When tops start at $42 a pop for a simple, Lycra/nylon blend tank, Lululemon is certainly doing a fantastic job convincing consumers that their brand is what they need. But the field is growing exponentially—as of August, according to an NPD report, the activewear market had grown 7 percent over the previous year. In the same time, the general apparel market grew only 1 percent. More companies than ever now understand that women want both fashion and function in their gym clothing, and affordably-priced alternatives are everywhere.
Donna Burke started scouting small, independent, below-the-radar fitness brands as a hobby after moving back to Atlanta after college and helping her sister open apparel store Atlanta Activewear. “We found these amazing quality independent brands that were based more on fashion and function than just function,” she said. Soon, Burke turned her eye for high-quality, high-function apparel into a career, founding both her blog Yoga in Heels, where she blogs about trends in workout fashion, and online retailer ActivewearOutlet.com.
It’s a big change from her days playing soccer in high school, “back before they made uniforms for women, in the days where we had to wear the boys uniforms and everything hung off us. That was never fun,” she says.
It’s no secret she’s not a fan of Lululemon—in one blog post condemning the brand for last March’s see-through fabric fiasco, she writes, “For a company [whose] mantra states that friends are more important than money, the latest saga of the Lululemon brand shows otherwise.” So Burke focuses on quality over big names, promoting small, high-fashion, high-tech apparel brands like MPG Sport and 15love, a line started by Nancie Tripodi, former director of The Gap.
But just because it’s not Lululemon or Athleta, Gap’s high-end entry into the activewear field, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Quality, long-lasting, butt-squeezing, sweat-wicking materials can be very expensive, but lower-cost imitators will do just fine if you’re on a budget. And if you’re seeking out activewear’s positive psychological effects, anything that amps up your confidence will do.
“I think it doesn’t matter as far as price point, if you feel good about yourself,” Burke said.
The desire to look good at the gym is nothing new—just look to the neon leggings of Jazzercise yore. But athletic clothing today does more than make your butt look good at the gym: It’s carefully designed to fit into your lifestyle, inside and outside the gym. Sure, wear it to workout. Then to the grocery store, where they promise you won’t look out of place. If the trend holds, soon you’ll never change out of your gym clothes, throwing on compression leggings for work and for trips to the mall. Rudnicki says the change is stark—fitness classes today are much more fashionable compared to the first ones she taught five years ago.
But if you’re buying more into the brand than yourself, it might be a matter of fitting in, not getting fit. Lululemon has been called “cult-like.” In one interview with Business Insider, an employee says new employees are indoctrinated with motivational CDs and Malcolm Gladwell books, and to succeed, “You have to drink the Kool-Aid a bit, and if you're not going to drink it, you won't do well and you probably won't like it.” Even their approach to commission is communal, with every employee getting their share of the store’s sales.