Let’s kick off with a question: what is the most valuable clothing brand in the world? That would be sportswear giant Nike, which topped the 2018 league table with a total worth of $28bn, despite a 12 per cent drop due to “challenges” in North America and some executive misconduct.
Buoyed by rampant sneaker culture and shifting dress codes, this should be a surprise to no-one, because there has been a fundamental shift in men’s fashion. Comfort got cool. The tastemakers went technical. Tracksuits became high fashion. At what point do we stop compartmentalising it as “sportswear” and just call it fashion, or clothes?
Fashion’s brand rankings are a clear indication, if you needed one, that sportswear is no longer restricted to the playing of sport. Trailing behind the mighty swoosh, according to marketing consultants Brand Finance, are high street behemoths H&M and Zara, which finished second and third on $19bn and $17bn respectively, followed by a resurgent Adidas, up 41 per cent year on year to $14bn (one of Nike’s principle “challenges” in North America).
That’s way ahead of the luxurious likes of Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Cartier, which only just reach double figures – of billions of dollars, but still. Being able to wear T-shirts, sweatpants and trainers for more than going to the gym or the corner shop is, after all, the ultimate luxury.
What’s changed in recent years is exactly that: sportswear is no longer just casual dress. Even if you work in an office, there’s a good chance you’ll have a pair of sneakers on, perhaps some drawstring trousers. There could be a sweatshirt slung over your chair, a baseball cap on your desk, a track jacket in your bag. Today, it’s completely normal to look smart in clothes that were originally designed to sweat in.
This isn’t brand new, of course. Rene Lacoste’s 1927 innovation of a lightweight, breathable “tennis shirt” was subsequently adopted by polo players, Ralph Lauren and the rest of us. Sporting on-court clothing off it is something your grandfather started.
Just Doing It
“Sportswear as casualwear is essentially a preppy invention – the carryover from hearty WASP athletic pursuits which gave us the likes of the sweatshirt, sweatpants and letterman jacket,” says Josh Sims, author of books such as Men of Style. “Sportswear was appreciated for being tough and practical.”
Like military uniform, that other stalwart of menswear, sportswear has long been valued for the rugged characteristics it both possesses in itself and indicates in its wearer. And in sport, like war, competition results in game-changing technological breakthroughs. What we wear on the fields of battle and play has advanced more dramatically than what we wear elsewhere. If sportswear is at the cutting edge of fashion right now, that’s because – in technical terms – it always has been.
The current, unprecedented sportswear boom though can also be seen as a pendulum swing away from the hashtag-menswear sartorialism that followed the economic downturn and increased competition for jobs – coinciding with the 2007 airing of Mad Men. As employment rose again, so did jobs that didn’t impose traditional dress codes and a social media-fuelled emphasis on individual creativity.
Then there’s the swelling fashionability of fitness, which has given us a legitimate excuse to wear sportswear outside the gym beyond comfort and sheer laziness. Instead of spending valuable time fastidiously parting our hair and folding our pocket squares, we’re throwing on hoodies and baseball caps. And if you’re running around town all day, it makes sense to wear shoes designed specifically for marathons.
It’s arguably the luxury sector that’s setting the pace. Streetwear designers like Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga and Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton are running the show(s), elevating previously utilitarian sportswear to the very height of fashion. T-shirts, down jackets and sneakers, which grew by 25%, 15% and 10% respectively, were “standout categories” in the 2017 Bain Luxury Study.
With its links to skateboarding, surfing and other sports, you could argue that streetwear – whatever that loaded term means – essentially is sportswear. “I’m not sure streetwear is the dominant mode, if you’re talking urban, hip-hop-driven streetwear,” contends Sims. “It’s sportswear with graphics, in effect.
“There’s not much original design in streetwear – unlike sportswear, then and now – and what there is tends to be driven by – ta-da – sport.”
The Rise And Rise Of Fashionable Sportswear
Sneakers, sweatshirts and tracksuits are the most hyped products in men’s fashion, but sportswear’s supremacy didn’t happen overnight. Here, we trace the rise of a never-ending trend that began half a century ago.
As English football teams travelled Europe in the late 70s and early 80s, continental sportswear brands infiltrated these shores, helping their wearers fly under the authorities’ radar while subtly signifying their tribe to those in the know. Tainted by associations with hooliganism, it was a safely masculine arena for playing with fashion and shared values like community, exclusivity and one-upmanship with streetwear.
The Firm, 2009
The Founding Of Stüssy
Surfer Shawn Stussy initially created graphics for boards before applying them to garms in the mid-Eighties. Incorporating influences from hip-hop, he in turn influenced Hiroshi Fujiwara, who founded Japan’s first streetwear brand Goodenough and opened cult store Nowhere with Undercover’s Jun Takahashi and Nigo, who went on to found Bape; James Jebbia managed the Stüssy New York flagship before opening nearby Supreme in 1994.
Run DMC’s Adidas
In 2017, hip-hop usurped rock as the most consumed type of music in the US, blatantly promoting the buying of sportswear in the process. The genre’s athletic aesthetic stems from the mid-Eighties, when Run DMC swapped their tailored jackets for the trefoiled tracksuits popular on New York streets. At concerts, fans held up their three-striped trainers in solidarity, prompting Adidas to offer the first million-dollar endorsement deal for a hip-hop group.
Run DMC in adidas
Lululemon’s Yoga Pants
With the 1998 creation of its Boogie women’s leggings – exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art alongside Levi’s 501 jeans – Lululemon is credited with birthing the athleisure movement. Even though the resolutely technical pants were the polar opposite of for-show fashion sportswear, their practicality, comfort and cost saw them worn outside the yoga studio, and other brands upped their design game in order to compete.
Supreme x Louis Vuitton
The 2017 collaboration between the upstart streetwear brand and the storied French luxury house – which sued Supreme for copyright infringement in 2000 – was when the distinction between the two collapsed. Depending on your point of view, it was also when Supreme jumped the shark or became a megalodon; subsequent investment by private equity firm the Carlyle Group, which valued Supreme at $1bn, suggests the latter.
Supreme x Louis Vuitton
Is Sportswear Here To Stay?
If this were any other fashion trend, then you’d fully expect the pendulum to eventually swing back. And sure, we might yet see a Great Gatsby revival; nor is the suit dead, as it’s periodically pronounced. But there’s reason to suspect that sportswear, forecasted by Global Industry Analysts to grow to $232bn by 2024, is in a different league to other trends. Fitness fads come and go, but fitness itself is only going from strength to strength.
Having entered the dictionary, it would appear that “athleisure”, everybody’s least favourite portmanteau (apart from maybe Brexit), is here to stay. If there is a swing back to formality, then indications are that the tailoring will be inextricably interwoven with sportswear, whether in the form of hi-tech fabrics, design details such as drawstring waists or trainers on our feet. The concept of “high performance” now applies to work as well as play; why would we voluntarily revert to work clothes that have barely moved on in hundreds of years, which require pressing and dry-cleaning then overheat and constrict us in return?
Fundamentally, sportswear is just a hell of a lot less effort (some might say too little), queuing for the latest drop notwithstanding. Behavioural psychology holds that people are more inclined to do things if they’re Easy, Attractive, Social (ie other people are doing it) or Timely; sportswear scores highly on at least three of those four counts. But it’s the first one that is the biggest grounds to hope that sportswear won’t run its course anytime soon. Low-maintenance clothes that stretch and breathe sound and feel like the future.
4 Modern Ways To Wear Sportswear
At Your (Ath)leisure
Ten years ago, the idea that sweatpants could be smart-casual was unthinkable. The same was once true of denim. Now, here we are, happily commuting in a pair of tailored joggers that coordinate nicely with a luxe bomber jacket or sweatshirt. This style is unshowy and highly practical with muted colours and comfortable fabrics more important than branding or statement silhouettes.
Stunting In Streetwear
An ever-shifting mash-up of clashing fashion, streetwear takes inspiration from everywhere: hip-hop culture, sure, but also hiking apparel, skateboarding and haute couture. If there’s a running theme, it’s individuality. And the turning of heads, of course: think bright colours, big logos, clashing patterns and oversized everything.
Throwing It Back
With decades of history in their archives, sportswear designers are at liberty to recycle trends and individual designs, just as heritage menswear firms do. Throwback sportswear like full-look tracksuits takes confidence to wear but it can be surprisingly flattering. And even if you don’t want to go that far, you can nod to the trend with classic sweatshirts or retro sneakers.
Dress It Up
It’s not just white sneakers with your suit. As sportswear got more tailored, and tailoring got more technical, these once-polarised ends of the menswear spectrum have closed and formed a loop. Modern track pants and zip-up tops give you some high-low points of interest when paired with blazers and smart overcoats. Just keep the colours muted.
7 Sportswear Essentials Every Stylish Man Should Have
Superseding its slow-drying, woollen predecessors, the cotton crew-neck sweatshirt was pioneered by American underwear manufacturer Russell, and was so popular that it gave birth to an Athletic division. If you’re a quality nerd, look for “loopwheel”, which indicates it was made via an older, slower and therefore more expensive process that produces a more durable garment.
Another American company, Champion, holds the crown for devising the zip-up hooded sweatshirt, as well as a reverse-weave version that was less prone to shrinking length-wise when washed. Champion also patented a flocking technique for printing the fabric with lettering and numbers, which you should avoid if you want maximum versatility.
With its collar and buttons, the dad-approved polo shirt straddles the smart-casual touchline between shirt and tee. Again, lettering, numbers and mallet-wielding horseman logos emphasise its sportiness; conversely, a knitted polo is altogether more refined than than the common-or-lawn-tennis cotton variety, not to mention a little louche: Federer, not Djokovic.
Karl Lagerfeld called them a sign of defeat, but perhaps he’s the one who should slip into something more comfortable and retire to the sofa beaten, given that we’re overrun with joggers. As with many of these athletic staples, they can span the spectrum from sports to luxe, cotton to cashmere. But either way, the fit should be trim but not yoga legging-tight.
There’d be no sneakerheads without Keds and Converse All Stars, both of which launched in 1917. Converse created rubber-soled shoes for general use and tennis before basketball; baller-turned-salesman Chuck Taylor suggested the ankle-protecting patch. They may have been left behind by the march of technology, but they’ve kept step with fashion.
Originally made of straw, now more commonly cotton or wool, the baseball cap dates back to 1849 but wasn’t worn by spectating fans until the 1960s; New Era’s 59Fifty style, confusingly designed in 1954, became standard Major League headgear. Like the sweatshirt and hoodie, it’s a billboard for advertising affiliations from Balenciaga to MAGA.
The “sports jacket” was the 19th-century equivalent of a hoodie, donned in the boat by rowers at Oxford and Cambridge University. The name “blazer” came from Lady Margaret Boat Club’s red ones; bright colours helped identify rowers first on the water, then on campus. If you want to highlight your own sporting qualifications, maybe get one in jersey.