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How The Growth Of Athleisure Has Been A Shot In The Arm For Girl Power

12/04/2017 13:28 BST | Updated 12/04/2017 13:28 BST

One semantic stretch too far? You'd be surprised at how retail reality reflects emerging memes.

More specifically, are we spending more on the way we live rather than the way we might want to live? It's a case in point as far as consumer spending in the fashion sector is concerned. Yes, it seems that we've finally hit on the value of experience rather than stuff and, naturally, the market has found a way in which to monetise this.

As the Debenhams Chairman Sir Ian Cheshire said at the World Retail Congress in Dubai earlier this month, "the next generation is behaving differently, spending differently and interacting differently," he said. "To them it is experience, not stuff that matters".

A prime example of this is 'athleisure', a term first used in 1976. Over the past 7 years, the sector has grown by over 42% and is now estimated to be worth over £7 billion to the UK market. As Suzanne Calvert, Debenhams trading director, said at last year's Drapers Fashion Forum, "Athleisure is a trend which is not going away", citing that the retailer's sales of trainers were up 15% in the womenswear department.

As a society, the winner here is wellbeing and our willingness to invest in it. I've written before about fashion's direct relation to feelings - it isn't just about frocks - and nowhere is this more apparent than the unstoppable march of athleisure. Just as we resort to checking our Instagram feed to boost our dopamine levels, so too are we rediscovering the mood-altering impact of feeling good and looking good simultaneously. "This idea of being healthy and sporty and fit has become the new sexy," says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. From beauty-enhancing supplements to the rapid growth of athleisure, there has never been a better time for fashion companies to tap into the health and wellness sector.

Let's take ASOS as example, who revealed that its sales soared by 37% year on year to £911.5m in the six months to 28 February. George Mensah, an analyst at Shore Capital, had predicted 18% sales growth in Britain, where he said ASOS had continued "to build up its presence in the activewear market". The pureplay retailer, who will produce its own activewear label later this year, launched an activewear collection in January, featuring brands including Nike, Adidas, Puma and Reebok, alongside the sportswear collections of some better known womenswear brands such as Ted Baker, New Look, Free People and Missguided.

As women, what we are seeing is the direct correlation between feeling good and feminism. Yes, there's a strong argument that 'Girl Power' has fuelled what is now estimated to be an $1.7trn global industry, neatly coinciding with a sharp increase in the number of women participating in sport, rather than just looking the part.

From Nike's Better for It through to Sport England's phenomenal success with the This Girl Can campaign, the internal dialogue of athleisure is very much one of female empowerment. The semiotics of the category contains more than a few threads of a feisty feminism. Who would have thought supermodels such as Gigi would become kick boxing pin ups and that office-to-gym wear would enter our daily lexicon?

There's no question that flattering fitness clothing incentivises the prospect of a heady HiiT session and the ability to extend this feel-good factor by (sometimes smugly) wearing our gym gear to the shops afterwards is an added bonus. Activewear (which encompasses leggings) has become the new denim - an essential for any self-respecting womenswear retailer. Indeed, 15 years ago passengers might have been barred from boarding a First Class flights on account of their jeans, which evolved into jeggings, which, morphed into, yes, leggings. Activewear is clearly a trend with legs and we are seeing feminism take some sartorial strides forward as a result.

There's an implication here - echoed by the protests concerning compulsory heels in the workplace - that women are making a stand, substituting self-consciousness and objectification with self-investment and self-improvement. This is borne out by sales figures in lifestyle purchases. PWC has modelled the growth of the premium lifestyle sector at 6.6% between 2014 and 2020 and - in respect of technical performance wear - many athleisure brands sit in this category. It follows that at a time of biting inflation with soaring living costs, our attention is most likely to focus on frequent benefits rather than occasional ones.

While many brands not commonly associated with sports clothing are now cashing in on athleisure, some of those first off the starting blocks continue to hold their ground on these new upstarts. The off-duty look sported by supermodels from Karlie Kloss to Gigi Hadid - as they casually run errands in the city with a green juice in hand - has boosted the appeal and relevance of the sector's pioneers, such as ELLESPORT and Sweaty Betty, whose names both allude to their heroines. Confirming their girl power ethos is the latter's mission statement: "to inspire women to find empowerment through fitness" and ELLESPORT will always be synonymous with ELLE, one of the world's highest selling women's fashion magazines.

This fashion marks a shift away from objectification towards feminine functionality. You know a category has earned its place in our wardrobe when it pushes boundaries. Just as loungewear saw the onesie reach mainstream, so too do we have athleisure brands embracing the jumpsuit. Onepiece UK, a brand built around the art of slacking, conceptualised the carefree Sunday-style with what must be the natural evolution of activewear. Producing re-engineered jumpsuits, the entry of the onesie into athleisure is surely the sartorial license to lounge and what better sisterly statement is that? As the brand says itself, 'comfort brings confidence' and no woman knows this better than she who's hiked home in a pair of 6 inch heels.

First published on http://www.melissawheeler.co.uk