It was once one of the 10 commandments of fashion: Thou shalt not wear your exercise leggings to work. But all that changed after the cult yoga pants brand Lululemon Athletica was born around two decades ago. Chip Wilson, founder of the athletic-wear company, went to a yoga class at a Vancouver gym and was inspired to launch a yoga pants line made not of spandex but a special mix of nylon and lycra, now a trademarked fabric called luon. Lululemon then went on to reshape the entire fashion business by making athleisure—or casual clothing for both exercise and general wear—an intrinsic part of the fashion vocabulary. Today, you don’t have to go for yoga classes to wear Lululemon yoga pants. You can wear them at home, while going out to do your chores, and for casual social occasions. Heck, you can even wear them to work if you want.

Vancouver-based Lululemon was one of the first to turn yoga wear for women into mainstream fashion. Be it yoga pants, leggings,sweatpants, hoodies, tank tops sneakers, it made athleisure fashion cool and blurred the lines between gym wear and casual clothing. Its yoga pants acquired such a cult following that customers didn’t break into a sweat paying$100 for them. “Athleisure has become a wardrobe staple the worldover, whether or not one explicitly brought into the trend,” says Freya D’Souza, associate vice president, strategy, Dentsu Webchutney, a digital advertising agency. “The fact that a fashion term like ‘joggers’ has entered the average Indian fashion vocabulary is proof that athleisure has well and truly established itself in India as well.”

Today, Lululemon is jostling for shelf space with many athleisure brands in the market. Over the past few years, the athleisure fashion space has garnered celebrity interest both globally and in India—fromBeyoncé Knowles and Kate Hudson to Hrithik Roshan, Jacqueline Fernandez, and Tiger Shroff. They are a new breed of celebrity entrepreneurs who don’t only endorse but own their activewear lines. And their lines aren’t about baggy sweats and gym shorts but slick and fashionable clothes that can go from the gym (of course, that’s purely optional) to the office and even the bar after work. In 2016, Beyoncéco-founded Ivy Park, an athleisure line, with Philip Green, owner of Topshop, the London-based fashion retailer. Last year, she acquired Green’s stake in the company to become the sole owner. In April, the pop star announced her partnership with German sportswear ma-jor Adidas as a creative partner for the brand, developing new signature footwear and apparel, as well as re-launching her activewear line with the company.

Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez takes part in a promotional event for a sports brand in the Indian city of Mumbai
Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez takes part in a promotional event for a sports brand in the Indian city of Mumbai
Image : Gettyimages

Beyoncé partnering with Adidas joins a long list of celebrities, beginning with singer Rihanna and Pumain 2014. Rihanna’s association with the German athletic-wear company as a creative director for its womenswear was a huge success. Thestar singer says her first branded sneakers with Puma sold out online in just 35 minutes. “Closer home, it was only a matter of time before the confluence of celebrity and fashion entered this space as well. We’ve always seen Bollywood fashion being duplicated across the country. The rise of celebrity athleisure brands in recent times is savvy business sense by actors to leverage their fitness or fashion public image into revenue opportunities,” says D’Souza.

In the list of home-grown celebs, Hrithik Roshan was among the first Bollywood actors to tap into the opportunity. He started the lifestyle brand HRX in 2012, along with Afsar Zaidi, founder of celebrity management firm Exceed Entertainment. HRX makes a range of athleisure wear, shoes,eyewear, and accessories for menand women. Last year Roshan also launched HRX athlete meals for Bengaluru-based healthcare and wellness startup Cure.fit’s subscription-based online food delivery service, Eat.fit. The meals are planned in consultation with the actor. Roshan shares tips and suggestions for a healthy wholesome meal designed for athletes. “I have a functional team of experts, partners and professionals like any other corporate or brand, who manage the show,”the actor tells Fortune India. “But having said that I feel truly invested in HRX and love staying in tune with what’s going on around it—ranging from collection designs to the influencers to the campaigns,the team relays and shares all the information for a collective decision-making process.”

Image : HRX
It is the brand ethos, brand narrative, and ideology which lends itself strongly to fitness and sports which makes this category the main-stay of the brand. 
Afsar Zaid, CEO, HRX

Roshan sees this as one of the fittest celebrities in the country with a massive fan following. But is ita plus for the brand? Or does the weight of expectations from consumers act as an extra burden? The actor feels it is a blessing in disguise that people accept his point of view, especially about fitness. HRX CEO and co-founder Zaidi con-curs: “It is the brand ethos, brand narrative, and ideology which lends itself strongly to fitness and sports which makes this category the mainstay of the brand.” And customers, especially, the growing millennial population, are lapping it up. HRX apparel and footwear clocked revenue of ₹300 crore for the year ended March 2019. In the past two years, the company has recorded 100% growth year-on-year. For HRX, 60% of its business comes from apparel and the rest from footwear.

Bollywood actors and celebrity influencers have always played a big role in affecting fashion choices. Be it Priyanka Chopra and Alia Bhatt’s airport look in black tracksuits or Karan Johar on reality television shows in his oversized sweatshirts and chunky sneakers,they have brought stylish active-wear to mainstream fashion. The never-ending stream of workout videos of celebrities such as Kareena Kapoor Khan and Malaika Arora with their super-toned bodies has only increased the demand for athleisure clothing from black track pants and neon shirts to simple tees. “With the advent of social media, this has been further amplified which allows for direct reach to the targeted audience. Athleisure has evolved to become a style statement and fashionable look that is not just restricted to gym for sportswear,” says Ankur Pahwa, partner and national leader, e-commerce and consumer Internet, EY India. “Nowadays, there has also been an increasing trend of celebrities starting their own labels in the segment which has immense appeal amongst youth.”

Image : Cravatex
Our target group is the millennial customer. Forus apparel is the fastest growing category, specially women’s apparel. 
Rohan Batra, managing director, Cravatex Brands

Last year, actor Jacqueline Fernandez co-founded Just F, an athleisure fashion brand for women,in collaboration with Mojostar, which creates celebrity-led brands.Fernandez’ line targets primarily millennial customers across apparel categories such as dresses,sweatshirts and jackets, tank tops,joggers, leggings, and skirts bridging the gap between gym wear and fashion. The brand focusses on a clothing line one can wear from barre class to the bar—or looks that work from day to night.

The rise of social media platforms has only added to the popularity of these brands. The growth of fashion e-commerce has also helped,with platforms themselves tying up with celebrities to create private labels. In 2016, actor Shahid Kapoor launched his athleisure fashion brand Skult in association with Aditya Birla Group’s digital armabof.com. Skult is now also available on other e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, Myntra,and Flipkart. More recently, actor Tiger Shroff joined the bandwagon of celebrity entrepreneurs who own their athleisure brand. Last year, he launched Prowl, an active-wear lifestyle line in partnership with Mojostar, a joint venture between celebrity management firm Kwan Entertainment and brand licensing and marketing company Dream Theatre.

Deloitte India partner Rajat Wahi says India’s athleisure market is growing at 18-20% currently andis expected to touch ₹54,000 crore, or roughly $8 billion, by 2020.“Globally, India only accounts for 2% of the athleisure market, which is worth about $300 billion. Even though we are only 2% of the global market, there is huge legroom to grow.”

The growth in this segment is driven by rising consciousness about fitness and active lifestyles.Even though Jane Fonda made workout gear popular back in the1980s with her aerobics videos and iconic leg warmers, the word ‘ath-leisure’ didn’t exist at the time. It’s only recently that athleisure has become a buzzword as workplace cultures have changed thanks to a growing number of startups wear comfortable clothing has replaced formal wear, perhaps inspired by Mark Zuckerberg and his trademark T-shirts and hoodies at work.

Image : Puma
Athleisure will continue to be a key focus area for Puma in India. With the increasing popularity of sportswear in fashion... we estimate the demand to grow by 35% this year. 
Abhishek Ganguly, MD, Puma India 

The dress code is relatively casualin startups and new-age tech firms.Walk into a startup in Bengaluru and chances are you’ll find the founders and executives in their 20s and 30s dressed casually in track pants, sweatshirts, and sneakers.

Pahwa feels with the athleisure segment witnessing strong double-digit growth annually, the category is poised to gain a bigger market share in the apparel industry. Take sportswear companies such as Puma and Adidas, and Fila from Italy, which are ramping up their collection with new launches, tapping into the growing millennial craze for athleisure wear. For Puma,track jackets, sweatpants, and footwear are fast-growing categories in the athleisure segment. On average, the sportswear manufacturer has seen a 45% growth rate in the last two years, it says. “Athleisure will continue to be a key focus area for Puma in India. With the increasing popularity of sportswear in fashion,especially among the youth, we estimate the demand to grow by 35%this year and continue to see huge potential in the future,” says Abhishek Ganguly, managing director,Puma India.

Millennials and GenZ have transformed the way athleisure brands approach marketing. Take Fila, for instance. The Italian sportswear brand had a global reboot a few years ago to connect better with its younger audience. Last year, it signed a brand-promotion deal with Swedish tennis legend Bjorn Borg’s 15-year-old son Leo Borg, seen asa rising star on the junior tennis circuit. Rohan Batra, managing director of Mumbai-headquartered Cravatex Brands, which owns the licence to sell Fila products in India and other South Asian countries, says Fila in India started thereboot of the brand two years ago.Despite its presence in the country since the 1970s, Fila’s growth was muted compared to larger rivals Adidas and Puma in India, but its athleisure wear could just change its fortunes. “Our target group is the millennial customer. For us apparel is the fastest growing category, specifically women’s apparel,” says Batra. “When we launched in India we were intentionally a footwear brand but today at a store level apparel is contributing to nearly half of our sales. This is mostly a phenomenon in the last 18-24 months... Sports-wear is the new fashion.”

Is the athleisure market just a fashion fad? D’Souza sums it up succinctly. “Despite all fears that this was a trend that would fade,I do believe that the rise of more relaxed workspaces and more casual dress codes, and the need for a single day-to-night, work-to-play wardrobe is going to keep ath-leisure around for some time to come.” What is history though is the fashion commandment forbidding gym wear at work.

(This story was originally published in the July 2019 issue of the magazine.)

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