It’s nice when fashion goes to the trouble of making up a new word, so we should really welcome athleisure to the world. This was 2014’s attempt to create a hybrid of athleticwear and leisurewear. The argument went: we’re so damn busy, we don’t have time to change from daywear to gymwear, so let’s make clothes that straddle the two. And lo, athleisure was born.
To me, this hybrid genre is just Lycra, spandex and neoprene distilled into something less functional and prettier by the likes of Alexander Wang (who did just that very well for his much-feted HM collection last season) and Mary Kantrantzou (via her Fantasia-esque collection for Adidas), or Lululemon, a brand that has managed to convince millions of women to buy leggings instead of jeans. But much as I love a portmanteau, athleisure is the microwave meal of sportswear. My advice? If you want a sportswear look, buy sportswear.
My love affair with the off-pitch look began about 18 months ago when I attended a colleague’s leaving do in a tracksuit. I was told I had gall, but screw it – I was warm, comfortable and among friends, and this, I realised, was the dream. The look stuck.
From there, I started small. First it was socks, Nike’s white crew socks, to be exact; warm, well-made and cushioned, they evolved from cycling to everyday. Then came the meatier pieces: Adidas Originals puffa jackets, Lonsdale sweaters, Firebird zip tops and Champion T-shirts. All together, or paired with jeans.
If that sounds hardcore for the office, granted, it is. It’s also a lot easier to appropriate this sort of thing when you’re a youngish woman with a Cos-body (by this I mean the shape that fits Cos clothes perfectly: curveless and waistless) because you can wear tracksuit bottoms as trousers without them looking really obviously like sportswear.
I should also add that I play sport, so I feel natural in sportswear: according to trade journal Women’s Wear Daily, half the people buying “activewear” don’t. But for yoga and netball, I stick to gnarly, ripped tees and save the good stuff for the office.
Part of the appeal of proper sportswear is that its core developments are immune to fashion. Sure, it toys with on-point palettes (neon! monochrome!), hems rise and fall, but whereas jeans wax into flares and wane to skinny, real sportswear moves to the rhythm of more interesting cycles. The trends aren’t based on mood changers such as 70s or floral; they’re sparked by technology and the development of clever new, breathable, lightweight fabrics. I find that pretty thrilling. In fashion we talk about utilitarian clothing: can you think of a more genuine example of that than the serious kit worn by Sally Gunnell and Cristiano Ronaldo, clothes that don’t pretend to be anything but useful? If you’re truly interested in the evolution of how we dress, I think you have to be interested in genuine sportswear.
It’s also way more affordable. My go-to shops? Sports Direct (this place is ideal for off-season bargains and unknown brands) and JD Sports (a decent range and, for those under size 6 in footwear, kids’ prices!). Also, as dress codes go, it’s not as closed-off as it sounds. You can go the whole hog like artist Sue Webster (never not in an Adidas Firebird tracksuit), or rapper Skepta (official ambassador for Sports Direct). Alternatively you can dip your toe in, like editor-at-large at Vogue Japan, Anna Dello Russo. She often sports OTT glitz up top and Adidas Superstars down below. Actor Kristen Stewart’s been doing fancy trackies with Converse and blazers for some time. All these people do it well. Like a lot of sport, this isn’t just about the winning, it’s about the taking part.