Over the past year, the volatility in cotton fiber costs compelled some manufacturers and brands to, at least temporarily, experiment with using alternative fibers. Now that the price of cotton has settled in line with historic averages, there is renewed interest in cotton for performance athletic apparel. And as the line between fashion and active apparel continues to blur, cotton is coming into focus as the common thread.
Take Charged Cotton®, the performance enhanced cotton-rich line launched in 2011 from sports retailer Under Armour®. Famous for compression clothing and strictly synthetic blends, the company attracted significant attention when it replaced the tagline “Cotton is the Enemy” with “Mother Nature made it. We made it better.” It appears consumers have responded positively; Under Armour’s 2011 Annual Report speaks to the potential that the Charged Cotton® line holds for the company: “We see Charged Cotton® as a path to nearly quadrupling our addressable market in ‘active use’ apparel while blurring the lines of the much larger active wear market over time.” Others agree; Morgan Stanley analysts recently predicted that the line will account for 3 percent sales growth in 2012 and as much as 6 percent total sales growth for the company in 2013.
“Athletic apparel now straddles the line between strictly workout wear and active lifestyle wear, and that has an impact on how it is marketed,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy & Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated. “Consumers want items that can do both.”
And crossover apparel is big business. Active-wear is a $28 billion business, the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA) reports. Given that 93 percent of consumers wear such apparel for activities other than exercise, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2012 Sports Apparel Survey, that number might only grow.
Most consumers (85 percent) say they wear athletic apparel around the house, followed by “to run errands” (65 percent) and to shop (42 percent). Only 7 percent of all respondents use their athletic apparel solely for exercise, down from 10 percent in 2009 – and it seems marketers have begun to take note (chart 1). Target’s online selection of athletic apparel falls under the headline “for working out & hanging out,” while GapFit, Gap’s line of activewear, does not mention exercise. The tagline reads: “For life as you live it.”
“The economy, too, is still a significant factor here,” Kitchings says. “Our research indicates that just 48 percent of consumers are very or somewhat optimistic about their personal financial situation, and nearly four in ten respondents (37 percent) indicate that their ability to purchase athletic apparel has been affected by the current economy,” according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ and Sports Apparel Surveys. “Consumers are thinking carefully about purchases, and those items that have more than one purpose are probably more likely to make the cut.” And it seems thinking carefully about each purchase includes a thorough examination of the item itself. In 2012, 83 percent of consumers were likely to read the hangtags or labels on the garment when shopping for athletic apparel, compared to 49 percent of consumers purchasing clothing overall.
“But athletic apparel can’t be a one-size- fits-all approach,” says Kitchings. “Men and women are looking for different things in these kinds of purchases; women are primarily concerned with fit, while men are concerned with performance features.”
Indeed, data from the Sports Apparel Survey support this; though cotton may not have a significant presence at retail in this category, it has not stopped consumers from seeking it out. Nearly nine in ten consumers (87 percent) indicated that they have purchased cotton exercise or athletic apparel, driven significantly most often with fit/comfort (38 percent) as the main reason, according to the Study (chart 3).
Some brands have expanded their offerings, seeking this cotton-conscious consumer. The resort category, aimed to keep consumers fashionable and comfortable in warmer climes, is an ideal outlet. In its recent resort collection, the Lily Pulitzer label incorporated the moisture-wicking TransDRY® technology into its cotton polos.
“The new Lilly Pulitzer Island Polo with TransDRY® fabric is the perfect way to look chic even when breaking a sweat,” says Jane Schoenborn, fashion director for Lily Pulitzer. “Our secret is the TransDRY® technology, which dries in half the time as traditional cotton and doesn’t cling. Paired with our colorful, printed skorts, Lilly girls have an easy, resort-ready outfit that keeps them fashionable and dry — whether working or playing.”
Athleta, the female-focused athletic e-tailer, also offers two workout — or walk-about –tanks with the TransDRY® finish.
Lilly Pulitzer and Athleta have honed in on the features most important to cotton-conscious consumers; among those respondents that have purchased cotton athletic apparel, more than half (56 percent) sought out cotton apparel with breathability, followed by stretch (36 percent) and absorbency (29 percent).
“Cotton is just breaking ground in the performance athletic market,” says Kitchings, “so it is not surprising that consumers are currently four times more likely to look to synthetics for performance benefits. However, our attitudinal research indicates a strong inclination among consumers to not only try cotton performance apparel, but a willingness to pay more for it.”
Almost seven out of ten respondents to the Sports Apparel survey say they would be willing to pay more for apparel that: has the fit they prefer (71 percent), moisture absorption benefits (69 percent), keeps them dry (69 percent), remains odor free (68 percent), and has the same styles as synthetics (64 percent).
“There are certainly market opportunities available for cotton in the athletic apparel market,” Kitchings says. “Only time will tell if retailers respond and increase their cotton-rich offerings to appeal to these consumers.”