Why ‘Athleisure’ Replaced the Urban Lumberjack
The past decade has seen enough trends to make any man’s head spin and his wallet weep: the downtown rocker look; the grungy hipster thing; whatever “twee” was; the preppy, rope-braceleted Montauk dad thing; the “we wear suits because we like to” thing, where you dress like a Harlem grandpa on Easter Sunday; urban lumberjacks; streetwear; normcore; the church of Rick Owens; and on and on and on.
The latest, known to fashionistas and PR reps alike as “athleisure,” is an amalgam of active- and casualwear, Lululemon and Alexander Wang. Athleisure is looking like you’re coming from or going to the gym, whether or not (let’s assume not) you actually hit the treadmill in between. It is the look you were previously only caught dead in at the bodega or the laundromat, formalized and glammed up for brunch and cocktails and beyond. Think Nike Tech Fleece sweatpants, John Elliott + Co. hoodies, and limited-edition running shoes (that you’d never run in) from the likes of KITH New York. Wang’s collaboration with H&M last year epitomized the trend, with a healthy mix of “Health Goth” along for the ride.
It’s all very hard to keep track of, but it’s not like this stuff just comes from nowhere. Fashion, despite what Meryl Streep would tell you, isn’t really about some people in a room deciding what you should wear. Athleisure didn’t happen when so-and-so debuted neoprene joggers at his or her Spring 2014 runway show. In the details, maybe, but the fashion industry largely sells to what we already wanted—its job is to create the product that will satisfy our craving. And increasingly, our itch has been for, well, stuff that doesn’t make us itch: active clothing for the active lives we wish we had, washed of last century’s corporate stuffiness and last decade’s vintage, heritage-obsessed pretension.
Maybe it’s the way the Internet has turned our private lives inside out, and made us all cop to the Netflix-addled, takeout-ordering homebodies we really are, so that now we can wear our pajamas in public, as well. The reputation of synthetic fabrics has also recovered from its disco-era nadir, and we’ve once again discovered that science can render awesome benefits to the clothes on our back: stain-resistance, moisture-wicking, wrinkle-immunity, a panacea for all those dry cleaning bills. The style itself is certainly related to, if not directly descended from, streetwear culture, which has always taken as its template the practical contours of sports apparel. Hip hop has no need for suits; only a mogul like Jay Z ever steps into a boardroom. And for the rest of us, once you’ve worn sneakers with a suit, why not ditch the suit entirely?
But any trend would be held in check if we couldn’t wear it to work, and the rise of both startups and self-employment has turbocharged the insurgence of elastic waistbands into our daily wardrobes. Startups and their ilk are figureheads of the creative economy, where self-expression and personalized pragmatism take precedence over organizational unity and the starched, pressed uniforms that come along with it. Maybe sneakers and sweatpants are still a faux pas at your office, but surely you’ve seen a sweatshirt or two. Once the collars are gone, the belts won’t be far behind.
Like all fashion trends, the athleisure aesthetic represents concepts both good and bad. In stark contrast to what came before it, athleisure is optimistic and forward-looking: it dreams not only of a better you, but a better everything, the power of technology and progress rather than the fetishization of the good old days, and some reclaimed 19th century denim design spun on an equally antiquated cotton loom. Recession economics necessarily made us appreciate quality goods, crave sustainability, and prize a $600 pair of boots that would outlive our grandchildren—even if we got sick of them and stashed them in the closet after one winter. Trends like athleisure are a better harbinger of our long-term mentality and outlook, but they’re also a return to waste and hedonism, in which we knowingly buy expensive things that could become worn out or played out by next year. But that churn has always been the hallmark of modern capitalism, and it’s no truer of this trend than the gadget you’re reading about it on. And for better or worse, our materialist selves like it that way, because we take and express these trends personally—new clothes aren’t just replenishment, they are reinvention. We can only redefine ourselves as quickly as there are new trappings to do it with, as long as that’s the way of things, more things will continue to come in, hard and fast.
That said, style is a flat circle; what’s old will be new again, count on it. The suit hasn’t lost its charms, or its purpose. It is still a man’s armor, a well-manicured container for the ego, and—no matter how many checks or lapel pins one adorns it with—a positive symbol of conformity, of the group mattering above the individual. That’s not a bad thing, intrinsically speaking. The organizational amorphism of startups is thought to be the best way to do business right now—but you don’t have to look back very far to a time when we thought the exact opposite. And someday soon, those things will matter to us again, and the suit or something like it will once again populate the pages of fashion magazines, only to be replaced by the next thing, and the next, and on and on, until we are different people entirely or no longer people at all.