Is Premium Performance Wear The Key To Cracking The Men’s Activewear Market?

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Predicted to generate up to $83 billion in sales globally by 2020, activewear has infiltrated the apparel market on a phenomenal scale. From the barre to the bar, droves of women have adopted the trend, making it increasingly harder for designers and retailers to ignore.

But, whilst the women’s category is overflowing with mainstream brands, partnerships and celebrity collaborations, leading to speculation that we’ve hit ‘peak athleisure’, when it comes to men the market remains largely ‘up for grabs’.

Read more: Athleisure Sales Are Propping Up The Global Apparel Market

That’s where Rhone comes in. Founded in 2014, the premium men’s offering, selling style-driven activewear made from innovative, performance-driven fabrics, has experienced extraordinary growth. Selling over $80,000 of product in their first two months of business, the company’s apparel is currently available in over 400 physical locations, including Bloomingdales, REI and Equinox across the US. Its disruptive appeal has won over consumers, and investors are watching closely too.

Following the closure of a $5 million Series A financing round in June 2015, in March of this year, the trailblazing startup secured undisclosed funding from consumer-focused private equity firm L Catterton. The investor later admitted the opportunity to “invest in a differentiated and on-trend concept within men’s activewear; a large and growing category,” was too compelling to ignore.

Read more: Invest Well: Consumer-focused Invesment Firm L Catterton Backs Wellbeing

But, for Rhone’s Co-Founder Nate Checketts, the brand’s ease in penetrating the market has less to do with attracting backing and everything to do with its ability to understand the mindset of its core consumer.

“We ask ourselves what kind of brand, image, and product offering would we be attracted to… instead of trying to conform to fit the market opportunity, we are the market opportunity, and so in many ways it’s instinctual,” he explains.

Having recognised that when it came to activewear men were being forced to choose between “buying substandard gear that deteriorates quickly or shopping at the same store as their sister or wife,” where they were a clear afterthought, with Rhone Checketts has been strategic in his quest to create durable apparel that utilises revolutionary technology.

By targeting ‘the modern man’ who not only cares about his look, but is also focused on his health and wellness, and demands clothing that performs, the brand has managed to carve out a niche for itself. Through the creation of high-end clothing with extremely comfortable fits and category-leading performance characteristics, including anti-odor and antimicrobial properties, it has continued to disrupt the activewear category and plug a gap the ‘big box’ companies have been unable to fill.

Rhone is at the center of performance lifestyle, says Checketts, and that’s what their customers care about. They want products that can transition them from home to gym to work and back. “You can see there is a clear gap for men when it comes to knowing how to blend comfort and performance with lifestyle, and we want to make it easy for guys to look good while feeling comfortable,” he explains.

Castore

Image: Castore

For British sports apparel brand Castore, their code for cracking the market follows a similar formula. Founded in 2016 by brothers Tom and Phil Beahon, and backed by a £40,000 Virgin startup loan, the premium sportswear brand pushes the boundaries of technical innovation.

Made from high performance Italian fabrics and patented technology, Castore’s line of refined garments, which range from £85 to £170 per item “targets discerning gym goers who value attention to detail and precision performance features”— the type of products that just didn’t exist before, argues one-half of the duo, Phil Beahon.

Echoing Checketts’ thoughts on achieving success within the men’s activewear market, Beahon agrees that by having a clear understanding of their target customer, it has enabled them to grow their presence and drive brand recognition.

So much so, that in a little over a year of trading the startup has managed to foster exclusive relationships with premium retailers including Harrods and Selfridges, and open its first retail space within high-end gym operator Third Space, in Canary Wharf. With plans to launch key partnerships with retailers in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and China imminently, the brothers are on track to fulfil their ambition of building a sportswear brand capable of competing on a global stage.

By creating men’s activewear that is currently unmatched by existing global brands such as lululemon and Nike, and a lifestyle brand to match, both Castore and Rhone have managed to gain a foothold on the men’s activewear market. “People love that they have a brand that directly meets their needs rather than being designed for a mass audience,” Beahon tells Welltodo.

But, with the size of the men’s market still lagging significantly behind the women’s, solving the next challenge rests on growing consumer interest and educating more men on the benefits of premium activewear, in order to grow the addressable market. This won’t be easy argues Andrew Manteit, Co-Founder of men’s online activewear retailer The Active Man.

“Traditionally guys have been comfortable wearing their old rugby shorts and tees to the gym,” he explains. “They go to the gym, get changed and then might go out after in casual clothing because their gym gear isn’t really acceptable to be ‘seen in’,” he adds.

Unlike women, who view wearing activewear as a positive lifestyle marker, for men it hasn’t quite reached that status yet. This Manteit says, means that most of the marketing and noise are usually focussed in the other direction.

However, the tide is turning. Having launched Active In Style; a destination for the latest women’s activewear labels, back in 2013, earlier this year Manteit and his business partner made the leap into men’s activewear with the launch of The Active Man.

Read more: Active In Style: On Athleisure Trends, Breaking Down Boundaries & The Active Man

Having tracked the market for the last few years, Manteit says they felt it had gained enough momentum to warrant the launch of a standalone men’s site. Previously, he admits that finding enough high-quality, recognisable athletic brands, as well as emerging brands such as HPE and Vuori that are pushing the boundaries of technology and design, would have been too difficult a task.

And the next stage in building awareness of the men’s activewear market? For Manteit at least, it will take the form of a series of community-building events The Active Man is launching later this month.

When dissecting the role both education and community building have played in the growth of the women’s activewear market, it seems only logical that teaching men about the availability of activewear products and their benefits will also be key drivers of the men’s market in the UK, where all of The Active Man’s current interest comes from. The retailer has yet to market itself to Europe, however both Germany and Scandinavia have the potential to be big markets, Manteit reveals.

Rhone

Image: Rhone

Manteit is confident that the men’s activewear market and high-end ‘boutique’ focussed activewear brands are poised for growth. And, if Mintel’s latest report on the menswear market is anything to go by, overall it does suggest that men are coming around to the idea of splashing out on premium clothing. “However, as spend on clothing is increasingly competing with other areas, clothing retailers will have to work harder than ever to encourage men to part with their money,” argues Mintel senior fashion analyst Tamara Sender.

She suggests combining retail with leisure to create destination shopping venues, in order to encourage more spend.

Men are buying more high-end clothing and paying attention to their appearance, agrees Manteit, however, he says: “the masses are still not quite there yet in terms of wanting to pay premium prices for premium products to work out in.”

So, what’s the solution? Aside from educating the mass market, zoning in on a particular sport to create a cult following could prove the more lucrative option in the long run. In the case of performance roadwear brand Rapha it’s a strategy that’s done the job, and one that premium activewear brands could do well to emulate.

Founded by former brand consultant Simon Mottram in 2004, the British company chose to build its own movement around cycling, rather than converting the masses. Tapping into the cycling revolution to cultivate a lifestyle based around the sport, the brand’s clever marketing, including the publication of its own magazine Mondial –– which expands on the idea of what road cycling is and what the sport can be –– has helped to push its apparel into mainstream consciousness; with a luxury price point to match.

Last year, the company’s turnover surpassed £50m, while the brand’s global club topped 10,000 subscribers. With an annual membership fee of £135, that’s no mean feat.

“In our modern, secular world everyone’s looking for meaning and purpose,” says James Fairbank, Head of Brand at Rapha. “The brands we wear define us as individuals, so it’s hugely important for brands to stand for something. In our case, we honour the sport through the product we make and stories we tell, which is key in joining all the dots.”

As the megatrends of health and wellness continue to grow and expand alongside men making more of their own buying decisions, Checketts suggests that the men’s activewear market will continue to see tremendous growth, with the brands that cater to men’s specific lifestyle choices those most likely to come out on top.

“For instance,” he explains… “most men don’t like to walk around aimlessly in a mall setting trying things on for 4 hours, but I think many of these same men love the idea of shopping online and finding great products that they know will support their lifestyle.”

Building on that sentiment, Beahon proposes that the key to success for any brand in this market will be twofold; firstly, a dedication to innovation and performance quality, to advance training and performance, and secondly really understanding the target customer and how to meet their specific and ever-evolving needs.

And if the target customer doesn’t exist yet? Follow Rapha’s lead — build the lifestyle and the rest will follow.

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