Engaging high performance gear

At S$70 for a sports bra with bonded seams to prevent chafing and S$79 for a pair of compression tights that zaps stink-causing microbes, looking good while shaping up doesn't come cheap. Not that it has stopped the "well-thy" generation from snapping up high performance gear for breaking into a sweat.

With over 50 per cent of those in the highest income bracket regularly participating in sports, according to the National Sports Association Survey 2011, it's little surprise that active wear brands are pulling out the stops to lure the gym generation. And now fitness buffs have a new slew of chic gear to choose from as they attempt to shed the results of festive bingeing.

Fitness juggernaut Lululemon opened its first store in Asia at ION Orchard last month, having stocked its high-end workout attire at showrooms located in yoga studios for the past two years. This follows the opening of Under Armour, the second largest sports brand in the US after Nike, at Orchard Gateway, Tampines 1 and Collyer Quay.

"I live in a constant stream of 'pinch me' moments at Under Armour," says Kevin Plank, chief executive of Under Armour, a former special teams captain of the University of Maryland football team who founded the company in 1996. "I think the timing that our brand came into the market is incredibly unique and perfectly positioned us to be the number one brand in the world."

And the returns from running an active wear brand would drive anyone's heart rate skywards: Under Armour went from zero to a US$5 million (S$6.7 million) company in its first five years, hitting just under US$300 million and crossing US$1 billion in the next five.

"As impressive as that statistic was, getting across the billion-dollar milestone, now four years later, we've tripled in size to US$3 billion in revenue this year," adds Mr Plank.

As much as swooshes and stripes still emblazon plenty of athletes, a growing cult of fitness geeks seek out newer players in sportswear that boast specialised performance. Lululemon, a Canadian activewear empire with roots in yoga apparel, reported US$1.6 billion in 2013 revenue. Despite a public relations disaster in 2013 involving the recall of too-sheer yoga pants and the resignation of its billionaire founder Chip Wilson, the public company is on track to open 20 new stores in Asia by 2017. While it doesn't invest in celebrity endorsements and flashy campaigns, the brand works closely with local sports influencers to get the word out on its products.

Here, it roped in yoga studio owners Lynn Yeo and Sumei Shum, singer and owner of Yoga Movement studio Alicia Pan, and Mixed Martial Arts fighter May Ooi as ambassadors of the brand.

"We think you're super-smart and know when you are marketed to and we operate from that place that if we paid athletes to wear our products, you would think it's not because they love the performance and choose to do so," says Amanda Casgar, director, brand and community, Lululemon Athletica Asia. "It's much more effective to support people like Shumei and Lynn than pay someone like Lebron James."

In fact, studios here have been selling the brand's equipment even before it unveiled its 3,700 sq ft store. Today, it counts Kim Kardashian, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Cameron Diaz as fans and the company's stylised "A" logo is the sportswear equivalent of Chanel's inter-locking "Cs" - a status symbol for those in the know in the gym and beyond.

"We have a wide range of products for fitness that's the Sweat line, and then there's a Post-Sweat range that takes you from gym to your friend's house," explains Ken Lee, general manager of Lululemon in Asia, about its focus for the year ahead. "We believe that the Singaporean is very fashion-forward so we explore more into the function-meets-fashion segment."

Indeed, the stylish active wear segment has been kicked up into high gear in the past year, with online designer fashion retailer Net-a-porter.com launching its chic sportswear category.

"Sales have been exceptionally strong," says Candice Fragis, senior buyer for the company. "We've picked up 27 new brands across 11 sporting disciplines which include tennis, golf, equestrian, run, gym and cross fit, yoga and dance, swim and surf, sail, outdoor, apr├Ęs and ski. Our offering will continue to increase as we keep up-to-date with emerging fitness trends and sporting activities."

Stocking mesh-panelled tennis playsuits or high-sheen, silhouette-defining leggings for ladies who lunge, the active wear sister site Net-a-sporter has built a coveted edit of indie performance brands and crowd faves like Nike since its launch. And while Net-a-sporter caters to those who wouldn't think twice about splurging $500 on a swimsuit, high street retailers are also cashing in on chic sports garb. Beyonce has teamed up with Topshop to create a fashion-inspired fitness label of clothing, footwear and accessories across dance, fitness and sports categories. Named Parkwood Topshop Athletic, it will be launched in the fall of this year. Last June, Swedish fashion chain H&M also opened a 16,000 sq ft store at the Kallang Wave Mall within Singapore Sports Hub with a focus on its purse-friendly sports collection.

"Today, sneakers are worn not only at the gym, but on the streets and becoming a style statement on major catwalks," says Abby Wee, assistant PR manager for H&M Singapore.

"While the sports influence in fashion has definitely made sports wear trendy and stylish, there is also an emerging trend of people leading a healthy lifestyle with stronger focus on personal well-being and staying fit.

Sports and fitness have become a key focus for many people."

Taking a leaf out of the fast fashion model, Lululemon will launch fresh merchandise regularly to attract customers, with "a very high turnover of product and newness every week", promises Mr Lee.

After all, while one could easily reuse a stink-stopping Lululemon shirt containing pure silver, it never hurts having a plethora of looks to stand out while chanting "om".

'While the sports influence in fashion has definitely made sports wear trendy and stylish, there is also an emerging trend on leading a healthy lifestyle with stronger focus on personal well-being and staying fit.'

Abby Wee, assistant PR manager for H&M Singapore

This article was first published on Jan 3, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.