On the street, in the gym, or at home on the treadmill, fitness enthusiasts everywhere are prone to grabbing the old workout faithfuls: cotton tees, bottoms and shorts.  And more companies are looking to merge the comfort of cotton with lifestyle activewear, so busy consumers can move easily from the gym or yoga studio to the grocery store, coffee house and more.

“Today’s athletic apparel is designed with the athlete in mind, but the style and comfort of these garments make them appealing for other aspects of their lives,” says Mike May, spokesperson for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

“A number of companies such as Under Armour®, New Balance, Russell, Nike, adidas, ASICS, Champion and others are meeting the demands of today’s female consumers who are on the go – from the home to the office to a business luncheon to the fitness club to a child’s ball game to the grocery store.”

More than 9 out of 10 (93%) consumers wear athletic apparel for things other than exercise or participating in sports, such as wearing around the house (85%), to run errands (65%) and shopping (42%) out to eat/movie (20%), according to the Cotton Incorporated 2012 Sports Apparel Survey.

Men are significantly more likely than women to wear their athletic apparel in even more social settings, like going out to eat or to a movie (23% versus 14%), or to school or class (22% versus 14%), or to work (16% versus 8%).

Whether working out or hanging out, consumers prefer cotton and cotton blends. A full 75% of consumers say these are their favorite fibers to wear anytime.  When exercising, 68% of consumers prefer cotton and cotton blends for their athletic apparel, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey.  And when given a choice between three activewear items of the same price, style and performance features, 70% would choose the item made of cotton, versus nylon (14%) or polyester (13%).

Under Armour® recognized this and re-thought its “Cotton is the Enemy” stance.  Last year it laid down its arms and joined forces with cotton, introducing Charged Cotton® tops and bottoms, and Charged Cotton® Storm Fleece.

“Instead of competing to have three out of the four compression garments [consumers] may have in their closet, we’re now competing for share of the 30 plus garments, many of which are cotton,” says Under Armour®’s Kevin Plank, chairman, CEO and president.  “Or to put it in a more quantifiable measure, we’ve gone from competing for share in a $3 billion category just a year ago, to competing for share in a $12 billion category today.”

"Using cotton opens access to the Under Armour® brand to a much broader range of athletes."

-Kevin Plank,
Under Armour®

Total U.S. sales of men’s and women’s activewear rose to $48.6 billion in March 2011, a 3.2% jump compared to the previous 12 months, according to consumer tracking firm NPD Group Inc.  Globally, the sales of sports equipment, active apparel, and athletic footwear are valued at $315 billion for 2010, which represents a 4% increase over 2009.  And according to the Cotton Incorporated Retail Monitor™, 44% of athletic apparel at retail contains cotton, which represents a significant opportunity for market share growth.

“Our performance in apparel year-to-date has helped enable us to pass last year’s full-year revenue number of $1.06 billion in just three quarters this year,” Plank says.  “In the third quarter, we put up a net revenue increase in excess of 40% for the second consecutive quarter.  Third quarter apparel net revenues increased 31%, the fourth consecutive quarter of growth in excess of 30%.”

Plank credits success in Under Armour®®’s two-fold strategy of “innovating to drive better performance product with higher prices in our core, while expanding our reach beyond our core with new products like Charged Cotton.”

Already this season, Under Armour®® has experienced success with its Charged Cotton Storm Fleece, a classic heavyweight fleece made water resistant so that water rolls right off.

“Using cotton opens the Under Armour® brand to a much broader range of athletes,” Plank says.

Under Armour® is competing with other brands like Athleta, Nike, Lululemon, Jockey, and Champion for a share of the cotton lifestyle activewear market.  Some of these brands offer more for women than just tops, bottoms and hoodies; there are pre- or post-yoga skirts and dresses, sparkle tanks, cozy sweaters and more.

The strength of lifestyle activewear during the down economy has caught the eye of more than one designer or celebrity:

  • Catherine Malandrino is working with Lacoste on a spring activewear line.
  • Stella McCartney has a collection with Adidas — and she’s scoring major performancewear points by designing the 2012 Olympic uniforms for Great Britain.
  • Calvin Klein Performance stores and shop-in-shops will be opening in the U.S. and China, carrying active tanks, tees, hoodies and bottoms.
  • Macy’s introduced Ideology activewear with Cheryl Burke of “Dancing with the Stars” serving as the face of the new brand.
  • “The Biggest Loser” fitness expert Jillian Michaels launched an active collection with K-Swiss.
  • Laila Ali, boxing champ Muhammad Ali’s daughter, has signed a multi-year endorsement contract with Marika, serving as spokeswoman across all marketing platforms.

These new collections, though, still have to answer to consumers’ calls for comfort, as the Sports Apparel Survey finds 47% of women and 38% of men rate comfort as the most important aspect of their athletic apparel, followed by fit (26% and 22%, respectively). Among men, other important features include moisture wicking (10%), and breathable (9%). Women prefer that their athletic apparel stretches (17%), is breathable (13%), and moisture-wicking (8%).

As Laila Ali tells Women’s Wear Daily, women want fitness apparel that fit the demands of the modern woman.

“As a former world-champion boxer, I always look for high-performance gear to wear during my intense workouts.  However, as a working mother of two, it’s now equally important for me to have functional workout wear that is also stylish in my wardrobe. This way, I can go from the gym to picking up the kids, without hesitation.”