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Why Women’s Apparel Companies Are On The Rise

An influx of brands have been expanding with women's-specific clothing and very targeted marketing strategies.

I already own nine pairs of running tights, yet I bought two more last week. I wear them constantly: to run, to strength train, to sit on the couch. In fact, I’m wearing a pair right now as I type. If national trends are any indication, there are millions of other women just like me; athletic clothing companies are counting on it.

While the overall market for athletic apparel was up slightly this past year, according to Andy Annunziata, an analyst with SportsOneSource, the highest growth was in women’s activewear, which is now a $20 billion business annually. The biggest selling item by far? Tights.

“Maybe the demand was there in the past, but the supply wasn’t,” Annunziata says.

Once overlooked, women’s athletic wear is now a large enough business that everyone wants a piece of it. Nike has announced a new line of women’s products and an effort to get its sale of women’s gear up to $2 billion by next year, which has included the opening of a few women-specific test stores. Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank said on a public conference call that the company’s $1 billion women’s business “has the potential to be larger than men’s.” Adidas recently launched the PureBOOST X shoe specifically for women.

Even Dick’s Sporting Goods, not exactly known for its fashion-forward women’s clothes, has launched a new line, CALIA by Carrie Underwood, and is testing a women’s boutique store concept called Chelsea Collective. And those are just the big players. More than men’s activewear, the women’s market is awash in specialty female-focused companies, niche clothing lines, and a variety of options.

This wasn’t always the case.

It used to be that women simply wore smaller versions of men’s clothes: black shorts and a slightly-narrower-cut T-shirt. “We were having to struggle to find what we wanted,” says Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle.

While Lululemon is generally attributed with sparking the women’s athletic wear trend, Oiselle was one of the first women-focused companies to enter the running industry in 2007. And, in recent years, Oiselle has seen a massive increase in its public presence and sales,  signing on major female pros, such as Lauren Fleshman and Kara Goucher, and opening its first retail store in Seattle.

Bergesen’s experience of being unable to find the kinds of running clothes she wanted circa 2007 is not unique. It’s a common origin story for female-specific athletic clothing brands. When Hillary Biscay and her friend, Michele Landry, first started talking about launching a women’s triathlon line in 2009 it was because what they wanted to wear just didn’t exist.

Biscay recently saw a picture of herself on Facebook from seven years ago. In it, she’s wearing a random mismatch of poorly-fitted workout clothes, because that was normal. “Now I wouldn’t dare set foot out of the door in that outfit,” she jokes. Today, the triathlon market is following in running’s footsteps with a growing number of women’s companies, like Biscay’s three-year-old Smashfest Queen, Betty Designs and Coeur Sports, amongst others. All of these companies, from Oiselle to Athleta, which was bought by Gap, have been expanding with very targeted marketing strategies.

In part, the boom is simply a matter of supply now meeting demand. Women’s participation in sports generally—and in running specifically—was already on the rise, but women weren’t being served by the industry. Because of that gap in service, it’s now common for women’s athletic wear companies to step into that role. Many of them, like Oiselle and Smashfest Queen, market themselves as a place for women to create communities in real life and online.

“For so many [of the women], this is their community. They may not have other women in their town,” Biscay says. But those customers find other women online simply because they’re wearing the same outfit or are part of the same brand-backed ambassador team. Bergesen says that she didn’t initially anticipate the role Oiselle would play in creating these teams and community, but now it’s a huge part of what Oiselle does: Encouraging women to run together, to support each other, and to race as a “flock.”

This is, partially, just good marketing. But also, generally speaking, women tend to be more informed about fabrics and technical performance, and they tend to want a connection to the companies they buy from. “They want to be involved. You want to have these brands that mean something,” Annunziata says.

The other factor that has driven the growth of female athletic wear companies has been an overall shift towards athleisure—the wearing of athletic clothes to do very non-athletic things.

Some of the athleisure trend is simply a trend. Annunziata expects many of the more fashion-focused lines, such as H&M or Target, to level-off or decrease in sales. But there is a part of this trend that actually reflects a fundamental shift in women’s clothing and lifestyles.

Bergesen believes that this fundamental shift is due to women beginning to embrace a type of body-positive confidence and empowerment. If we can look good, feel strong and be comfortable all at the same time, why would we wear tight skinny jeans or 5-inch heels instead? And as more women embrace active lifestyles, it’s unlikely that they will completely stop or return to the way things used to be.

If that is all true, then the $20 billion women’s market hasn’t even met its potential yet. Although big companies such as Nike and Under Armour dominate, they still control a smaller piece of the industry than in the men’s market. That means there’s plenty of space for smaller women-specific lines to find a foothold.

“A lot of companies would love to have 1 percent of $20 billion,” Annunziata says.

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