Lululemon didn’t change activewear, it changed apparel

Lululemon didn’t change activewear, it changed apparel

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Lululemon is practically synonymous with athleisure. The retailer has frequently been credited with the rise of yoga pants and leggings, effectively creating a new category of activewear. But Lululemon didn’t just change the athletics space by helping birth the athleisure movement, it changed apparel.

A search for “athleisure” in SEC filings yields more than 650 results going back to 2001. That includes Lululemon’s filings, as well as athletics retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Foot Locker, but the term is also listed in filings by a host of general apparel retailers, including PVH, Stitch Fix, Designer Brands and Iconix Brand Group. The majority (more than 450) of those references are from the last five years.

Matt Powell, senior industry adviser for sports with the NPD Group, pegs it at about a decade ago when athletic apparel started gaining popularity as streetwear. It was closer to five years ago, though, when the rest of retail “started to wake up to the potential” of athleisure. Merriam-Webster, for what it’s worth, added the term “athleisure” to the dictionary in 2016.

“One thing I remember very vividly: We were at a company event in New Orleans and after the event was over, I was leaving through the airport and there was a kiosk selling Mardi Gras yoga pants at the end. I said to myself, ‘If I can buy yoga pants at the airport, I can buy yoga pants anywhere,’” Powell said in an interview earlier this year.

Lululemon itself was founded in 1998, closer to the time people were wearing licensed sports apparel as casual wear, according to Powell. But the company came about amid broader casualization trends that dated back to the ’70s and the aftermath of the youthquake movement, which looked to youth culture for fashion inspiration. 

Those trends accelerated throughout the ’80s, according to Shawn Grain Carter, a fashion business management professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, as tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley began wearing T-shirts to work. Athleisure itself gained steam in the late ’90s, by her account, reaching mainstream acceptance in the early-to-mid 2000s.

“From the late ’90s to the early 2000s, athleisure became a phenomenon in the United States because it was a niche segment of the marketplace where you could target men and women, young and old, to wear this kind of casual, lifestyle, multipurpose fashionable attire,” Carter said.

Lululemon’s revenue has increased six-fold since 2010

Lululemon’s revenue, in billions, from 2002 to 2021.

And as athleisure took hold, so did Lululemon’s sales. In 2002, Lululemon made just $5.9 million and by 2021 the retailer was making more than $5.9 billion. In fact, the retailer’s most recent annual revenue, clocking in at $6.3 billion, overtook Under Armour’s. Lululemon IPO’d in 2007, with 59 stores and a promise to finally solve women’s athletic wear gaps.

“Our heritage of combining performance and style distinctly positions us to address the needs of female athletes as well as a growing core of consumers who desire everyday casual wear that is consistent with their active lifestyles,” the company said in its prospectus.

The broader apparel market would soon follow suit.

When the athleisure wave hit apparel

How did the Lululemon effect infiltrate the broader apparel space? Much of the shift happened thanks to changes in consumer behavior around special occasion-wear.

Take work, for example. A Levi Strauss survey found just 7{a0ae49ae04129c4068d784f4a35ae39a7b56de88307d03cceed9a41caec42547} of the workforce dressed casually in 1992, Carter noted. By 1999, that number had jumped to 75{a0ae49ae04129c4068d784f4a35ae39a7b56de88307d03cceed9a41caec42547} of the workforce. Carter, who worked at Bergdorf Goodman around that time, began getting questions about how retailers were supposed to dress women for “business casual.”

“When you think about the history of dress attire, it used to signify not only your economic status, but it signified a particular occasion,” Carter said. “You go to work, you have work clothes, you have career clothes. When you’re engaging in sports like tennis, lacrosse or baseball, you have your athletic clothes, your tennis clothes.”

Those lines blurred, causing a “sea change” in how people dressed, Carter said.

The barriers between occasion and everyday clothing have collapsed even further since then. Even denim — the long-time casual garment of choice — was no longer casual enough. Imports of women’s elastic knit pants exceeded blue jeans in 2017. Powell recalled one particular visit about five years ago to a trade show in Las Vegas, called Project, that illustrated the shift.