The Next Phase of Athleisure: Redefining Loungewear with Sustainability
While “athleisure” is now a nearly ubiquitous term in our cultural vernacular, the idea of athletic wear you can sport at places other than the gym wasn’t always on-trend. Do a quick Google of “leggings are not pants,” and you’re bombarded with memes, essays, think pieces and commentary on both sides of the spectrum, arguing simultaneously that Lyra-based stretchy pants are either a) suitable for any situation or b) completely inappropriate for anyplace other than your home.
Athleisure was introduced into our colloquial dictionary around 2007, nearly 10 years after Lululemon, oft recognized as one of the pioneers in athleisure, opened in Vancouver, Canada. Flash forward another 10 years to 2018, and wearing workout gear or loungewear anywhere from the gym to dinner out has become downright fashionable. Even J. Crew, a brand known for its workwear and more tailored looks, succumbed to the trend in 2016, partnering with New Balance to create activewear for men and women.
Let’s face it: Athleisure has a lot to offer. Comfy fabrics, flattering silhouettes and the lack of a need to do a costume change between the gym and happy hour make it a trend that doesn’t seem to be on its way out anytime soon. But are we losing anything when we pull on our leggings for work, for the gym, for a Netflix binge and for date night?
Meg Floersch, founder of ethical fashion line Nine56 Studio, says maybe. “As a gal who works from home, I realized that I couldn’t keep showing up in my pajamas and baggy sweatpants every day. Dressing like this was not putting me in the mindset to tackle my to-do list and move through my days intentionally.” Taking her own experience as inspiration, Meg decided to create a capsule loungewear collection as the next challenge for her line.
Since Nine56 Studio launched in 2016, Meg has been creating new collections each season like most fashion labels. But, she says she realized that pushing out new collections every season was not a sustainable choice in her life as the designer and product developer, nor was it sustainable for the women who wore Nine56. “Coming out with new seasons frequently encouraged the mindset that the clothing they had wasn’t good enough and they needed to buy more, newer, better,” she says. “That mindset goes against everything that my label stands for.”
Meg combined her need for transitional loungewear that was comfy but fashionable with her desire to promote sustainability, and her loungewear capsule was born with a Kickstarter campaign on September 27, 2018. “It completely aligns with our goal of providing women with wellness resources and clothing that will actually serve them,” she says. “I am so excited about this collection, not only for how beautiful and functional each piece is, but for how it really can be a tool to build a simper life.”
What Athleisure Is Missing: Real Transitional Pieces
The idea of providing women with transitional pieces that really do work for a day at the office or a day biking around town was also the inspiration behind ZANNI, an LA-based line founded by Suzanne Brosnan. She says the actual idea for a specific technical dress came to her when she was biking to dinner while wearing a cotton dress. “I was hot, sweaty (it was a five-mile ride), and I knew I was probably ruining the dress,” she said. “I kept thinking someone should make basic dresses in the same fabric as workout apparel.”
She began looking for dresses with functional fabric but wasn’t finding much. Lululemon and Athleta had a few, she says, but they weren’t quite right and were always just a bit too sporty or branded. “I wanted something that had functional fabrics, but was more classic and could be dressed up or down and didn’t look so sporty,” Suzanne comments.
Since she couldn’t find exactly what she wanted, she decided to create it. Suzanne was working for herself, doing UI/UX design , and “living in casual apparel,” she says. “I was tired of working on my client’s projects and I wanted to be like the women I was meeting and to have something that was my own. I was also sick of feeling uncomfortable in my wardrobe and buying cheap clothes that didn’t make sense for me.”
ZANNI became the brand Suzanne was craving. With a few minimalist dress silhouettes in technical fabric, she launched in 2017, and has been expanding ever since. Her main goal was to have the dresses be simple, or “basic,” she says. To Suzanne, that means it’s a timeless piece you can wear anywhere, any time. She began with all black, but is expanding the line this year to include color, even though she says she’ll always work with very simple silhouettes because she thinks they’re the best.
Sustainability in Athleisure
Another inherent issue with athleisure is what all fast-fashion struggles with: sustainability. Not only are stretchy fabrics often made from synthetic materials, they can often hide toxins in the clothing we wear to sweat it out. According to The Guardian, public health advocates like Greenpeace and European regulatory bodies that oversee chemical safety, are “becoming increasingly concerned by evidence that shows a possible link between sportswear and health issues such as cancer, obesity and developmental disabilities.” Sweat and friction, innate byproducts of wearing athletic wear for, well, athletics, can also increase absorption of these chemicals into the body.
Nine56 Studio and ZANNI combat this with fabrics from more natural fibers, and mills that are known for their high standards.
Suzanne currently uses an Italian fabric mill with “extremely high sustainability standards.” They were one of the first mills to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, the modern-day sustainability Bible, which she says was very important to her. “I love them because they make the best fabrics,” she says, “really beautiful, long-lasting fabrics in fun colors and textures, and they are very easy to work with as a small brand that needs low minimums.”
At Nin56 Studio, all their fabrics have a primary natural fiber content, and are ethically made in Japan. Says Meg, “We would love for every aspect of our clothing to be made in the U.S., but the reality is that there are not many fabric mills here anymore!”
On top of fabric challenges, the environmental cost of the transportation of athletic wear from its production site to consumers is high, not to mention that many widely popular brands have been criticized for poor working conditions in factories across the world. That’s why both ZANNI and Nine56 Studio keep their production in the U.S., where they can build relationships with factories, and get to know who is making their clothing.
At ZANNI, everything is produced in downtown Los Angeles. “I moved out here to find a factory I could work with and have a relationship with,” says Suzanne. “It’s the best feeling being able to know who is making the clothes that you believe in so much and to have this relationship where you both can work together to make improvements and grow together.”
All of Nine56 Studio’s garments are patterned, cut and sewn in its Minneapolis studio by women “who really love what they do,” says Meg.
Athleisure’s Next Phase
With brands like ZANNI and Nine56 Studio gradually making changes in the loungewear category, where will athleisure go next? It certainly seems to be poised to find happy-medium ground between leggings as pants, and comfortable, transitional clothing that’s both easy to wear and more sustainable.
Suzanne says she initially gravitated towards calling ZANNI an athleisure brand. “Now, I just consider ZANNI a womenswear brand that uses technical fabrics because what’s most important to us as a brand is providing comfort, style and function,” she says. “I’m not looking to make yoga clothes you can lounge around in. I’m looking to make the most functional wardrobe for women.”
Plus, with athleisure’s symbiotic relationship to the wellness world, simpler clothing styles and fewer, better choices lend themselves to capturing the attention of those looking to both dress well and declutter the mind. Shortly after Meg started Nine56 Studio, her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and everything she thought she knew about wellness shifted. “Health and wellness is a comprehensive practice that involves our routines, our food, our environment, and so much more,” she says. “I found that my true passion was giving women tools for wellness.”
She says she also reframed her mindset about the role of clothing in her life. “I saw how clothing could also be a tool for wellness once I started investing in pieces that served my body and my lifestyle, and getting rid of everything that didn’t. I applied this mindset to how I design and the result is the brand as it exists today.”
Nine56 Studio’s Kickstarted campaign for its capsule loungewear collection ends on Friday, Oct. 26 at 11 a.m. CST. Interested in more fashion sustainability? Read about four brands leading the charge.