The rise of 'athleisure' points to a broader cultural shift in India

Designers and retail brands are making the most of the athleisure trend. The Fila Heritage X NBNW collection. Courtesy: NBNW
The story goes that modern “athleisure”, as explained in a recent piece in The Atlantic, was born when a chap named Chip Wilson made his way to a yoga class and was struck not so much by the asanas but by what his instructor was wearing: a pair of fitted spandex pants that looked effortlessly stylish and supremely comfortable. The year was 1997, and the following summer, Wilson started mass-manufacturing those very yoga pants. The label was called Lululemon. 

Two decades later, the trend has taken America by storm — hoodies, sneakers, joggers, jumpsuits and bomber jackets are no longer restricted to the sports field or gym; such attire has made its way to office meetings, birthday parties and even weddings.

Closer home, athleisure is proving equally popular. Actor Deepika Padukone recently wore a ravishing red Zuhair Murad gown with a pair of white sneakers for the after-party at her wedding reception in Mumbai. Entrepreneur Anand Ahuja, who married actor Sonam Kapoor, pulled off a similar feat at his reception, teaming up his formal blue achkan with Nike trainers.

But then, Bollywood has always led the way when it comes to athleisure — Govinda was rocking the oversized-sweatshirt-sports-shoe look much before we knew that something called athleisure even existed. 

“One does not need to spend too much time or energy curating an athleisure look. Plus, increased acceptability has made it okay for us to support athleisure on multiple occasions,” says designer Dhruv Kapoor. In recent times, Kapoor has experimented extensively with pretty much all variants of the bomber jacket: oversized, cropped, destroyed. Mostly, it’s a take on the MA-1, the American military jacket that Kapoor likes to add a dressy edge to by picking out eclectic fabrics.  

Other Indian designers who have showcased athleisure on the ramp include Anand Bhushan, who used neoprene and scuba fabrics; and Anamika Khanna, who blended athleisure with ethnic wear a couple of seasons ago. 

More recently, Mriga Kapadiya and Amrit Kumar of the label NorBlack NorWhite (NBNW) launched Fila Heritage X NBNW, a line created in collaboration with the Italian sportswear brand. The unique collection, which is a fusion of Indian motifs, bold colours and hip streetwear, includes bandhani-print sweatshirts, shorts and socks, as well as sweatshirts with colourful tassels running down the sides. The duo has even redone Fila’s iconic Disruptor shoe, embellishing it with a bandhani design around the midsole. 

Not only designers, the trend seems to have caught on with a number of mass retail brands as well. Bollywood has ample presence here, too. Hrithik Roshan’s HRX, Shahid Kapoor’s Skult and Prowl by Tiger Shroff are among the many labels trying to cash in on the athleisure craze.

“A true athleisure line blends authenticity of a brand with the durability of sport functionality and the styling of business casual,” explains Alok Dubey, CEO, Lifestyle Brands Division at Arvind Lifestyle, the company behind USPA and Ed Hardy, two established clothing brands that ventured into activewear recently.

The interpretation of the concept is somewhat subjective, but most designers agree that athleisure has to have some practical function. Wilson, in fact, wrote in a column for Forbes earlier this year on how he felt that fashion was overriding functionality in the athleisure space. They’re all making them, from Givenchy to Gigi Hadid to Beyoncé, but it’s almost impossible to say if all of what’s on offer actually works in real life — the kind that offers technicality for sport performance and chic for the street.

“For me, it’s ‘pret-a-couture’. Athleisure is definitely retaining the functionality of sportswear, but I prefer it a little more dressy,” says Kapoor.

Athleisure, in India at least, points to a broader cultural shift, the emergence of a dress-down look that requires minimum effort and provides maximum utility. “Start-ups and guys like Mark Zuckerberg have majorly contributed to the growth of athleisure. If you walk into one of these offices wearing a suit, people look at you as though you’re a dinosaur,” says Darshan M, co-founder at Deivee, the sustainable athleisure line launched by model-actor Milind Soman last year.

Athleisure goes much beyond just the blurring of lines between gym wear and normal attire — it has emerged as the ultimate disruptor in the fashion world. You no longer need different sets of clothes for different occasions. “If people are okay sporting sneakers with lehengas at their weddings, then it’s obvious they don’t really give a damn. It’s all about being comfortable in your own skin now,” feels Pallavi Barman, head of marketing and operations at HRX.

The concept has been particularly revolutionary with respect to women. Owing to the versatility of yoga pants, denims have been rendered near-obsolete in the West. “Women are a big part of this business. But the target audience will always be the ‘young and mobile’ who like to multi-task,” says Dubey.

What next for the segment that Wilson described as “the defining trend of the 21st century so far”? Well, as more Indians and others around the world discover baggy sweatshirts, oversized basketball vests, snug joggers and funky sneakers, it looks like we’re just getting started. We may not be playing a lot of sport, but we sure are dressing for it. And that, for once, may not be such a bad thing.

Designs by Dhruv Kapoor; USPA’s activewear range

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