Athleisure wear sales in China grow, but as a fashion trend it is still in its infancy
In a country where the pursuit of fitness only recently became fashionable, sportswear doesn’t yet double as work wear – but it may be only a matter of time in a market so new before role models, or KOLs, make it a popular trend
The future of the athleisure market in China looks rosy. According to Euromonitor, sportswear sales there grew faster than those of luxury goods from 2012 to 2017, and market leaders Nike and Adidas have both seen double-digit sales growth.
But sales are one thing, and how the trend is interpreted on the ground is another. In a country where going to the gym has only recently become fashionable, what does athleisure wear actually look like?
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“People in China, especially in Beijing, want to be seen differently,” says Zoe Liu, co-founder of Particle Fever, a Chinese designer sportswear brand that stands out in a market dominated by Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Lululemon.
Liu considers Particle Fever the only locally designed active wear brand that has taken much of a creative approach to marketing and branding. It makes sports bras, leggings, and running shorts that are intended not just to be functional, but trendy and fashionable too.
Liu’s line, which is sold online on Tmall as well as by Lane Crawford, fits in well alongside the functional sportswear collections of Reebok and New Balance in places like Runner Camp – a concept fitness store that opened in Shanghai six months ago and includes an experience centre and running track for trying on shoes, a gym and a retail store. (Runner Camp is probably halfway between Dick’s Sporting Goods in the US, whose major emphasis is fitness, and the UK’s Sweaty Betty, with an emphasis on fashion.)
Isabella Gao, the store’s marketing and operations director, says more than half its customers are not serious fitness buffs but are just looking for something fun and fashionable to wear.
“We divide our customers into three grades: serious runners, city runners, and fun runners,” she says. “The first grade cares more about the function and performance, while the others care more about fashion and easy to wear.”
This is a sign of how quickly the sportswear market has grown; less than 10 years ago, if you went hiking in China’s mountains most young Chinese female tourists wore a dress and heels. A boom in interest in health and fitness, and the resulting explosive growth in premium gyms and fitness apps, has generated demand for more practical and fashionable fitness gear.
Still, the definition of athleisure wear is casualwear that can transition from the gym to the office, and in China this is much less common than the West, Liu thinks.
“Most people will wear leggings only in gyms because Chinese consumers are not used to wearing leggings,” she says. “But more celebrities will mix and match leggings with non-sportswear accessories to make their outfits more versatile.”
That doesn’t mean sportswear brands like Particle Fever aren’t getting more creative. Liu is in the final stages of preparations for the opening of her second showroom in China, this one in WF Central, a high-end shopping mall that recently opened on Beijing’s oldest shopping street, Wangfujing.
The showroom stands out from its mainstream international competitors, looking more like an art gallery or a designer concept store than a typical offering from a fitness label. Liu and her team collaborate with local artists to create visual displays and plan to invite groups from emerging sports in China, such as modern dance troupes, for in-store performances.
“We offer a very special experience for our customers,” she said. “WF Central wants to offer our customers a cool lifestyle atmosphere.”
WF Central offers a good gauge of where the sportswear market is in China. Its developer, Hongkong Land, prioritises wellness, and among its tenants plenty of brands reflect this. Under Armour has opened its largest showroom in the world in the property; Superdry, which has dabbled in athleisure, has a flagship store; the first outlet for popular Hong Kong premium yoga studio Pure Yoga is also there.
Brands such as COS and Uniqlo dominate the casualwear market as a whole, and most of the emerging sports- and athleisure wear brands specialise in leggings and sports bras. That leaves a lot of room for niche brands such as Particle Fever to offer customers different options.
Its collections include pieces that are versatile, such as a take on the sports bra that can be worn under a jacket as a bra top.
“Some of our customers just buy our apparel to wear for activities other than sports, like travel,” Liu says. “Some male customers of Particle Fever even put our jacket over their formal suits.”
“Consumers are really open nowadays,” she adds. “Some come to our store because they’re attracted to the colours, patterns and design. They don’t want to buy pieces like Nike in Particle Fever.”
Liu thinks that it won’t take long for more discerning customers in China, especially those in first-tier cities, to take an approach to fashionable sportswear that is more similar to that in the West – such as fearlessly mixing high-end, big brand accessories with stylish gym wear for a night out or a day at the office.
Given the Chinese government is backing the growth of fitness in China, it won’t be long before Chinese role models, or KOLs (key opinion leaders), emerge with their own takes on the athleisure trend. In the meantime, international athleisure influencers such as Gigi Hadid, Kim Kardashian, and Kendall Jenner already have a huge following in China.
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“They always post pictures of themselves wearing leggings in their daily life – that is a major influence for people in first-tier cities in China,” Liu says. “They will learn from these KOLs that sportswear can be a fashion statement.”