasing the style that each is wearing as if it was a red carpet. This kind of marketing is priceless for brands, particularly those appealing to a younger target audience which is actively engaged in social media and the platforms where this kind of content is being shared.
As well as the marketing endorsement of celebrities and athletes, most of which extends beyond the match or game itself and also includes social media and televised campaigns which feature big names in the sporting world heralding the quality of certain brands, there are also those brands which benefit from a leg up in the industry: they have been manufactured and founded by well known names, and thus enjoy a basic form of endorsement marketing from the off. An example of this is Fabletics which was founded by actress Kate Hudson as the everyday woman’s answer to high quality activewear for home workouts and daily life, and is now followed and endorsed by many of her celebrity friends as well as hoards of buyers and past customers.
When we bring these retailers and products together and start to look at and assess their similarities and differences, the leading difference is not on quality or even price, but rather on the functionality and practicality of workout clothes and activewear; with fashion items often featuring designs which are not conducive to activity or would simply not provide the same level of wicking and body control support as a proper sports top. Thus, for consumers looking for high quality activewear, the main recommendation is to stick with sporting retailers – and only turn to fashion collections when you are looking for casual wear to wear around the home.
Trends in the activewear industry
As is the case across so many retail industries, one of the major trends driving forward and making waves in the activewear industry is the demand for garments and products which are considered eco-friendly and sustainable. Of course, with so many high quality fabric demands making up the activewear industry in order to ensure and deliver that promised effectiveness, finding ways of making the industry eco-friendly is a challenge: however in 2020 brands and manufacturers have stated experimenting with recycled materials on a wider scale and have seen demand for these concepts and products rise exponentially. One of the biggest areas of development in the recycled activewear industry is in fact in trainers and sneakers, giving brands which explore and support this industry a real platform to achieve mainstream success. Some examples of brands making waves in the sustainable sector include:
- And start-ups like Everlane and Allbirds.
Another hugely influential trend in the activewear industry actually focusses on the messaging put out by these brands and manufacturers, with a focus on diversity and inclusive visuals used across their marketing. One of the major trends of the past has been using slim and skinny individuals to market activewear, however with the societal shift towards being more inclusive and abolishing ‘fat shaming’ from our global culture, brands are not only increasing their use of plus size models in their activewear campaigns, but are also actively marketing and advertising products and garments which are made for larger individuals. This trend has been supported by big names in the business who have joined a campaign called ‘This Girl Can’, culminating in a series of adverts and visuals which show average and ordinary women incorporating fitness and sport into their daily lifestyles and busy schedules, while also dealing with everyday female obstacles like cramps and periods. Designed to target and speak to women all over the world from every walk of life, the campaign achieved viral success and became a motivating factor in getting more women in the gyms and out onto the sports fields.
Another trend which plays its part in the activewear industry is the focus on colour and patterning as part of garment design, separating the industry into its different areas of focus with gym and workout gear being subject to the most choice while sports wear and team tops are often manufactured to reflect team colours. One of the defining features of fashion led activewear is its reliance on attractive and aesthetic design and colours to boost success, with everything from comedic slogans to visuals, vibrant patterns and bold colours being used to help products stand out. Colour actually plays an important part in our psychology and moods, with some of the best colours for workout gear including red which stimulates power, yellow which exudes happiness and energy, and black which is often regarded as slimming and provides confidence to gym goers as they start on a new workout regime.
Returning to our yoga category and the leisure activewear which is typically worn as everyday styling rather than during a workout, we have the trend for activewear which allows and provides support to the multitasker. While traditional and high quality sportswear and workout clothing tends to be tight-fitting and streamlined in its design, one of the leading features which is gaining traction in the fashion and everyday activewear market is the demand for pocket and other features which simply make items and garments more useful and functional. Some examples of the way that this is being achieved is through the inclusion of streamlined pocket into the outer sides of leggings, and jumpers with small pouches for phones and keys. In a saturated activewear market where demand is high, finding new ways of meeting different trends and providing functional but stylish pieces is one of the key driving forces in the industry, with fashion brands using their affordable price points and useful additional features as a means to market their collections to the captive audience.