People used to wear old sweats to yoga classes. Then came Lululemon.
When it first emerged on the market two decades ago, the activewear giant gained traction by focussing on yoga, then a niche, untapped sport. Now, it’s a $6 billion empire that’s expanded beyond yoga to create apparel and accessories for sports like running, swimming and tennis, too.
Lululemon’s trajectory has become a model for activewear upstarts that hope to compete with the likes of Nike and Adidas by catering to a sport that’s gaining momentum and hasn’t yet been claimed by bigger companies. Gymshark, for instance, has done this with strength training, while Nobull made its mark in the CrossFit community. After two years of a global pandemic creating new recreational habits, activewear labels big and small have been eager to identify the next big sport — and swoop in with accompanying gear.
Some brands, like Rhone and Palmes Society, are expanding on already-popular sports like golf and tennis. But others are finding opportunities in still-niche sports that don’t have associated established apparel giants yet.
BoF spoke with brands, retailers and sports industry experts to identify where they see the next big activewear opportunities.
The fastest-growing sport in the US, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), is pickleball, a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong. Created in the 1960s, it’s played on a smaller court than tennis and has historically attracted an older demographic since it requires less endurance. It soared during the pandemic, drawing 4.8 million players in the US last year, per SFIA, up from 3.5 million in 2019.
“The sport is getting younger and it has a lot of youthful energy in it,” said Lauren Mallon, Fila’s senior director of marketing and strategic partnerships of tennis and pickleball. The brand has been creating pickleball apparel in varied colours and patterns.
There are 267 percent more pickleball products in stock now versus last year, according to Edited. The William Sonoma-owned Mark and Graham and K Swiss brands now sell an assortment of pickleball bags while Frances Valentine, Ssense and Anthropologie offer patterned rackets.
Pickleball apparel is similar to tennis gear, but entrepreneurs like Aubri Steele, who launched pickleball label Civile last year, see an opportunity in designing specifically for “picklers.” Civile sells muscle tanks, mini skirts, leggings and visors branded with a green, Supreme-like logo, and slogan puns like “don’t be a dink” (a finesse shot in the game).
“You can wear the same pair of leggings for 85 percent of what you do, but it’s about tribe mentality,” said Steele. “Pickleball people tend to be wholly consumed by the sport and are very proud to be a part of the community.”
Mallon said there’s also an opportunity with pickleball-specific footwear since “you are on your toes a lot … with quick, fast, lateral movements.” Fila, Nike and Asics have all started selling pickleball sneakers.
Racket sports are gathering steam across the globe. Padel, a squash-like racket sport popular in South America and the Middle East, is growing fast in England and Italy. These sports, popular at private clubs, attract a gear-inclined audience, said Tom Cove, SFIA president and chief executive.
“It’s health or tennis clubs that people generally do want nicer … performance outfits,” he said. “If there’s a tournament at a club or in a local neighbourhood, that drives players to want to be … perceived as real competitors.”
While brands like the North Face and Moncler have long served ski enthusiasts, the world of luxury ski wear is expanding as interest in the sport climbs. Last winter, the US ski industry saw a record 61 million visits, according to the National Ski Areas Association, while in Europe, sales at Swiss ski resorts were up 37 percent.
Skiing has long been considered a sport for the wealthy and avid skiers are known to spend heavily on gear. But with the sport welcoming many first-timers who hope to look stylish for Instagram, consumers want more fashion-forward choices. Sales of men’s skiwear were up 30 percent last year at MatchesFashion, said Damien Paul, the site’s head of menswear. Farfetch’s assortment of skiwear grew 192 percent in 2022, according to data from Edited, while Mytheresa’s new skiwear arrivals grew 32 percent.
“As the retro look is back, ski suits performed very well for us, especially those in feminine silhouettes and in flattering block colours,” said Lea Cranfield, chief buying and merchandising officer at Net-a-Porter.
This past winter saw skiwear collaborations between the likes of Balmain and Rossignol; Prada and the Aspen Skiing Company, which owns several Colorado ski resorts; and Jil Sander and Arc’teryx. Louis Vuitton also debuted its first ski collection, LV Ski, selling puffer jackets, leggings and boots. Upstart brands like Halfdays and Italic have launched ski accessories and apparel that are more inclusive with price points and marketing messages.
Industry experts say the opportunity in skiwear extends beyond products for the slopes. Heritage skiwear brand Fusalp, which sees about $40 million in annual sales and received an investment from Chanel heir David Wertheimer last month, is expanding its apparel offering to include silhouettes that “can be worn in the city,” said Sophie Lacoste Dournel, Fusalp owner and board member.
At Net-a-Porter, customers snapped up wool jumpsuits from We Norwegians and turtlenecks from Perfect Moment, for “lounging around the chalet,” added Cranfield.
“Customers are looking for … an outfit for après and an outfit for travel, as well as accessories to complete each look,” she said.
Rugby has long been considered a predominantly male game, favoured by private schools and elite universities. But in recent years, the sport’s governing bodies have made efforts to reach new audiences and make rugby more accessible.
The US now has the largest population of rugby enthusiasts, with 45 million active fans, according to a report from governing group World Rugby and Nielsen. The US is set to host the prestigious Rugby World Cup tournament for men in 2031 and women in 2033, games sure to up the sports’ stateside popularity. Patrick Ouyi, director of Le Coq Sportif, a French activewear company that makes rugby performance apparel, said the US is a “big focus” for the brand.
Rugby is also a high-growth category for Castore, a UK-based activewear start-up. Increasing demand for rugby products was a factor in the brand surpassing £100 million ($125 million) in revenue last year, according to co-founder Tom Beahon.
Plenty of shoppers are also buying rugby apparel without any intention of playing the sport. Shirt drops by Supreme, Palace and Jacquemus often sell out and these stores have brought a cool factor to the sport. Asos has seen a 10 percent annual increase in rugby products like polos and sweatshirts, according to Edited. And at the New York-based Rowing Blazers, rugby styles have picked up significantly since the pandemic, said Jack Carlson, the former Olympic rower and archaeologist who founded Rowing Blazers in 2018.
“We think rugby absolutely will have a residual apparel brand impact going forward because it has this continental flair, European branding that … people appreciate as both cool and stylish,” said SFIA’s Cove.
After gyms closed during the pandemic, boxing saw a resurgence, thanks to the popularity of short, intense fitness classes. Studios like 1Rebel in the UK and Australia, and Rumble in the US have cult followings and have been opening more studios over the past year, where they sell their apparel.
The rise of YouTube boxing, with social media stars like Jake Paul and KSI committing to professional boxing careers, has also attracted younger generations to the sport, while “fight night” charity events and “white collar” boxing tournaments have renewed interest in older, corporate settings, added SFIA’s Cove.
Brands across the pricing spectrum are unveiling their own takes on boxing gear. Lululemon sells men’s and women’s boxing training wraps and Alo Yoga sells an assortment of boxing gear too. In May, Urban Outfitters-owned womenswear label Free People released a collection featuring bright pink boxing gloves and a $200 satin boxing robe in collaboration with boxing equipment manufacturer Everlast. Celine, Dolce & Gabbana and JW Anderson sell boxing-style shorts and in February, Miu Miu released a $1,550 boxing gloves and backpack set as part of a sports capsule.
Still, brands know there’s a possibility that boxing — or any emerging sport — may not grow enough to become the next major activewear category. At 1Rebel, apparel drives only just over 5 percent of its revenue, said marketing director Adam Wagner, but it’s also expanding to more general athleisure items, designed to be worn in and out of the boxing studio.
“Athleisure apparel … supports the overall lifestyle of people who come to our gym classes,” said Angus Doyne-Ditmas, head of retail at 1Rebel.