Is Athletic Wear Poised to Usurp Denim?

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\"RRIn the US, the NPD Group reported US shoppers spent about $17 billion on denim in 2013, and the global jeans market is projected to reach $56 billion by 2018, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts, Inc. But some in the industry see athletic apparel as the one to beat. While denim remained almost flat, declining just 1% for the 12 months ending December 2013, activewear soared 9%. And the total apparel market was only up 2% over the same period. What’s happening here?

While some point to athletic apparel’s ubiquity – 92% of consumers wear it for activities other than exercise, up significantly from 87% in 2009, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2014 Sports Apparel Survey – a more complicated answer might lie in the fact that for denim shoppers, what’s being sold at retail isn’t living up to their standards.

“I think part of what’s challenging to denim brands right now is the ‘premiumization’ of yoga pants and the luxury ath-leisure sector essentially following denim’s own model for success,” says Shanna McKinnon, editor of “But can yoga pants, even nice ones, really be as versatile as denim? I’m not so sure.”

For consumers, durability remains a key component of new clothing purchases. Yet data from the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey has established many consumers are not happy with the denim they are getting at retail.

Indeed, the majority of consumers say they have experienced fading (67%) and wrinkling (51%) in their jeans, followed by wear & tear issues (50%), shrinking (49%), and lack of stretch recovery (49%), according to Monitor data.


Though Levi Strauss & Company CEO Chip Bergh told Yahoo! recently that the company was “losing consumption to yoga pants,” the reality may be a bit more layered than that. In 2003 alone, the company estimated that more than 200 new denim makers had entered the market in the previous ten years, a number that has likely ballooned since then. For one thing, it seems Levi’s own dominance in the marketplace may have spawned its fiercest competition.
To try to recapture market share, Levi’s is designing more lightweight denim to better compete with athletic apparel. “Knit denim — lightweight, functional denim — is the denim industry’s response to the yoga business,” said Neil Bell, global material fabric and fiber innovation director at Levi Strauss & Co. “The Nike Flyknit has inspired the move towards knit denim.”


Comfort may also be key here, since it is also what draws consumers to athletic apparel even when they aren’t working out. The Sports Apparel Survey reveals nearly three-fourths (73%) of consumers who wear activewear for purposes other than exercise do so because they find it to be comfortable.
But making denim more like athletic apparel may be giving consumers more of what they don’t want. And one trend that isn’t sitting well with consumers: manmade fibers adding too much stretch.

“The stretch situation is out of control,” says McKinnon. “You are looking at quality issues when the blend is 6% stretch or more. You’ll have to wash after each wear in order to get stretch recovery, leading to faster color loss, not to mention more water consumption. Also, when abrading stretch denim, those white weft yarns that we love to see stringing across rips and tears don’t hold up, and you’re left with a gaping hole that gets weaker with every wear. All of this dilutes those attributes that make denim so special in the minds of consumers.”

Meanwhile, shoppers have become more scrutinizing; consumers say certain factors in their jeans purchases have become more important in the last year, including price (58% to 63%), quality (52% to 59%), durability (52% to 58%), multi-functional (42% to 47%), color (41% to 46%), softness (33% to 43%) and stretch (33% to 41%), according to the Monitor.

It may be that denim doesn’t need a makeover – it needs a make-under.

“I think denim brands that stick to their heritage and give consumers well-made, well designed jeans that launder well and last will do exactly that – last,” says McKinnon. “Versatility and functionality are key. And until my yoga pants can do that, I’m not replacing my jeans.”



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