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Decoding the athleisure revolution in India

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Athleisure is not just a fashion essential anymore – it is a medium for expression and an insignia of the young and the young at heart. Even in India, the demand for casual wear is rapidly escalating as the modern Indian customers do not wish to compromise on comfort and functionality. With the rapid rise of globalisation over the past decades and the advent of digital media, the spread of fashion across global cultures have picked up tremendous pace. The world has become a global village and consumers are constantly following international trends even in a country like India that, traditionally, seldom kept pace with global trends.

“It has been noticed that there has been a significant rise in the demand of athleisure in India recently. The lines between traditional sportswear and fashion apparel are increasingly blurring. Industry estimates show that Athleisure is growing faster than the rest of the apparel categories. It is expected to witness significant growth owing to several reasons. The industry has witnessed rapid growth due to the rise in income levels and the entry of foreign players in India after liberalization as well,” avers Harkirat Singh, Managing Director, Woodland.

Growth Drivers

Like with most fashion categories with roots in Western fashion, the growth of the Athleisure category in India can be better understood by co-analysing it with the key changes in the general ecosystem of the country. Changing lifestyles, higher disposable incomes, home grown brands bringing contemporary international fashion to Indian stores and well known international brands setting up business in India, etc., – a profusion of factors have culminated to give impetus to the changing fashion sensibilities of the Indian populace. This changing fashion sense coupled with affordable prices has pushed the market for active fashion in India.

A key factor that has led to the increase in demand of Athleisure can be attributed to the growing health consciousness among Indians. Activities like aerobics, swimming, running, yoga, various dance have now become a part of the average Indian’s life. There is a rise in health and wellness expenditure among Indian consumers which has contributed to the segment’s growth and athleisure fits the bill since it is a combination of trendy sportswear and relaxed apparel.

“This market is fueled by the growing westernization of India as well as growing inclination towards a healthier lifestyle. Everyone wants to look good while exercising and the Athleisure category was born keeping this need in mind. Acceptance of this category is still low, especially for women, while competition is fierce from existing sportswear, apparel and retail companies in India,” says Pranal Modani, Director, C9 Airwear.

One of the chief drivers that has especially been instrumental in propelling this trend in India is the mere fact that athleisure gives you clothing that’s comfortable, relaxed yet stylish. Just think of it, especially in a hot and humid country like India what could be more important than comfort?

“Dressing for comfort has led to the evolvement of the concept of athleisure – a trendy extension of sportswear with a hint of function, comfort as well as style – all incorporated in one. Going by the present scenario, athleisure is the fastest growing segment across the fashion space, the segment is witnessing a growth rate of 20 to 25 percent annually. We will defi nitely see a bull run in the sportswear and activewear segment too as non-sport brands will also want to start targeting to this niche and creating opportunity for expansion,” reveals Sunishka Goenka, Founder, Myriad Activewear.

“Comfort is the key. Customers these days look out for sustainable products rather than specific one-dimensional products. Gone are the days where formal, casual and sportswear used to fall under different segments. Nowadays, one product is thought to be perfect or adaptable under all situations. The current consumption of athleisure is an epitome of how people look or want their clothing to be,” adds Modani, echoing Goenka’s sentiments.

All in all, the Athleisure category fits wells with a major consumer demographic of India – the Millennial consumer who is always looking for an option that fills the gap between sportswear and trendy clothes, helping them switch effortlessly between work and workout.

The Athleisure Market – Global VS Indian

According to CNBC, the global athleisure market is poised to become US $350 billion by 2020. This is a movement largely driven by the United States. Currently, athleisure is used by 28 percent of the population. The American athleisure market is expected to double and set to reach US $83 billion by 2020.

While North America is the largest athleisure Industry in the globe presently followed by Europe, which is expected to exhibit rapid growth, the focal point of this growth has been traced to the countries in Asia Pacific region like India, China and Thailand.

Deloitte India partner Rajat Wahi says India’s athleisure market is growing at 18-20 percent currently and is expected to touch 54,000 crore, or roughly $8 billion, by 2020. As per an Allied Market Research report, India is expected to rise at a CAGR of 13.9 percent in the global activewear market. Industry estimates athleisure as a category that’s growing faster thanthe rest of the apparel categories.

“Overall athleisure category is growing at a rate of 20 percent to 25 percent annually with menswear growing at a rate of 8 percent to 10 percent, and the women’s and children’s segment growing at 11 percent to 15 percent. Being a millennial-driven trend, athleisure is growing at a phenomenalrate not only in urban cities but also in the Tier II and III regions. This trend will continue to rise as the next big thing in apparel, due to increasing health and fitness awareness,” states Manjula Gandhi, Chief Product Officer, Numero Uno.

“According to industry estimates, the athleisure category is growing faster than other apparel categories in India. In 2016-17 the Athleisure market in India grew at a rate of 20-25 percent, as opposed to the rest apparel segment, compromising of both men and women, that grew between 8-15 percent. Currently, the athleisure segment is targeting those between the age of 20-40 in India,” agrees Rina Nathani, Global Retail Head, Satva.

Impact on Other Fashion Categories

With its links to the health and wellness movement, the athleisure evolution has clearly diluted the existence of non-performing sportswear segment in the country

Consumers nowadays prefer to walk the street combination of fashion and healthy lifestyle. Functional and sleek minimalist designs which can be worn anytime and anywhere went viral and have finally reached premium and luxury brands. It is the new favourite of the new-age consumers, especially the Millennials.

“The consumption levels with athleisure is increasing by storm. One of the main points, athleisure as a segment has changed and is impacting the adverse consumption levels of that of non-performance sportswear segments in the country is the comfort and perfect fit which have an impact on psychologically seeming to be fit and maintaining physical activity. With the rise of upmarket gym chains, which have cult following despite expensive memberships, the need for athleisure wear has been further fuelled. Non-sports use has also turbocharged the market as the consumer might just want to look good while not having any intention of breaking into sweat,” says Goenka.

“Consumption levels in India are growing at a fast pace of over 20 percent every year. Think of the athleisure wear and non-performance sportswear segments as two circles that intersect with each other. While there is overlap, there is still enough opportunity for both markets to grow independently,” says Nathani.

The growing popularity of this trend has compelled an increasing number of sports majors to add athleisure wear lines to cash in on this booming trend. “It will be a bigger challenge for the companies to remain relevant with more and more brands entering this space. However, growth of athleisure as a lifestyle will only fuel the industry further. Due to its growing popularity, especially with the younger customers it is giving huge competition to the casualwear and denim categories as the usual go-to basics,” asserts Gandhi.

Advent of International Brands

The gargantuan opportunities in the Indian fashion industry has attracted a long list of international bigwigs of late, all who have rushed in for their share of the market. Armed with better facilities and a strong supply chain, these brands can afford to bring latest trends very quickly to the market and off er stiff competition to domestic and home grown brands.

“International sportswear brands like adidas, Nike, and Puma, etc. have an established distribution network India before the athleisure fad took off and they are surely better positioned to capitalize on the same. Their brand image helps as well. Having said that Indian brands such as HRX and Zivame, with the help of e-commerce sector and VC funding are surely making inroads into the mind of Indian customers,” asserts Modani.

“There are international brands that are playing the same market. They have already established themselves in the initial stage of sportswear introduction in India. The competition lies in both the ends fighting domestically and internationally to create value for your brand,” states Siddharth Grover, Director, Groversons Paris Beauty.

International Brands like H&M, Superdry, adidas, Asics etc., find the Indian market lucrative and are performing well in the Indian market. Currently 80 percent of the Indian market is dominated by the big international players like adidas, Nike, Puma and Reebok, while emerging domestic players are battling for the remaining 20 percent of this share, according to Nathani.

“They are battling the bigger players on the ground’s affordability/ price and presence in Tier II and III cities. Although most products of global brands are produced locally, consumers still have to pay premium prices. Many domestic brands in the athleisure segment, for these reasons are building their online and e-commerce presence. About 30 percent of athleisure wear is sold online today,” she adds.

While the global brands have made consumers aware of global trends; they also compelled Indian brands to invest in product and design innovations but also re-align their strategies. As the game gets propelled to the next level, the result is a slew of innovations aimed at standing out and attract to consumers.

At Groversons Paris Beauty, the team strives to come up with the latest in breathable fabrics, seamless cuts, smooth straps and availability in all sizes, including plus size. C9 Airwear manufactures seamless clothing which provides functional benefits like, quickwicking, 4-way stretch, no chaffing, and quick-drying; that too at an af ordable price.

Myriad Activewear, meanwhile, aims to be identified by precision, design and the quality of craftsmanship as the core. The brand certifies uncompromisable quality with a huge assortment of fabrics, leading to mixes of unique textures that enhance training and feel.

The N1 Active collection by Numero Uno is designed using fabrics that are comfortable and have stretch for flexible movement. Lightweight, breathable, cottons with tech finishes, it features shape retention properties. Satva is the only brand which offers 100 percent organic cotton athleisure wear. All products are free from chemicals including bleaches, toxic waxes, sulfur and heavy metals commonly used in the production of clothing.

Van Heusen’s core athleisure collection is a fine balance between Lounge and athleisure, where the key focus is on superior comfort. The brand is among the first movers to introduce performance attributes like swift dry and stain repellant feature in India.

Woodland maintains a solid commitment to innovation, sustainable business practices in line with its tradition of promoting outdoor and adventure sports worldwide. The brands innovations include heat lock apparels made in lightweight fabric with micro fibre to regulate the body temperature but retaining body heat and aquasorb apparels which block rain and snow and allow vapors to dry the heat. It also has range of pure green apparels which are made out of recycled plastic turned in to fibre to manufacture garments and tech enabled shoes that are embedded with battery powered temperature control system. With their anti-microbial property, the shoes absorb sweat to keep your feet dry.

Penetration into Smaller Cities

Demand of trendy Athleisure is no longer limited to the urban masses today; it enjoys heightened popularity in semi urban towns and Tier II and III cities of India as well.

“Digitisation and the penetration of Internet access have played an important role in raising awareness about the latest fashion trends in Tier II and III cities. Higher disposable income has fueled the valueof fashion to look good amongst the consumers of small cities. The rise in per capita income of the middle class in these cities has resulted in the movement of consumers from unbranded to branded segment,” statesWoodland’s Singh.

The population of these cities today is far more aspirational and demonstrative and showcases a higher propensity to buy ‘brands’ in the casual wear space. “The smaller towns and cities are becoming increasingly imp to the growth of any brand/ category owing to rise in their per capita income, increase in fashion awareness of consumers in these areas due to easy internet access and social media connectivity and switch from unbranded to branded products,” says Gandhi.

Online Sales

The success of e-commerce has also contributed to the growth of athleisure in India. Retailers have been able to gain potential customers, improve their communications and messaging, track finances, implement research and improve their brand in a cost-effective manner. Digitalisation and e-commerce marketplaces have provided the retail industry with several avenues with an active consumer base that prefers shopping online, allowing them to purchase products whenever they want.

“The fashion retail sector has emerged in the past few years due to the stronghold of digitalization in the country. It is because the digital era has changed the social trends which resultant a direct effect on the changing consumer behaviours. Brands are also reaching out to consumers where they spend most of their time – online. It has been noticed that online sales of athleisure sector have increased in high single digits and will keep defying the gravity rule in near future,” says Singh.

Online sales are appreciating at a great speed throughout the country with alternative options of payments and easier movement of creating inventory. “Online retailer portals are collaborating with brands to have greater visibility and brand diversity across channels of distribution. E-commerce players who have made active wear as a separate category are seeing between 20 percent and 70 percent growth in this segment with online sales. But websites such as Amazon India are yet to set up a dedicated athleisure store,” says Goenka.

Towards a Sustainable Path

As the stunning environmental impact of fast fashion becomes clear, the number of brands the number of brands introducing ‘conscious’ collections and production techniques have soared massively. Infact, greener production of fashion is an expected standard with brands and consumers; with the latter demanding more transparency and honesty and not as a mere selling gimmick.

“Woodland, a brand is known for its eco-friendly initiatives further strengthens its association with the environment by launching a new range of biodegradable footwear.

This launch is in association with the company’s CSR initiative ‘Proplanet’, a wing dedicated to making our mother Earth a better place to live in. The new range is one of the most exciting environmental innovations to be witnessed by the footwear industry,” reveals Singh.

Numero Uno too is doing its bit by continuously taking conscious steps to reduce environmental impact through investment in technology and product innovation. By introducing eco-friendly laundry processes the brand has reduced water consumption and use of harmful chemicals leading to zero affl uent discharge and worker welfare. Waterless denims and recycled fabric denims form an important part of the Numero Uno’s denim collection today and contribute to a better environment.

Myriad Activewear embeds ethical ethos from the beginning itself. The brand works with fabric manufacturers who abide by CSR regulations and supply only but the best and sustainable dying techniques and eco-friendly yarns. The brand also maintains discipline in its production units (recycling, reusing waste fabrics with minimal wastage) and is able to capitalise on the customers’ educational initiatives of ‘informed choice’ of fair- trade and ethical means.

C9 Airwear is investing heavily in system and machinery to help it produces less waste. “Our plants are fitted with solar panels that provide the necessary power. We are also planning to use recycled fabric in our future collections. Apart from this, we conduct a lot of afforestation drives through our CSR programs. In a global supply chain comprising multiple vendors in different counties with different regulations, developing a sustainable brand requires considerable resourcesand efforts,” says Modani.

But various brands have also admitted of facing innumerous challenges in their quest towards sustainability. “Prevailing challenges include higher costs and competing with the bigger players in the market. Communicating the benefi ts of sustainable fashion is not an easy task. It’s important for sustainable brands to make their products affordable, while leveraging the long-term benefits of consuming these products. Another challenge for athleisure would be penetrating Tier II and III cities,” says Nathani.

Challenges Faced by the Industry Faces

While the athleisure trend is exploding a slew of challenges still mars Indian brands and manufacturers. The biggest growth barrier currently is the lack of high-quality manufacturing facilities.

“More than 90 percent of the synthetic fabric used by players in India are imported from China, Hong Kong and Korea. As a solution local manufactures must focus on developing the required resources/raw materials locally and invest in organic alternatives like cotton. This will help India grow their athleisure segment in the long run,” says Nathani.

“While the category is evolving fast, it is also getting updates with no new technology like laser bonding, innovative magnetic fasteners and a very interesting blend of technical textiles, which not all manufacturers are geared upto. Hence, one has to look at modern plants who are upgrading their technologies,” adds Shankar C, GM Design, Van Heusen.

The challenges arise especially with the emerging local brands who are creatively paving their path through design and production to innovate new products in order to differentiate themselves from the big players. Therefore, to surpass that obstacle, product innovation and story-telling become a key essential to build a brand that defines uniqueness and convinces their audience.

The Road Ahead

Athleisure is a segment that enjoys special demand among the youth. Keeping this in mind, this segment harbours immense opportunities for brands and retailers alike especially in a young country like India with a median age of 27 years.

Moreover, growing on the back of increasing fitness and health awareness, experts peg athleisure wear as the next big thing in apparel. When it comes to growth, athleisure is on a much higher side; people are wearing athleisure even to workplaces today.

“Mixing active wear with ready to wear is the new norm and it’s not going away soon. We feel athleisure is here to stay as consumers are used to versatility and flexibility it offers. And not only for women wear but also opportunities lie in the men’s athleisure wear and kid’s athleisure wear segments,” concludes Nathani.

(With inputs from Gurbir Singh Gulati)

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