Fit for growth: Harnessing the power of the athleisure megatrend
Jun 11, 2019
More than simply the stylish offshoot of sportswear, athleisure is a bona fide cultural movement imbued with the kind of growth opportunities and social currency that encourage retail real estate operators to flex their creative and strategic thinking muscles.

While sales of workout gear and sport-inspired streetwear have been outpacing that of other apparel categories around the world, Australia has become a hotbed for emerging athleisure brands capitalising on its trademark outdoorsy lifestyle, sporting obsession and relaxed social mores. According to Ibisworld, five years of almost six per cent annualised growth will see Australians spend $2.3bn on activewear in the 2018/19 financial year. Fuelled by the growth of gyms and fitness services into a $2.4bn industry, this activewear boom speaks to a number of societal shifts triggered by the millennial generation as well as textile innovations that have allowed fashion and function to merge like never before.

“The athleisure category is an exciting one not only because it’s expanding into everything from fitness to travel, but also because a lot of the retailers in the space are investing in the kind of differentiated customer experiences that we seek out when creating magnetic destinations,” says Luke Young, QIC’s General Manager – Retail. “Activewear and athleisure retailers, together with health and wellbeing operators, are going to be important partners as we continue to transform our shopping centres into microcities that support thriving communities and power local economies,” he adds.

A cultural moment

The desirability of workout and ‘workout-adjacent’ clothing has come a long way since Spandex was first unleashed on the world in the 1950s. In the US, athleisurewear now represents a quarter of all apparel sales according to data collected by The NPD Group. The category has extended out beyond Lorna Jane and Lululemon to high fashion labels including Gucci and high street giants like H&M, spawning more than a few celebrity brands in the process.

Retailers and cultural commentators put this down to more than the wellness economy powered by Generation Y’s prioritisation of health, happiness and self-mastery; it reflects a broader evolution of the way we dress and think. Amid the epidemic of over-scheduling ushered in by digital technology, it makes perfect sense to seek out multipurpose wardrobe items which eliminate the time spent changing between barre class and cocktail bar. When spare time and physical self-care is precious, it makes sense to be dressed to sweat at all times. While previous generations would have baulked at the thought of work colleagues or restaurant staff seeing them in track pants, wearing athletic-inspired garments away from the gym is now the ultimate act of virtue signalling because it suggests both busyness and health consciousness.

As work has become more flexible, dress codes more relaxed and runway trends closer aligned with streetwear, the social acceptability of athleisurewear has skyrocketed. Exemplified by Instagram images of pop stars in their sports luxe leggings or fitness influencers living the beachside dream of homegrown brands such as Running Bare and P.E Nation, this increasingly diversified category is as much about projecting success as it is sporting prowess. Indeed, researchers warn against conflating activewear and ‘active fashion’ sales with sports participation since so many purchasers of running gear are simply selecting the most comfortable outfit in which to run errands or chase small children around. Some point out that this seemingly new compulsion to be seen as fit and active, if not to be genuinely fit and active, picks up Victorian notions of a leisure class.

Better, faster, stronger

This growth in what economist Thorstein Veblen termed conspicuous leisure has encouraged upstart and heritage brands alike to invest heavily in customer experience and real-world community building, delivering everything from in-store exercise classes and dynamic pop-ups to hosted outdoor adventures and local running clubs. The experiential offering of sports equipment leaders such as Nike and REI both mirrors and supports the evolution of shopping centres into holistic lifestyle destinations. At a time when shoppers want to buy the experience promised by a brand, over and above a particular product, retailers founded on the concept of physical activity may be uniquely positioned to excel. According to Victoria University’s Professor Clare Hanlon, co-author of a 2018 report on women’s activewear trends and drivers, the very act of putting on athletic apparel is ‘like a mental stimulant’ that helps the wearer switch on their #bestself.

For a shopping centre operator taking on the role of curator, there is much incentive to co-locate sports fashion and equipment retailers with health food stores, smoothie kiosks, gym facilities, medical services and day spas, not to mention purveyors of wearable fitness tech or sweat-proof cosmetics. Young says: “One of the best parts of my job is establishing synergy between our partners and fine-tuning precincts that seamlessly blend retail, leisure and amenities in order to better serve the aspirations and wellbeing needs of our communities.”

The halo effect of these sports-turned-lifestyle stores has been in full force in Canberra Centre’s newly established athleisure precinct. When the centre welcomed one of the country’s biggest Nike concept stores and its largest single-storey branch of The North Face in April, it was not just the new arrivals smashing sales targets – established stores such as Rebel Sport and The Athlete’s Foot recorded significant uplift too. With the new stores both surpassing first-fortnight revenue targets by around 70 per cent and enjoying above-average foot traffic, Canberra Centre’s reputation as a leading destination for athleisure and performance apparel is cemented.

“This concerted push into athleisure was driven by our deep knowledge of the interests and values of Canberrans, who regularly emerge as the most physically active Australians in national health statistics,” explains Young. “With its walkable CBD, plentiful green spaces and proximity to ski fields and stunning national parks, Canberra is the perfect place for exercise and adventure - and our retail mix reflects that,” he adds.

The team mentality

The strong early performances of Nike and The North Face in Canberra were aided in no small part by the collaborative marketing approach of the centre management team. Having started building media interest a month before launch, Canberra Centre’s marketing specialists worked closely with the soon-to-be tenants on seasonal print and radio advertising. They also secured influencers and news personalities to publicise the openings, facilitated introductions to nearby sports clubs, coordinated in-centre competitions and arranged for complimentary juices and protein balls to be served to the stores’ first visitors. Retail Prodigy Group, Nike’s local master franchisee, called the level of launch support the greatest the Oregon-based megabrand has received in Australia to date.

Young says: “To set up our retail partners for long-term success we like to establish a highly collaborative and open relationship from day one. He continues: “You only need look at the list of community events that take place at Canberra Centre – from beauty masterclasses and whisky tastings to skateboarding jams and art exhibitions - to see how enthusiastic our in-centre teams are about supporting retailers to connect with their customers in new ways.”

Featuring complementary casual clothing brands such as Levi’s and action sports specialists such as Vans, the athleisure precinct follows the launch of the Monaro Mall beauty precinct in 2017 and a refined lifestyle offering in 2018 as the latest in a series of specialised shopping experiences to be carved out at Canberra Centre. An athletics track-inspired floor decal links the stores thematically, with both new and relocated retailers recording higher foot traffic, stronger sales and a diversifying customer base since the official unveiling. Overall, Canberra Centre attracted almost 150,000 extra visitors in April 2019 than the same period in 2018.

As for the staying power of athleisure, the entrance of Generation Z into the workforce is expected to erode the line between sportswear and business casual styling even further. Meanwhile, the rise of sneaker culture continues unabated, with the world’s largest sneaker convention having returned to Australia for the third consecutive year this May and the most coveted shoes often landing in Australian stores before their northern hemisphere counterparts.

In the same way that denim is much more than a fashion trend, athleisurewear promises the comfort and versatility that modern life demands. It cannot be overlooked, therefore, when your mission is to reflect the way people wish to shop and live today.

Read more about how the pursuit of wellness is shaping customer experience.