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Decoding the Term Sportswear

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Sabine Kühnl, Editor-in-Charge, Sportswear International explains and discusses with me the core concept and different aspects of sportswear, especially as a fashion terminology.

The term ‘sportswear’ is intriguing. What exactly does it mean? What is your personal take on this?

First, I need to point out that the term ‘sportswear’ differs in its reception between North America and Europe. In Europe, it is often mixed up with active and performance wear (clothes that you would indeed wear when doing sports). We at Sportswear International refer to the American meaning and understand sportswear mainly as an umbrella term for the segments of jeanswear, streetwear and, to a certain extent, casualwear too. In this sense, it sums up non-formal clothes, yes, but gear that has a fashionable approach at the same time and not just simply EVERYTHING that is non-formal.

Why term it ‘sportswear’? Couldn’t we simply call it casualwear?

No, because casualwear, in the sense of how we understand the word casual, would rather mean anything non-formal. However, it does not necessarily have a fashion or trend approach.

Is there a common central philosophy that runs through and binds the entire sportswear space?

Certainly, it is affected by fashion and trends, and it has always a modern approach to its looks. Within the categories, you will find different philosophies that sportswear ‘geeks’ will follow. For instance, look at the strong authenticity and vintage trend in jeanswear and denim.

When and how did the ‘sportswear’ category come into existence?

As far as I know, the term regularly came into use in the late 70s and 80s when sportswear itself (with the meaning I just have described) came alive as a true category for jeanswear and the like, and this category also came to be seen in stores. But, of course, its true birth happened in the late 40s and 50s when youth culture started to develop in North America and Europe, also as a protest of the younger generation against their parents and society in general. Music and fashion became the obvious signs of rebellion.

Who are the pioneers in this segment?

It depends on the segment. For denim, we would clearly have to mention brands such as Lee, Levi’s and Wrangler with their long heritage, but way later also Italian brands such as Diesel and Replay made jeans high fashion items. A great influence that we rather see today came from performance brands such as Nike and adidas, which helped to make trainers become ‘regular’ footwear. Talking of streetwear, you find brands such as Vans, which has a long tradition and which has reached out to everyday fashion trends.

Name the first major products that led to its birth.

Clearly, jeans and its evolution from mere workwear to becoming a fashion item, and then sneakers and tracksuits had a great impact, as well as the good old parka and bomber Jackets.

Is sportswear philosophically the same today from when it was born?

Certainly not, and this is basically because it has lost its political meaning of protest and rebellion. Today, everybody wears sportswear, no matter what age, position, gender or social group. It became more a matter of comfort than attitude.

What are the major milestones that kept the category evolving?

It is hard to point out certain milestones. I see it rather as an evolution. Musicians played a great role such as do athletes today. And, of course, the internet that transports trends and looks so easily.

Is there something like modern sportswear that is a distinct thought evolving separate from the original?

Yes, of course. The looks have changed over the years, but the central idea of fashion is still the same. It is more in details and fabrics that make a difference. Think of stretch denim, for example, which started its real triumph about a decade ago when premium denim hit shelves everywhere.

Today, who are the top global players in the sportswear segment and what is their contribution to this category?

Rather than listing certain brands (who’s hot today might be a flop tomorrow…), I would point out the incredible success story of vertical chains such as Uniqlo, H&M, Zara, Primark, Forever 21, etc. They attract all kinds of clients and make every fashion trend accessible to everyone. You might like that development or not, but it is a fact that the brands have to deal with.

In your visits to India, do you see a growing trend towards sportswear?

Definitely, not just that, international sportswear brands are coming to India and opening stores. Also, with the advent of the internet and having access to international trends, the kids adopt sportswear and fashion trends.

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