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What’s making women want to sweat it out?

Activewear brands are now tuning into both style and comfort in their designs for women

Boxer Mary Kom in Puma’s ‘Propah Lady’ campaign (2019)
Boxer Mary Kom in Puma’s ‘Propah Lady’ campaign (2019)

From ill-fitting tracksuits and uneven sports bra padding to form-fitting pieces that are as stylish as they are functional, women’s sportswear has evolved over the last few decades. This change runs the gamut from sportswear geared at performance to easy-going, lifestyle products that have become popular with the rise of style movements such as athleisure and streetwear.

Abhishek Ganguly, managing director at Puma India, says: “When we started the business in India (in 2006), the growth in the women’s sportswear segment was less than 15% (year-on-year) for the first few years. That has almost doubled to 30%, especially in the last three years. The number of women who are now into fitness has grown phenomenally. Over the past few years, the growth in the workout bras category has been 60-70%, so you can imagine the movement."

Brands have begun catering to this need, even training store executives to interact with their customers more effectively. “Women’s expectations of these products, from the fabric to fit, have evolved. It’s not just about wearing any sportswear, but very specifically about the garment’s functional benefits and quality," says Ganguly.

Sports bras have undergone both design and material changes. Now, they are made from flexible, perforated materials such as polyester, elastane and nylon, making them lightweight and breathable. From features like cross-straps and wireless bralettes to removable padding and sweat-wicking technology, brands are pushing the bar to suit women’s needs. While Puma’s Get Fast training bra comes with moulded padding for better support and mesh panels in the front and back for breathability, Nike’s Swoosh One Piece Pad bra and Ultrabreathe Sports bra come with similar features that offer support and ventilation.

“In the 1990s, there were very few choices of sportswear brands available in India, such as Shiv-Naresh. Their tracksuits were made for male body types and sat baggily on us. The international brands that were making women’s sportswear hadn’t come into India yet and were very expensive," says Bengaluru-based Nisha Millet, director at the Nisha Millet Swimming Academy. Millet was the only woman to swim for India in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “The swimsuits available here were tiny and tight, primarily made of just lycra, which isn’t chlorine-resistant and would lose its elasticity very soon. Today, the options are innumerable, with fabric blends such as lycra and nylon which are more durable with compressional and streamlined fits. Wardrobe malfunctions are avoided, and at a professional level, such outfits can make a difference of .30 seconds in the pool."

Outfits are being customized to fit bodies of different proportions, and accessories play a huge role in completing the look. Sandeep Nagaranthal, deputy manager of product management at Speedo, which claims that womenswear accounts for 30% of their business, says: “The idea of women’s sportswear looking good came a little late to India; it was juxtaposed between utility and modesty. But today’s woman wants style in the mix as well." Women today are particular about what they want and don’t hesitate to opt for brands that offer it. Sportswear brands are making sure they listen.

“Fashion has become such an important component that we will lose customers if we don’t have elements like the right colours, and this wouldn’t happen earlier. Apart from sales feedback, it’s important to make products using customer feedback. A lot of swimwear abroad is made without bra pads, but in India, about 80-85% women prefer bra pads, and the rest don’t, so we made them removable after some trial and error," says Nagaranthal.

With athleisure and streetwear trends suffusing the stylescape, sportswear is becoming bolder. Millet says: “Women are now playing a mix of sports, from marathon runners to those above 30 undertaking Ironman Triathlon training, which includes swimming, biking and running. And people want to look as good while doing these as they do when getting coffee or meeting friends. Now, sportswear is just as comfortable for non-sporting activities as well."

Collaborations between sportswear and luxury or premium brands also help shed a lot of visibility on this segment. While tennis pro Serena Williams has had a winning collaboration with her sponsor Nike for five years, she roped in premium brand Off-White’s designer Virgil Abloh for two collections (for Nike). “The way she dresses on the court is very aspirational," says Millet.

Brands are also communicating with customers differently, and that’s critical. Puma’s 2019 campaign, Propah Lady, with sports stars Dutee Chand, Mary Kom, actor Sara Ali Khan and model Anjali Lama, features them tackling gender stereotypes. Similarly, Adidas India roped in runner Hima Das, heptathlete Swapna Barman and boxer Nikhat Zareen for its 2019 She Breaks Barriers campaign, about the way they overcame challenges in sports. While Nike’s 2016 Da Da Ding campaign encouraged young women to embrace sports, the company held an on-ground experiential event in Mumbai last year for its Make The World Listen campaign, for women to express themselves through sport and fitness. The efficacy of such campaigns and the larger change in brands’ approach towards women’s clothing is relevant.

All these efforts have come a long way in empowering women to take charge in fitness in India, levelling the playing field between driving growth in the field, and more importantly, investing in themselves.

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