How America Became a Nation of Yoga Pants

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This fascinating article serves not only as an entertaining look back at what has been a growing trend but also provides insight into how one company managed to survive and thrive in a very difficult market. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time, enjoy.

The first pairs of yoga pants Lululemon sold in 1998 were a simple item for women to wear at the studio. They were a mix of nylon and Lycra—synthetic elastic fibers that provided the stretch and softness needed to manage all those sweat-inducing contortions during a lengthy session on the mat.

Yoga, first as an exercise and later as a cultural phenomenon (or cliché, depending on your cynicism), had yet to take hold. At the turn of the century, the pants filled a niche for yogis who were simply looking for a higher-end alternative to plain cotton leggings.

Two decades later, they’ve conquered the closet, even for people who never see the inside of a yoga studio. In 2014, teenagers began to prefer leggings over jeans. Then people started wearing athletic clothing (or athleisure, but it’s mostly just yoga pants) to run errands. Now they’re wearing yoga pants to the office. U.S. imports of women’s elastic knit pants last year surpassed those of jeans for the first time ever, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fashion trends seesaw constantly, but rarely does an entire category shift. Over four decades, rubber-soled sneakers gave way to basketball shoes, which in turn fell to trainers. Boxer briefs didn’t exist 25 years ago—drawers were still filled with plain old briefs. But now the hybrid is America’s most popular men’s underwear. Yoga pants have similarly managed to plunge denim into an existential crisis, threatening Levi Strauss & Co. so deeply that it had to scramble to adapt. The company added stretch and contouring to its jeans while hoping to retain some of their rugged essence.

The popularity of yoga pants has, predictably, led to a flood of competitors as brands fill every market segment, from Old Navy’s $20 pants to Lucas Hugh’s $230 versions. Lululemon Athletica Inc., largely credited with bringing stretchy pants to the masses, has poured money into developing new fabrics to fend off rivals—a pack that now includes the world’s biggest athletics companies.

“Consumers expect a lot more,” said Sun Choe, chief product officer at Lululemon. “They’re washing their garments more and more, and from a quality standpoint, it needs to stand up. They’re expecting some versatility in their product. They expect to be able to wear that pant or tight to Whole Foods or brunch.”

Lululemon’s original fabric, Luon, with a high proportion of nylon microfiber as opposed to a more typical polyester blend, was trademarked in the U.S. in 2005. Many of its newer fabrics are branded and geared toward specific uses. Luxtreme is a moisture-wicking, four-way stretch fabric that’s meant to fit like a second skin. Nulux is a compression fabric meant for sweatier workouts. Silverescent is sold as Lululemon’s “stink-conquering technology,” using silver bonded to the surface of fibers to stop bacteria from reproducing. A T-shirt made from the material costs $68.Leggings from market competitors use a similar strategy, promoting the versatile pants through branded fabric combinations. For Adidas, pants boast fabrics like its sweat-wicking Climalite material or the thermal-regulating Climacool and Climawarm to accommodate training conditions. Likewise, Nike’s Dri-Fit material keeps sweat at bay and trainers dry. Even Target’s C9-branded fitness collection flexes high-functioning fabrics: Freedom Fabric is a soft blend of polyester and spandex for lifestyle or fitness, while its Embrace Fabric hugs tight to the body for a cozy feel.

What was once a simple stretchy legging, it seems, has become an engineering marvel. Not too surprising, though, when you realize that about $48 billion is being spent on activewear in the U.S. every year. Read More 

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