Collaborations between leading sportswear brands and athletes are nothing new. For decades, the likes of Nike, Reebok and Adidas have sponsored the world’s leading sports stars. In recent years, as the lines between sportswear and fashion have become blurred, classic brands have collaborated with major celebrities and fashion houses, spawning a new trend dubbed “athleisure.” Placing as much importance on aesthetics as performance, the popularity of athleisure wear is fueled by its ability to provide consumers with high-quality goods at an affordable price point.
In 2003, Adidas jumped ahead of the pack when it launched its first designer collaboration. This iconic German sportswear brand already had an extensive list of collaborations and sponsorships with global sports teams and individual athletes, and since 1970, has been the official manufacturer of equipment for the UEFA Champions League matches and FIFA World Cup tournaments. However, its collaboration with avant-garde Japanese tailor Yohji Yamamoto brought the brand up to date in fashion circles.
According to Arthur Hoeld, general manager of the heritage line Adidas Originals, Yamamoto first approached the brand to use the classic “three-stripe” sneaker for his autumn/winter 2001 show. Just two years later, a permanent collaboration — Y-3 — was born, a futuristic and sartorial take on classic sports apparel and footwear. Adidas then went on to successfully collaborate with leading British designers Stella McCartney and Jeremy Scott and more recently has partnered with rapper Pharrell Williams and the ubiquitous Kanye West.
Somewhat lagging Adidas in the fashionable sportswear stakes, PUMA managed to up its game in 2015 by inking a deal with global music sensation Rihanna, which led to the creation of the sell-out FENTY x PUMA collection. Initially consisting of a line of sneakers, in less than a year, Rihanna was walking the runway at New York Fashion Week in her sexed-up, streetwear designs that reflected her “ghetto goth” aesthetic. FENTY x PUMA was instrumental in increasing revenue in the brand’s women’s business and paved the way for another high-profile collaboration with socialite Kylie Jenner.
For PUMA, however, arguably, its most successful celebrity collaboration originated in an athletic endorsement deal. Olympic gold medalist and certified record-smasher Usain Bolt was sponsored by the brand from the beginning of his career, and as he rose to stratospheric heights, a series of sportswear apparel collections and exclusive running spikes were released into the market. The recently-retired Bolt still has massive star appeal, as evidenced in a current collaboration with Kevin Hart as the faces of PokerStars’ #GameOn Challenge, and to PUMA, he may well be even more valuable now that he’s hung up his spikes. In an interview published in German business newspaper Handelsblatt, PUMA’s Chief Executive Bjorn Gulden was quoted as saying he could “even imagine that (Bolt) could run our business in the Caribbean.”
Another brand that has managed to transcend consumer perceptions and boost profits through diverse collaborations is Under Armour (UA). Initially known and perceived as a manufacturer of base layers with most of its sales located in the men’s market, more recently, UA has capitalized on public discourse about gender and body identity with a series of collaborations and ad campaigns featuring American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland, stuntwoman Jessie Graff, taekwondo champion Zhang Lanxin and even a supermodel, Gisele Bundchen.
As these and many other collaborations between designers and brands in the health and well-being industry improve, athleisure has morphed into a global movement that is here to stay. Something that once started out as a fashion trend is now rapidly becoming a lifestyle trend, indicating that consumers are willing to put a premium on all aspects of health and well-being. However, what makes athleisure relevant from a sartorial perspective is its longevity, appeal to all genders and demographics and ability to constantly reinvent itself, thanks to the technology involved in product development.