New York Finally Dresses Down
By BEE SHAPIRO
When it comes to everyday clothing, Priscila McCalley, a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, loves a bargain. She’ll pay “up to $100 for a going-out kind of dress, and about the same for a work dress,” she said, but only if the items are on sale.
There is an exception: she’ll pay a full-fare $98 for her Lululemon workout pants, which she’ll wear to Flywheel and Physique 57, the pricey workout studios she frequents. “It became a social thing, like you go to Physique and then you go to brunch,” she said. “If you’re going to spend the money to go to the class, you’ll spend the money to look like you belong in the class.”
Ms. McCalley is hardly alone. In New York, Lycra tops and yoga pants, the preferred dress code for fit California moms, have become weekend default dress, worn from class to brunch to running errands. After dark, they even step out to fancy boîtes. (Ms. McCalley has dressed up her Lulus with a lightweight sweater she bought at her Equinox gym shop and red lipstick.)
And for athletic-wear makers like Lululemon, Nike, Under Armour and a passel of hungry upstarts, the race to put out the next hot style has taken on new urgency, some companies even poaching creative talent from contemporary fashion labels.
The change didn’t happen overnight. When Lululemon was founded in Vancouver in 1998, performance wear was its sweet spot, not sports-inspired street wear. But when the company introduced its popular Groove pants, a flattering boot-cut with a wide waistband, in the winter of 2000, women were soon spotted wearing the style around downtown Vancouver.
“It was the tipping point,” said Deanne Schweitzer, the company’s senior vice president for creation.
It was also lucky timing: private trainers, specialized workout studios and niche gyms were just becoming status symbols among well-to-do urbanites. In Los Angeles, the Lululemon lifestyle message was a cinch to translate, but New York proved a harder sell.
Shortly after the Groove epiphany, Lululemon held focus groups in Manhattan with local women. “They told us it was crazy and that they would never wear stretchy pants on the street,” Ms. Schweitzer said. The company took a shot anyway and, in 2007, opened a store on Broadway, in Lincoln Square. “Sure enough it was slow,” she said, “but you started seeing it. We changed how New Yorkers dress.”
New York women “dress our pieces really well,” she added, “and in a way I might not think of, like with a black blazer.”
Now Ms. Schweitzer travels regularly with her design team, trolling for street style and runway inspiration, as at Louis Vuitton’s spring collection with its graphic checks. Pattern, too — floral and herringbone prints — will play into Lululemon’s fall pieces, she said.
For sneakerheads, Nike has long been a beacon of style. Limited-edition Dunk Lows may sell out in minutes and go on the secondary market for $800 a pair. But with the Nike Flyknit family of sneakers, first released last year as a running shoe, the appeal became significantly broader. Tony Bignell, vice president for footwear innovation, said that the move toward more minimal running footwear played a role: a sleeker fit to pair with jeans. Predictably, perhaps, he also professed that, as a shoe designer, he doesn’t pay much mind to the fashion angle. “We’re really paying attention to the athlete,” he said.
Lee Holman, vice president for apparel design, takes more notice. In February, he saw front-row guests at the European fashion shows wearing the sneakers. Indeed, the Flyknits, which have a lightweight, knitted upper and come in enough multicolored variations to make a Missoni envious, have gained particular traction with the style set. In its September issue, Vanity Fair declared the sneakers a “cult favorite.”
Mr. Holman, who came to Nike three years ago after creative director positions at Burberry Brit and Habitual, is hoping the fashion crush will rub off on apparel. This summer, he took his design team to London to visit Burberry’s design studios and to meet his former boss, Christopher Bailey, the company’s chief creative officer. In August, Mr. Holman and his team introduced a new apparel collection called Pro Elite Warp Knit, inspired by the Flyknits.
Mr. Holman’s move from fashion to athletic wear has not been without speed bumps. “Here, it’s all about problem-solving,” he said, noting the less sexy issues he has to consider, like moisture management. (The Nike on-campus research lab has a walking, sweating dummy to test fabrics.) But he also pointed to common ground. On fit, it’s about “athletes and obsessing about the body,” he said. “We obsess about the body in high fashion.”
That’s where Leanne Fremar, the former creative director of Theory who joined Under Armour last November as the senior vice president and executive creative director for women’s wear, comes in. Since relocating from New York to the company’s Baltimore headquarters, Ms. Fremar has been pushing for better shapes and trendier colors and textures. Under Armour, known for men’s training apparel, has been trying to court young athletic women for years. Now with Ms. Fremar, it has a few key “ins.”
For instance, she can bounce ideas off a glamorous soundboard: her sister Leslie Fremar, stylist to the likes of Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Reese Witherspoon, provides the “greatest critiques,” she said, “as do her clients.” Ms. Fremar also loops in testers from her own New York community, like “fashion friends, editors, stylists, entertainers or publicists.”
“In my sphere, I don’t know almost anyone who doesn’t work out,” she said. Under Armour is betting as much, and leased a 15,000-square-foot office in Chelsea, which Ms. Fremar will run starting in January.
In fact, Manhattan, once a bulwark against stretchy pants, is now an entryway for foreign versions of Lululemon, or so their respective press teams like to say. (Circling competitors may sense blood: in March, Lululemon issued a recall of its famed yoga pants after a production error produced ones that were embarrassingly sheer. A few months later, the chief executive stepped down, with a successor yet to be named.)
In August, Sweaty Betty, founded in London by the husband-and-wife team of Simon and Tamara Hill-Norton and with more than 30 stores in Britain, opened its first store in the United States, in SoHo. Mr. Hill-Norton liked the location because of the hip neighbors, stores like Helmut Lang, Maje and Sandro. The company is hoping its European fabrics, which, he said, “are finer and have better drape,” will make a persuasive impression.
Across the country, the field has become as crowded as a weekend Bikram class. Lorna Jane, from Australia, opened its first United States outpost in Malibu last year. In late July, Lolë, founded in Montreal, set up shop in Santa Barbara, its first in the country, and has ambitious plans for 40 more locations in North America and Europe within the next five years.
The West Coast has embraced the workout culture more wholeheartedly, Mr. Hill-Norton said, but the fashion market, which Sweaty Betty hopes to target, is better tuned to the East Coast, even if it is more of a gamble.
And perhaps rightly: New York is still testy territory. Some locals, like Sarah Parr, a model who moved to the city 12 years ago when, she said, “wearing leggings and sports bras out was not socially acceptable,” aren’t sold. “I’d rather spend my money on a cute Alexander Wang outfit,” she said. “But in class, I see those Lululemon logos everywhere. They’re on the bum of the person in front of you, so literally in your face.”
Ms. Parr thinks Gap Fit does a good job of making affordable pieces. And though she admires the Stella McCartney for Adidas line (she has seen women throwing on the stylish little jackets and sweatshirts after a workout), she would rather leave the strutting for the runway. “I’ve been in fashion shows,” she said. “I’m not looking to do that in the gym.”