Will we ever do less sports than today? Will we want to dress ourselves uncomfortably in elegant clothes again? Probably not. That at least is what you think when looking at the Resort 2018 collection by Valentino, where the models pose like a basketball team in St. Vartan Park in New York City. In their Val-lettes and stretchy hoody clothes they could be playing ball – or be heading to a ball. Always up for anything, being on the go, this is today’s lifestyle: a sprint from the office to the bar. Ready to defend yourself against attackers and political opponents. Jogging directly from the meeting to the boxing session. Without changing clothes. Which brings us back full circle to Louis Vuitton. Nicolas Ghesquière’s design intent was not just to make silk boxer shorts socially acceptable, as the guests thought. He also wanted to bring the centuries between monarchy and today together in one style: the tourists who visit Mona Lisa in the Louvre wear trainers and shorts, add to that the regal robe of Louis the 16th, a rococo frock coat. Today, this has class. And thus, an item of clothing perceived as a costume quite naturally blends into everyday attire.
“I have the feeling many designers are truly happy that they can finally act out their sporting esprit at work,” says fashion journalist and brand consultant Barbara Markert. “Since Nicolas Ghesquière began working at Louis Vuitton, he can do whatever he wants. Each collection is full of ‘athleisure’. After all, he himself does sports five times a week.” Just like Marc Jacobs, Rick Owens, and Riccardo Tisci. Karl Lagerfeld had a life before sports and health, and one after. Apart from the name and the creative talent, they have nothing in common. In his first life, he once said that any person wearing sweatpants in their daily routine had lost control over their life. An assumption that he revised in 2015 hand in hand with model Cara Delevingne on the catwalk. Or rather specified: if the training suit is full of holes, pink, with bare midriff, and from Chanel, it’s all good. It’s in any case quite difficult to imagine someone in the smart new tracksuits from Valentino and Tommy Hilfiger not being granted access to the clubs in Berlin. “Casual Friday has taken hold, nearly all lines of work are dressing in a more street-smart way. It’s only bankers and insurance people who still have to wear suits,” says Markert.
The luxurious form of “athleisure” is celebrated over and over again as “glamleisure” in the US American Vogue, too. Top model Gigi Hadid boxes herself through the pages in tracksuits from Valentino to Y Project. She can jump just as high in the Miu Miu boxing boots as she can in the white Calvin Klein dress. And a Chromat sports bra peeping out under a Prada dress is allowed in most absolute terms. Perhaps our appetite for showing sportsmanship in everyday life has to do with fashion today going through an identity crisis after so many quick whims and collections and with us yearning for costumes, which speak to us of who we are, not who we want to be. Just as how in the 1950s you could still tell which profession someone practiced from the outfit he was wearing – see Irving Penn’s Small Trades photograph series – sports attire today often reveals which activity you enjoy – you wouldn’t go fencing in a tennis skirt, after all.
The independent designer Lenny Leleu from Antwerp is interested in exactly these visual codes when it comes to sportswear. “My greatest source of inspiration is sports,” she says. “The boundaries between ready-to-wear and sportswear are becoming more and more blurred. I encounter half of my designs at parties, the other at yoga studios. The leggings with the see-through windows are my most popular design.” And probably the design that is copied most as well. In front of an Equinox fitness studio in New York City, you see hundreds of legs in Lycra, spandex, and polyester with transparent windows scurry by in half an hour. Most of them are from Lululemon or Varley. If she did have to give up a share of the market since we’ve seen the rise of “Sportswear x Designer” collaborations such as Off-White x Nike, Supreme x Louis Vuitton, Adidas x Raf Simons? “I see it as a blessing, not as competition. This way, a large group of people is convinced of dressing fashionably when they’re doing exercise. Or of wearing athletic fashion in everyday life,” says the Belgian designer, who was born in Germany and as a child adored the swimmer Franziska van Almsick.
Today’s outerwear incidentally comes from yesterday’s underwear and swimwear. The seamless technology is constantly developing (flat transitions, stretch in four directions), the best knitting machines come from Switzerland, but, by contrast to 3D print, they’re an old hat. However, with the 3D printer you can only process artificial fibres such as nylon and polyamide, which isn’t good for the environment. Also, only 100 per cent single-origin materials can be recycled at the moment. A new method that extracts mixed fibres separately from a garment again is still in its development phase.
Lenny Leleu’s focus is more on forging ahead with the design rather than on the technology, for which she employs a Belgian production company. She indeed uses new technical material, which, for example, cools down when coming into contact with perspiration, but her true mission is to blur the boundaries between couture and sport. She is currently experimenting with old draping and folding techniques. “It’s a challenge to design aesthetic fashion with the restriction that sports clothing must help to achieve top athletic performance. But it’s exactly this kind of constraint that makes me creative.” The wearers are less likely to be misled during sports than in everyday life. While training they feel whether something works or not. Sports attire has to help athletes deliver better performances.
And so it was that the high fashion brands have needed until now before offering athleisure themselves. In the past, they lacked the experience in the realm of performance. In 2013, the Canadian brand Lululemon had to pay dearly for creating leggings in-house that had see-through buttocks, where transparency was neither deliberate, nor flattering. The company lost 67 million US dollars of its proceeds when the most popular leggings had to be recalled. Meanwhile, Lululemon is back in the black. For 2019, companies are planning to generate 178 trillion US dollars with sportswear on a worldwide scale. The health and wellness industry will soon be achieving a higher turnover than the pharmaceutical industry should these figures hold true. High fashion brands of course want to get in on the act in this line of business and grow beyond the collaborations. This means that in the future we will be seeing more and more athletic high fashion and sportswear in the luxury segment – which brings us back to Valentino and the team of basketball models. And the celebrities follow suit. In contrast to Rihanna (Fenty x Puma), Beyoncé dispensed with middlemen in 2016 and launched her own sports brand, Ivy Park, without working with the traditional performance brands. At the same time, collaborations with designers have become highly profitable for Nike, Adidas, and Puma and are not just a means to sell more trainers anymore. In the same way customers – after many years of brand boosting – dream about Chanel haute couture and buy the Nº 5 perfume, customers allow themselves to be captivated by the designer’s visions and buy white Stan Smith sneakers a millionfold. Rihanna’s Fenty collection, too, certainly helps Puma sell more classical items and trainers, but the dresses themselves are also sales hits. The Rihanna effect works. Just as customers put up a fight to acquire Kanye West’s trainers for Adidas, even taking part in a kind of scavenger hunt to do so. The clothes, on the other hand, remained hanging in the shops for a long time. In the performance sector, trainers are simply what handbags are in high fashion: collectors’ items. And of course, it was a trainer that was at the outset of this modern revolution in sports.
When Yohji Yamamoto asked Adidas in 2001 whether he could borrow three-stripe trainers for his autumn fashion show, Arthur Hoeld (meanwhile senior vice president strategy and business development at Adidas) had a eureka moment, and saw the future of sports in working together with Yamamoto. He had the Japanese cult designer develop trainers for Adidas and limited these to 50,000 pairs. When they were sold out, searched for worldwide, and hyped as was planned, he commissioned Yamamoto as the first high fashion designer in 2002 to create a stylish line for the sports brand: Y-3. A brand that to this day reports positive figures, marks sporting fashion with three stripes, and is present at the New York Fashion Week. In 2005, Adidas took Stella McCartney on board, who was the first to concentrate on the aesthetics of their workout clothes. Both avant-gardists have remained faithful to Adidas to this day, so that the collaborations are perceived as brands in their own right. Until today, Adidas is one step ahead when it comes to the future of fashion and when it doesn’t have to be bad for the environment when stretch is the new denim.
When polyamide stays in the circulation instead of lying somewhere where it doesn’t rot, the synthetic fibre is not a catastrophe for the environment. Recycling polyamide from the ocean is en vogue. The fabric of the latest Adidas shoe is knitted with a yarn that is derived from plastic waste from the sea. Stella McCartney also communicated recently that she would be working on an ongoing basis with the organisation Parley for the Oceans, which fishes and recycles rubbish from the ocean. After Adidas’ Parley trainers and Stella McCartney’s swimsuits from sea plastic, her new brand Ocean Legends now will continue with a wide product range. The Spanish company Ecoalf, too, has been working for five years on people wearing their plastic waste again but only in 2017 did hire a designer who is to make the designs more attractive. Without outstanding design, people who only go jogging in style won’t be paying the fourfold price of an Uniqlo rain jacket. If such a fast fashion giant were to collaborate with Parley or Ecoalf one day, we wouldn’t just be saving ourselves with sports, but also our planet. In the meantime, it may already help if someone could slip over a pair of ocean trainers to Phoebe Philo or Marc Jacobs. Which brand doesn’t dream of being able to call the new Stan Smith their own?
Already during her industrial design studies at the Zurich University of the Arts, Kathrin Leist was more interested in ideas than in forms. This prompted her to get to the bottom of things at the Swiss architecture and design magazine Hochparterre after her studies. After that, Leist lived in New York and worked as a correspondent for different fashion and design magazines as well as blogs. She currently lives and works in Paris. She last wrote for form in issue 272, where she looked at the appeal of luxury in design.