Athleisure – a term not so long ago penned as a fad or a trend has now evolved into THE buzzword of the moment and this is not because of the many cool collabs between brands and designers or artists who have used it to describe products and collections, but because of the intelligence of what the word can actually mean in product-terms. With that in mind, over the next four pages we introduce you to the thoughts of Ross Weir, a sports technologist whose company Progressive Sports Technologies, based at Loughborough University in the UK, has worked with many leading brands to validate technologies and develop products for the sport and athleisure markets. It’s time to delve deeper in to the science behind athleisure.
First up, how do you define athleisure? Athleisure is best defined by both the socio-economic environment and the intent of the clothing itself. At its hardest edge, we see highly functional clothing that will keep you safe in harsh environments, yet tailored and styled enough to fit with your day-to-day lifestyle. In its softest form it simply takes the athletic basics we know and love and positions them for us to wear day-to-day. To use a crude analogy, athleisure is the SUV of apparel. It is the space where comfort, performance and couture meet and therefore deserves the attention of sportswear designers and technologists.
The enabling factors that have given rise to athleisure and its sibling, technical-wear, have come about by both social and technical developments bringing a movement of new fabrics, treatments and production techniques. Meanwhile, socially, we have seen, and continue to experience, shifts in dress codes allowing for a much more casual approach to dress and a new desire for product that performs to our daily needs. Tie this to a realisation that form, function and fit can be brought together into highly aspirational apparel, with very little compromise, and athleisure booms. Are consumers today prepared to pay extra for the additional costs involved in using technical fibres? Yes, but there are a couple of important points to recognise. Firstly, the athleisure movement has trickled down from brands with a high-quality and scarcity model. The price points of product from these leading brands has always been elevated, in part because of the buzz and hype created around the products.
Brands such as Lululemon and Arc’teryx’s Veilance line have built their concepts based on the performance of technical fibres, membranes, functional fits etc., but have also ensured they highlight their ability to bring on-trend design flair to product creation. Secondly, there is the effort that goes into maintaining the hand and feel of the technical fabrics by these brands. There is recognition that the use of, and further treatment or modification of a technical fibre or fabric must be carefully balanced with the handle of the material. Whilst the consumer is intrigued by any swing-tag performance claim, ultimately they are unwilling to compromise on the often unspoken but non-negotiable characteristics of the fabric (the most crucial being the actual comfort of the fabric and the way it feels against the skin). The brands that have worked hard to achieve this balance are reaping the benefits by balancing outright performance with these vital qualities that the consumer demands. Are consumers now paying more attention to performance over brand logo/name? I believe there is a trend towards this, at least in respect to searching out the key performance piece required.
I know many people who are simply brand agnostic, in the sense that they search for the best of the moment, from category to category as they build their wardrobes. Whilst they may begin that search with a favoured brand, if the product selection does not fit the performance criteria, most will quickly look elsewhere for the solution. Nowadays, the brand itself is clearly coming under closer customer scrutiny in ways and at speeds that we have never experienced before. We hear a lot about brands needing to be authentic, but the ‘spin doctors’ get a choke hold on that pretty quickly, so now it’s about ‘real authenticity’, and that moves the conversation out of the control of the brands and away from the glitz and marketing message to the real performance of the product in the hands and on the bodies of the consumer. There is an historical prejudice when it comes to natural over synthetic fibres. Is this athleisure boom giving people a new perspective when it comes to synthetic fibres? It’s fair to say that until now there has been a clear watershed between natural and synthetic fibres, but this is becoming less defined each season, particularly as the two hybridise (e.g. Merino/polyester blends).
There are always pros and cons when selecting the core material for apparel designs regardless of natural or synthetic. This is where it is vital that designers and developers understand – through the knowledge of textile science – which materials are suited to the performance environment they are designing for. For example, we already clearly know that polypropylene and polyester materials bond to body oils, supporting the growth of bacteria and release of odour. With modern fabric treatments, this effect can be significantly reduced; however, the types of treatment do vary dramatically both in performance and cost.
I think the best all-rounder material today is nylon. It can be treated to be silky smooth, warm and soft to the touch; it can be anti-static; it has moisture handling capabilities; and it is less prone to develop odour during wear; it comes pretty close to the comfort of cotton when we are at low activity levels, yet can provide some improved performance benefits in terms of moisture uptake and wicking when sweat starts to factor into the equation. It’s therefore likely to be the synthetic material of choice for astute athleisure brands, or those creating premium nextto- skin product. I’m not sure anyone yet feels as passionate about their synthetic as they do about their cotton T-shirt. However, this mindset might easily change 10 kilometres into a summer run when you get weighed down by your sweat-heavy, cotton old-skooler!
What are the next steps in wearable technology and what products are/have been most successful when technology has been integrated? Athleisure has created a space for people to be ‘ready to move’ and in doing so it has been one of the factors responsible for reducing the barriers to us all engaging in physical activity. Parallel to this, wearable tech has become ever more miniaturised and powerful delivering a data stream that can capture every movement. The two have been combined for some time in apparel, but as you might expect with early innovations, the delivery has been, and continues to be, awkward. Its best embodiments are still to be found on the wrist. An Apple Watch for example, can genuinely be worn all day, track your data with precision and create a meaningful connection to the user. In short, it’s highly ‘wearable’. But when we expand and look for that functionality within apparel itself, we are still left wanting.
Although technologists and scientists are still early in the development of robust and workable systems that build the complex architecture of the electronic world into the apparel itself, the future does looks very interesting when you combine the acquisition of data with ‘in the moment’ feedback of the gathered information. Such a vision has been presented in prototype garments created by students of the Bartlett School of Architecture. It is one of haptic feedback – one that clothing is ideal to deliver in a seamless future. (Check out www.fastcodesign.com/3064205/theultimate- wearable-a-second-skin-that-feels-what-you-cant).
The athleisure sector has increased globally by 42% in last 7 years from $190bn to $270bn in 2016. It is predicted to grow a further 30% by 2020. Source: NPD Group US$ bn What is the benefit of technical product? Today we are asking ever more of our wardrobe because our expectations have been shifted by the first generation of technical textile products that were developed. For example, prior to PTFE membranes, waterproof meant sweaty. This was true even at the lowest levels of physical activity. But the introduction of PTFE membranes meant that, at these lower levels of work, some of the moisture load could be transported through the fabric itself, reducing the accumulation of moisture in the jacket and on the skin. And so our day-to-day experience of these new technical membranes and textiles is very positive. And our expectation is further raised by the industry’s eager claims of progression, so we now expect PTFE to keep us sweatfree even at the highest level of physical exertion. But, clear results show that we produce too much sweat at even moderate levels of activity when a PTFE membrane runs out of capacity.
And so to improve the performance of the jacket, careful consideration of the fit, venting, airflow, layering and zoning are also needed to bridge the performance gap that a PTFE membrane alone fails to provide. Technical product, when correctly developed, can offer improvements in comfort and this is really the core of clothing’s reason to be. Well-considered technical benefits are brought about through a combination of garment features and fabrics. Features including elements such as; fit for compression or airflow, colour for conspicuity, or inclusion of additional tech such as fabric electrodes placed in sports bras to measure heart rate. Fabrics offer further enhancement to the product such as; breathability, waterproofness, odour control, infrared reflectance, fast drying, wicking, retro-reflectivity, stretch, etc.
The benefits of a technical product are only realised when both fabrics and features are considered, and delivered, in synergy. For companies wanting to branch into athleisure products, what are the prime considerations? I go back to the SUV analogy. The attractiveness of athleisure for the consumer is either in the style, or the potential for performance. This, of course, is in the eye of the beholder and probably shifts with scenarios. When talking about the top of class Range Rover, we know that the vehicle is the world’s most capable SUV, yet 95% of all those vehicles purchased will never see mud, let alone the side of a mountain or challenge an unexplored jungle where the vehicle’s true performance limits will be tested to the extreme.
What it will see is miles and miles of tarmac road. Therefore if the Range Rover is to be a success, it had best be amazing on the road too, as this is where it is truly judged by 95% of its owners. Just like this, athleisure products must work perfectly when we are just hanging out because this is where 95% of the garments life is lived, but must also be delivered with the potential performance required for those extreme physical challenges. This makes design quite a challenge, because what is comfortable for taking it easy is rarely comfortable when physically going all out. What new technologies are out there to help? We use new technologies to both gather proprietary knowledge, as well as to apply new technologies through product development.
To give an example of new technologies to gain knowledge: at Progressive, we are experimenting with the use of digital image correlation to view 3D surface deformation and strain in real time. We use a system by GOM to map the changing stretch of the skin, then the apparel. This provides us with an understanding of how the two are interacting, possibly spotting chaffing hot spots, perhaps identifying areas to apply reinforcement, or areas where stretch is desirable for freedom of movement etc. In applied technologies we are being asked to test a lot of different fabric treatments for changes to wicking, air permeability, water-repellence, moisture transfer and insulation. Generally, this involves the testing of human subjects (or a thermal manikin) in strictly controlled environmental conditions.
We work with various university laboratories to achieve such environments (for example from +50°C to -30°C, 10-95% RH, 32 zone Newton sweating thermal manikin, enclosed wind generating suction tunnel with maximum speeds of 10m/s). In the future, I am keen to see how the super hydrophobic coatings will shape up (a super hydrophobic coating is a nanoscopic surface layer that completely repels water). Clearly the benefits of shedding water instantly may lead to improvements in combined waterproof and breathable fabrics, but, as I pointed out, the handle of the treated fabrics today is too much of a compromise for most use cases, but it is being improved all the time and so is definitely one to watch. What is the importance of sports science and technology? Personally, I feel that application of a scientific method in the development of apparel is vital in building meaningful products, i.e. products with a real authenticity.
As a sports technologist, I work across multiple disciplines, from engineering to sports and textile science, and apply this to the many facets of product creation. Our ultimate aim at Progressive is to develop new ways of improving performance, physiological, psychological and product, and to have that performance be ‘sensible’ in every way, i.e. to be felt by the wearer and to be useful. Without this approach, poor products with ‘inflated’ claims are launched into the world, and, in the fast paced consumer-centric world we inhabit nowadays, that will only ever ultimately damage the brand responsible.