Fashion for Self-Optimization

One of our strategists Isobel looks at how brands can help us help ourselves

By Isobel Grad
Posted 07. 12. 2022
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©On Running

Walking down Regent Street recently, it seemed that the entire street was in the midst of an upheaval with storefronts turning over as new (and familiar) brands move in. This is not too surprising as we slowly emerge from the trauma of lockdown, but part of what struck me about this is that with many of the new brands being promised, the entire idea of fashion, what we collectively find most important to wear, is seemingly shifting. Not to bury the lede, what was particularly striking was the number of new stores being opened by outdoor and athletic wear companies, on a street typically populated by premium and fast-fashion brands associated with professional attire and outfits for dressing up and looking one’s best (in a conventional sense, looking ‘fashionable’ and ‘put together’, even if that has never been completely homogenous idea).

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Activewear has replaced office attire as a symbol of achievement and success

It’s clear from shopfronts, if social media wasn’t enough evidence, that clothing budgets are shifting from blouses and blazers to technical fabrics and engineered rubber soles. Lululemon and Asics already had a presence, not far from Nike, but the list is seemingly ever-growing. Gymshark has just opened its flagship store on Regent Street, soon to be followed by On Running just around the corner, and the first UK store for 66 North a little closer to Piccadilly. Slowly but surely, activewear is claiming its role in the fashion world. The more I thought about it, though, the more sense this makes. We live in a culture that increasingly valorizes self-optimization, individual achievement, and entrepreneurial determination, traits that overlap significantly with the physical discipline and achievement of gym-going and sports participation. Not to mention the total uncertainty - social, economic, climate - that we are all striving against in one way or another, means that for many extreme ‘practicality’ is the status symbol de jour.

All-encompassing Self Improvement

If the stores taking over central London are any example, the budgets consumers are spending on clothing are increasingly directed towards gym clothing, technical athletic wear, and running shoes. “Athleisure” was coined long ago, and people going about their daily lives in expensive leggings, baseball caps, and designer sweatshirts wouldn’t turn any heads by now. However, whilst ‘athleisure’ might have been about the status implied by the luxury of having nothing to do all day but attend a £30 yoga class, the purpose and appeal of activewear-as-fashion seems to have shifted. The ‘leisure’ seems to be less important now than the proof of serious athleticism and individual drive.

Slowly but surely, activewear is claiming its role in the fashion world

One way this is clear is in how the technical or practical nature of the clothing is increasingly visible, such as the chunky soles of On running shoes, or the specially knitted fabric texture of Gymshark leggings shown on mannequins mid-squat press. Slickness that looks ‘put together’ or ‘refined’ in any context (arguably qualities that made Lululemon so street-friendly originally) is less important than visible functionality. Interestingly, the materiality of the Gymshark store also reflects this, whether intentionally or not: soft gym mats line the floors, wall décor is at the bare minimum white paint, walking up the stairs feels like ascending the ignored back entrance of a dance studio, and the ceiling is covered with a grid suggesting the bare structure of a building, so that the whole effect implies that the space doesn’t matter at all other than as a shell for activities on the floor. Here it is about function and the work put in to ones body over anything else.

But even for the less gym-inclined, wearing New Balance running shoes with a dress has become a fashion norm, so this practicality is blending with more classic codes of ‘fashion’ as well. I think this broad cultural shift towards making our lives ever higher functioning is also evinced further in culture by how we combine them with technology (fitbits, apple watches, and other monitoring devices used all day), and the blending of exercise with other parts of our lives (particularly post-lockdown, with fitness increasingly integrated into the home). It seems that in fact, with post-Covid relaxing dress codes, we’re all able to lean into showing off our dedication to achievement through our clothing, accessories, and home spaces. The tailored suit no longer portrays ‘success’ as much as a Patagonia gilet and Allbirds sneakers. Look no further than the new Sweaty Betty concept store in Battersea, named “The Powerhouse” (with an equally minimalist, semi-industrial interior): Power Dressing has moved on from shoulder pads and masculine tailoring to ‘bum-sculpting’ leggings and sweat-wicking tech fabrics.

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©Sweaty Betty
Brands are encouraging people to do more than just buy clothing and instead to help better themselves overall

If activewear has replaced office attire as a symbol of achievement and success, it fits how some of these stores are being designed and inviting customers in to do more than buy clothing, in fact to better themselves overall. The new Gymshark flagship for example features not only a studio for gym classes, but also a long desk for free coworking, advertised as open for community members to use for their work-from-anywhere gigs. Although when I visited it seemed to be used more as a place to drink juice and rest tired legs than for working on a laptop, the sentiment and intention behind the design demonstrate an insight into what customers are really looking for when they buy into the gym-centric brand.

The self-improvement ethos that is inherent to much of gym culture and personal fitness goals goes hand-in-hand with contemporary entrepreneurship and startup culture. (It’s no accident that the words “prepare for tomorrow” are printed above the entrance to Gymshark.) It’s all too common to hear awe-filled descriptions of business figureheads who barely sleep, perfectly plan their optimized meals, and find ways to exercise whilst also going about their work day. Or, take the inverse, the frequent fitness and yoga classes offered at coworking spaces that ensure you can fit in every personal and professional goal to your calendar. Blending a space created for individual, tech-enabled labor with personal training sessions and activewear retail neatly dovetails various elements of an aspirational always-working, always-acheiving lifestyle.

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©Sweaty Betty

“Gorpcore” that’s ready for anything

For some it’s the outdoors, rather than the gym, that is the context to show achievement, grit, and determination. Alongside the increase in gym-wear for everyday, another related and often-overlapping trend that seems only to continue growing is “gorpcore” - a moniker named for trail mix (I confess to being slow on the uptake, but a quick Google informed me the origin is “good ol’ raisins and peanuts”, of which I approve) and referring to wearing outdoor apparel meant for excursions in rough weather and terrain. This trend is equally increasingly represented in Regent Street, far from some of the places one might usually expect to wear hiking boots and down vests layered with fully sealed waterproof jackets (rainy as London may be). On Running plays into this well, imagery of their uniquely-designed soles juxtaposed with rough, rocky surfaces, and brand imagery that alternates between New York City streets and isolated rural landscapes. The implication is ultimately of an engineered product that can do it all, and take the wearer anywhere, and it’s safe to say that this is what the London consumer with a footwear budget to spare is looking for: the ability to transcend the average road run.

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Even Icelandic brand 66 North is getting in on the London outdoor wear market, opening its first UK store (also on Regent Street). Whilst their selling point is the ability of their clothes to withstand a harsh North Atlantic climate on a fishing boat, their comms and social media partnerships are an excellent example of how technical apparel has taken on a fashion life of its own. Rather than being reserved for mountainsides, ice climbing, or seafaring, the waterproof fabric, visibly sealed-seams, air-vent zippers, and utility pockets are shown layered nonchalantly on the streets of Soho. Whilst once this might have been an ‘anti-fashion’ statement, it has been co-opted as a look, but one which has retained the underlying implication of an outdoorsy intrepidness and practical outlook to all aspects of life.

The appeal of gorpcore, arguably, is how it shows off ones choice to eschew the daintier side of fashion for something tougher. The gorpcore-clad are essentially ready to tackle the next challenge at any moment. Whilst this is a slightly different version of athletic wear, it seems to me to be along the lines of what tough mudder is to a half marathon run in terms of cultural role - more ‘extreme’ than regular gym wear, but still speaking to a need for personal mastery over one’s life and environment.

Help us help ourselves

Even if some may still reserve their Gore-Tex for the hiking trails, there is an important learning from this. In looking purposefully practical, prepared, and ready to go at any moment, what people are expressing is a need to feel ready for anything, primed for action and achievement - even if that’s cycling to work in the rain every day rather than climbing K2. In fact this all seems to fit in with the idea of what has been termed elsewhere the “transformation economy”, the idea that everything is an opportunity to be fitter, smarter, better informed, more enlightened, more self-actualized, and ultimately more successful in all aspects of life. Clothing choices both enable and reflect who we want to be, and filling wardrobes with athletic wear is ultimately a way to signal that the wearer is already dedicated to being the best version of themselves, that they are primed to succeed.

However other brands and designers don’t need to be selling activewear, running shoes, or the latest waterproof textiles to help people be their best selves and feel like they’re able to achieve great things in life. In fact, arguably, that’s what brands should all be aiming to do in some way. We all need a little help in becoming the people we want to be - even if our goals don’t always look the same. In fact, the more interesting challenge now might be how to do so in a way that doesn’t make quite as much noise as waterproof trousers do walking down the streets of London.

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