Designer activewear is finally taking off in Paris
BY PORTIA CROWEFrom VogueBusiness
The country’s nascent boutique fitness culture is opening up opportunities to international athletic brands.
- Sales of activewear and athleisure in France have increased exponentially as boutique fitness gains popularity and up-and-coming designers partner with athletic labels.
- French customers tend to be drawn in by shoes and performance wear.
- They shun patterned and logoed items in favour of simpler styles with clearly explained technical functions.
PARIS — In France’s capital, it’s not unusual to see someone jogging in slip-on shoes or sporting a pashmina to an outdoor circuit class.
However, the French, who recently hosted the Women’s World Cup and will welcome guests for the 2024 Olympics, are beginning to embrace wellness culture and all the accompanying fitness gear. Search interest in athleisure spiked by about 30 per cent in the last year, even as it declined in the US, according to Google Trends. (The line between activewear and its dressier cousin, athleisure, is particularly thin in France.)
Galeries Lafayette increased its activewear inventory online by 167 per cent between 2018 and 2019, investing heavily in Nike, Calvin Klein Performance and Adidas by Stella McCartney, according to Edited. And after years of losses, French sportswear stalwart Le Coq Sportif boosted revenues 5 per cent in 2018, its second profitable year in a row. APC launched a collection with Outdoor Voices in 2016 after investing in the athleisure brand.
Then, there’s the role of French football champions (and Nike partners) Paris St-Germain (PSG). The team has collaborated with Andam finalist and Koché founder Christelle Kocher, sold its branded apparel in Colette and made wearing the swoosh acceptable in its tony 16th arrondissement home.
Take a stroll through the upscale Marais neighbourhood today, and it’s not unusual to spot striped sweatpants paired with stilettos or long summer dresses from Rouje or Maje cast against high-top sneakers.
Boutique fitness as a gateway
ClassPass and Barry’s Bootcamp both launched in Paris this spring. The growing number of such boutique fitness mainstays is a metric that Lululemon keeps a close eye on, says Gareth Pope, the Canadian performance-wear pioneer’s EMEA general manager. “It’s a physical way to see how people are exercising [and] the gear they’re exercising in.”
Such boutiques are also an opportunity to sell activewear to affluent French shoppers who would not typically set foot in a sneaker store. In Paris, Lululemon sells apparel at stylish exercise clubs like Dynamo, a local alternative to SoulCycle, and the Le Tigre yoga studio. In July, Lululemon and Barry’s Bootcamp teamed up in Paris to launch a co-branded apparel collection.
Lululemon collaborates with boutique Paris exercise clubs to sell apparel and create collections.
Stylish performance wear is a way to stand out when working out with fashion-forward Parisians in close quarters, and the key to success in France is empowering individuality, says Kocher. “People want to stand out. They want to feel different, to have things more personalized.”
That could explain why French retailers have eschewed overly branded product in favour of more discrete labels. 86 per cent of activewear carried among the country’s 10 most popular performance wear retailers is plain and not patterned, according to Edited. (Black, grey and navy hues make up more than half of the bestselling performance wear in France.) Only about 29 per cent of patterned activewear items carry logos — and half of those are currently on discount.
Lululemon doesn’t break out results by country, but the company has grown French sales every quarter since it arrived in 2015. This summer, it is launching a French-language website and opening a nearly 2,000-square-foot store to replace one of three existing showrooms.
As part of Lululemon’s international expansion, executives are planning multiple store openings in Paris in the next several years and will grow the brand’s presence outside the capital, says Pope. The executive said inventory is tailored to each neighbourhood, but its French stores are generally heavier on yoga wear — which Lululemon is best known for — than the US or Canada, which have greater familiarity with the brand.
Put performance first
Lululemon’s French customers almost always seek activewear first, only buying lifestyle products after they get to know the brand, says Pope. While revenue from running and training products has increased in the last 12 to 18 months, French sales of Lululemon’s office, travel and commute line remain fledgeling.
That means function, at least initially, comes before style. Getting the technical aspects right is crucial, says Hind Mahmoudi, a French fitness instructor who was formerly a visual merchandising manager for American Apparel and has seen clients ruin their retro sneakers by wearing them to workouts.
“We view Paris as an epicentre for style, but also sport,” says Bert Hoyt, EMEA vice president and general manager for Nike, which is planning to open a “House of Innovation” flagship on the Champs-Élysées next year — the third of its kind anywhere. “When we get the brand right in Paris… we definitely get it right for the rest of the world.”
That may be why designer sneakers, which are generally more complicated to manufacture than apparel, have taken off before athleisure garments in France. Balenciaga’s bestselling Triple S sneakers, for instance, has driven the Kering brand to nearly €1 billion in annual sales. “Performance brand sneakers are now synonymous with luxury goods as we continue to see the two merchandised together at e-tailers worldwide,” says Kayla Marci, an analyst at Edited.
Female customers have particularly taken to such shoes: Printemps has a 900-square-foot women’s “Sneaker Library” featuring brands such as Moschino and Serafini. (Across the street at Galeries Lafayette, the men’s footwear floor is similarly awash in sneakers.) “Women build their outfits feet first,” says Sam Poser, an analyst at Susquehanna International Group. “Then you’ve got to buy the clothes to go with the shoes.”
But while luxury brands and up-and-coming designers might have marketing muscle, it is sportswear giants that have made the most investment in technical expertise. Kering spun off Puma last year, and despite partnerships with Kering and then LVMH, some of Stella McCartney’s more groundbreaking innovations have come through her collaboration with Adidas.
Like Virgil Abloh at Off-White before them, both Kocher and 2017 LVMH Prize Winner Marine Serre have collaborated with Nike. A line pegged to the recent Women’s World Cup got the emerging designers in front of a mainstream audience. While Nike wouldn’t disclose sales, pre-launch drops sold out. Similarly, PSG has set a target of selling 1 million shirts after the success of its partnership with Nike and Michael Jordan. “We use strategic collaborators that can take sport and make it stylish for the activewear market,” says Nike’s Hoyt.
Kocher says that she’s interested in creating more performance with Nike and is currently in discussions with the company about a new project. “Nike [offered the perfect opportunity to] twist performance clothing into something more feminine and fashionable,” she says. “In terms of business, it also gives a lot of worldwide exposure.”
Serre, who often features stretch bodysuits in her designs, is further developing a signature hybrid style. “You are not just the yoga girl — you are the yoga-chic girl,” she says. “You are doing so much today; you’re not just one thing.”