Apparel | Athleisure brands gain speed as fast fashion slows
Consumers seek style, comfort, and purpose
Getting people to buy more apparel was a difficult sell in a year when books about decluttering were among the best sellers. Brands that succeeded not only got fashion right, they aligned with changing consumer values about sustainability and offered functionality that met health and wellness priorities. On the strength of athleisure brands, the apparel category rose 6 percent, compared with 5 percent a year ago.
Winning in athleisure required identifying fashion trends early, being quick to market, and reaching core audiences with relevant communications. Nike and adidas were among brands creating sneakers made from sock-like material, for example. Nike communicated with consistency and story-telling across channels. And it continued to cultivate a community around the brand.
These initiatives are among the reasons that the athleisure brands score high on the five BrandZ™ five Vital Signs of brand health: Purpose, Innovation, Communication, Brand Experience, and Love. Athleisure brands are also seen as purposeful, and socially and environmentally responsible, according to BrandZ™ research.
In contrast, fast fashion brands lagged behind in value growth, in part because their environmental footprint seemed out of step with rising mindfulness about sustainability. In addition, consumers encountered a wider brand choice beyond fast fashion leaders like Zara and H&M. Often online newcomers from China, these brands were on-trend and off-price. Amazon offered thousands of private label apparel products.
Being on trend
In a counterpoint to price shopping, some apparel brands adapted strategies from luxury. adidas and Nike introduced high-priced, limited edition merchandise that generated slight revenue, but shone a halo that reflected well on the more popularly-priced part of the product range.
Some of these exclusive items resulted from collaborations with luxury fashion brands. adidas created collections with Alexander Wang, for example, and with Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, whose offering gained popularity during the World Cup in Russia. Nike collaborations include one with Ronnie Fieg, the New York retailer of sneakers and streetwear.
Like Nike, Lululemon developed a community around the brand, incorporating customer ideas in product development, and using physical locations not only to sell clothing but also to hold yoga classes and other fitness-related events. The Lululemon “This is Yoga” campaign focused not on the activity of yoga, but on its outcome, the ability to live a more passionate life.
Lululemon increased 77 percent in value year-on-year, a performance that was second only to Instagram in the BrandZ™ Global Top Risers. Along with a distinctive personality, Lululemon scores high in being seen as Different, a BrandZ™ metric of brand equity, and a key reason that the Lululemon brand is able to command a price premium.
Both Lululemon and Under Armour benefited from—and contributed to—the rising popularity of yoga leggings, although Under Armour is shifting back to its core brand proposition around products designed to enhance athletic performance. Because of comfort, sales of yoga pants have eclipsed sales of denim during the past few years.
With the introduction of a more flexible stretch denim, Levi’s accommodated the consumer desire for greater comfort and resurged in popularity. Under the “Live in Levi’s” tagline, the brand expanded its range, and it opened its largest flagship store, in Times Square, where it offers clothing customized with images by New York artists.
Comfort and technology
The heritage brand that created denim, around 150 years ago, as a sturdy cloth for work clothes, returned the BrandZ™ Apparel ranking. Ralph Lauren also returned to the Apparel Ranking, updating some of its range to meet the tastes of younger people, in an initiative called “Next Great Chapter.” The North Face made the ranking for the first time based on the technology of its clothing and the brand’s expanded range beyond clothing for cold days. It introduced a breathable waterproof material called FutureLight.
Wearable technology in basic apparel designed to moderate temperature and enhance comfort continued to differentiate Uniqlo among the fast fashion brands, which contended with cheaper, faster fashion brand options that offered fashion-forward items, mostly available online.
These options, including brands such as Boohoo, Missguided, and PrettyLittleThing, typically did a great job in social media, attracting online influencers, and basing lines around popular celebrities. Many of the online competitors, like Xian, are Chinese, while many others are based in Latin America.
This online competition impacted Zara and H&M, which both declined in value. Having grown into a global brand with over 10,000 stores worldwide, Zara doubled its online presence to over 200 markets. And it introduced click and collect to integrate its online-offline experience. Although excess inventory problems hurt H&M results, its online sales improved. It opened on Tmall in china.
H&M seemed out of sync with the values of its core young customers, interested in fashion as self-expression and opposed to disposability. H&M fared better with some of its sub-brands, like & Other Stories, which is more focused on older customers willing to pay higher prices. Its Arket brand markets clothing essentials that are less trendy and less disposable.
Communicating social values
Connecting with the consumer required not only responding to product preferences, but also to social values. Nike took its “Just Do It” slogan to another level with an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem to protest racism. Nike’s embrace of Kaepernick alienated some of its customers who believed the quarterback was acting disrespectfully.
However, by taking a stand on a divisive topic and building a campaign around a national social debate rather than product performance, Nike reinforced its leadership credentials while gaining publicity and potentially more core brand advocates. Nike’s initiative was especially well received among Centennials, according to Kantar, and its sales and stock price increased. Nike’s scores in the BrandZ™ measurements of Trust, Advocacy, Fairness, and Responsibility have increased steadily over the past six years. Its brand value rose 23 percent.
adidas partnered with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization, and created uniforms from recycled ocean plastic for the British football team Manchester United, which it sponsors. Concern with sustainability was notably advanced by Everlane, the direct-to-consumer clothing brand, that promotes its commitment to ethical products by being transparent about the supply chain and production costs.
Apparel trends also echoed the evolving understanding of gender identity as being more fluid than previously believed. More people questioned the notion of women’s clothing sometimes costing more than men’s, a disparity referred to as the “pink tax.” The Phluid Project, an apparel store without traditional division into men’s and women’s departments, opened in New York City.
Two newcomer apparel brands also took stands on controversial issues. Levi’s advocated for gun control. In a subtle comment on the global issue of migration, The North Face celebrated Global Climbing Day with the declaration that “Walls are meant for climbing.”
Brand Building Action Points
- Be inclusive
Connect across generations and be representative of the diversity and gender fluidity within each of them.
- Be responsible
The most-loved brands will be those that attempt to achieve a zero footprint. Re-think operations and find solutions that are fully sustainable both for the environment and the business bottom line.
- Be distinctive
As people adopt the idea of for zero waste, they will demand something truly different from brands. Duplication will not be tolerated. People will be drawn to the brands that take risks to offer something special.
- Be versatile
Increasingly, people are looking for clothes that are comfortable and appropriate for multiple parts of their day, including work, exercise, and an evening out.
- Be on trend
Urban living is more popular, which means closet space is declining. There is an opportunity for updated “mix and match” basics that are fashionable and durable.
- Tailor the experience
Using data, provide a tailored brand experience and even a bespoke product. As people become reluctant to buy disposable fashion, their retail therapy will move from regular shopping “fixes” to shopping highs from superior products and services.
- Explore other business models
Because of the sharing economy mentality, and concern with sustainability, even people who want more stuff may prefer to rent rather than own.
- Help people improve
Aligned with the cultural shift to greater health and wellness, athleisure will maintain its popularity, but success can come from broader areas of wellbeing and improvement, such as clothes for a better night’s sleep, underwear that gives greater confidence, or a podcast that educates about health or wellness.