The calendar said 2017, but everywhere we looked this year, clothing from decades ago was in view: From tearaway track pants with either small insignias or snaps running down the seams to high-collared zip jackets with oversized logos from both mainstream and obscure brands, done up in materials ranging from stretchy neoprene blends to swishy nylons, goods that were ripe with early-'90s nostalgia ruled the past 12 months.
Whether you find the term reprehensible, "athleisure" sales nearly topped $46 billion in 2016. Even in a crowded, skeptical market, the trend has yet to fade from relevance — with sales expected to nearly double by 2020, according to consulting firm A.T. Kearney. Its continued popularity has spawned new clothing brands, pushed luxury labels to capitalize on the look and acted as the catalyst to breathe new life into aging or unfamiliar heritage sports brands. In short, never has the retro sportswear style reigned supreme like it did in 2017.
While athleisure has, by now, become more of an umbrella term for vaguely athletic clothing, the ripple effect of the aesthetic has opened the door for many brands that are not named Adidas or Nike. And though those two remain the giants of the category, smaller sportswear-centric labels — through collaborations with higher profile brands, a rich sporting history and products that prioritize lifestyle over athletics — have reaped the rewards and found a new audience of fashion-first consumers.
For older brands trying to reach a new customer, awareness is key. That means meeting them where they're shopping, according to stylist Matthew Henson. "You can't always find these brands where you would traditionally find them, like sporting goods stores," he says. "Now they're in high-end stores and boutiques, and the price points are higher, as well."
Henson believes there are a few factors at play in the rise of retro sportswear. He points out the continued relaxation of workplace dress codes, as well as the modern interpretation of luxury that looks more like a locker room than a board room. But in his mind, nostalgia is driving force. "I think that's where it started," he says. "It was less of a fashion statement than a wearability thing — taking pieces from the runway and mixing it with things from their favorite vintage shops. I definitely get a lot more emails now about brands I used to wear when I was younger that are trying to make a comeback with new creative direction."
Nostalgia is an undeniably strong feeling, but there might be nothing more powerful than a collaboration with a notable designer — especially one named Gosha Rubchinskiy. He may well have been patient zero for the rise of the trend, but other designers have co-opted the look with abandon. From Gucci and Balenciaga to Givenchy and Margiela, nearly every brand has had some rendition of a tracksuit in their collections from the past year. Searching for such an item on a site like Mr Porter just a few years ago would have turned up empty.
To start, there's Reebok, which has played up its certifiably '80s aesthetic lately and signed Gigi Hadid for multiple ad campaigns; Champion continues to be a harbinger of the category, with its popular reverse weave pieces and other basics, as well as a buzzy partnership with Vetements; Esprit was tapped by Opening Ceremony this fall; Diadora's concerted push into the U.S. has been well received by sneaker fans; and yet another Italian brand, Ellesse, has caught the wave as well. These brands are not new to the fashion space, but they are to some shoppers — a very important distinction.
Italian brand Kappa has thrived throughout Europe ever since its founding in the late '60s, outfitting soccer clubs and other sports teams around the world. If you weren't an avid sports fan, though, you may have never heard of it. "A lot of people in the U.S. are unfamiliar with Kappa," says Dre Hayes, who does U.S. licensing for the brand. "In our market, most people see it as a lifestyle brand and don't know the sports history. That's part of what has driven the success."
With a roster of collaborations that includes Rubchinskiy, Opening Ceremony, Faith Connexion and an exclusive capsule collection for Barneys, however, Kappa has quickly become a household name for a certain shopper. Hayes credits the Rubchinskiy collaboration that debuted in 2016 at menswear trade show Pitti Uomo as the start of the retro sportswear wave for Kappa and other brands like it. "Everyone looked at him with the tracksuits and jogging suits for inspiration — like an old-school Russian soccer hooligan," he says. "That made it a cool thing in the fashion community. It spread and Kappa was one of the first brands that Gosha got involved with. I think it shined a bright light on the brand."
Since then, Kappa has taken off stateside. It's been spotted on celebrities like Quavo, Tyga, Brooklyn Beckham and the sisters Jenner, on the floors of your local Urban Outfitters and PacSun and, according to Hayes, has more collaboration requests than it knows what to do with. While Kappa's past is in sports, its future is focused on fashion — especially in womenswear. "We're pushing a sophisticated take on sportswear and I don't see women wearing our competitors the way they're wearing Kappa," he says.
The future presents an interesting proposition for brands like Kappa, especially considering the fickle nature of fashion trends. Collaborations could be key to continued success, but there may be something larger at play. "It's a great time for brands from the '80s and '90s to come back," says Henson. "Consumers are looking for that product. Brands in the past stood for things more often in politics and social movements. It was less about what celebrities are wearing and more about the consumer. People are searching for connections through clothing. That's why these brands have a big opportunity."
Umbro, too, had a landmark year: The Manchester-based sportswear and soccer (or "football," for the rest of the globe) equipment supplier already hit cult collector status when its first collaboration with Off-White's Virgil Abloh — an instantly recognizable $945 flannel shirt — flew out of stock. But then, come February, Abloh also rejiggered its iconic Coach sneaker as part of a larger capsule in Off-White's Spring 2017 collection. It was the latter project, in particular, that harped on consumers' nostalgia, and did it so successfully.
FILA is another brand using its past to inform future projects and direction. "FILA used to be a true sportswear brand," says Louis Colon, Brand Director for FILA Heritage. "But now we're a fashion brand with sports DNA."
Another Rubchinskiy collaborator with roots in Italy, FILA was a huge name in the '90s when it produced signature basketball sneakers for NBA player Grant Hill. While the company has since faded from that level of public recognition, it's finding inspiration from the past that has clearly resonated with the present. "The word is balance," says Colon. "I don't think we need to be literal with every product or inspiration. The history and scale of business FILA did in the '80s and '90s, there's a lot to dive into. It's a challenge to not overuse your DNA, but you don't want to depart too far from what it is, either." For FILA, that means breaking out of being solely retro with future products.
The brand has seen success in its tennis-inspired offerings, like polo shirts and tracksuits for men, while women are buying leggings, crop-top polos and footwear like slide sandals or the extraordinarily chunky Disruptor II sneakers.
Colon says the next year or so will see more daring design and fabrication while also offering the more accessible classic pieces to provide the diversity for which retailers are looking right now. "We want to stay ahead of things for the more mature retailers who will buy the freshest season every year," he says. "But some don't have a consumer ready for our next offering, so we have to establish the credibility with them." Still, FILA plans to draw on its extensive archive for future projects, including a premium collection made in Italy and outerwear inspired by its Magic line from the early-'90s. With bright colors and oversized cuts popping up in street style galleries around the world, these efforts won't go unnoticed or unappreciated.
While retro sportswear may have ruled all 2017, with the right mix of product and history, there's no reason to think that it won't continue its dominance into 2018 and beyond. What brands like FILA, Umbro, Kappa, Champion and others have in their back pockets is the heritage in the category that designer labels don't. As long as they stay true to that, there's no reason to think that the newfound attention will fall off. "Trends go in and trends go out," says Henson. "But if you stick to your foundation and do it well, you'll always have a place in the market."
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