Chinese Consumers Are Driving the High-End Athleisure Market, Which Is Poised to Overtake Luxury by 2020

Maia Active founder Lisa Ou remembers a time in China, just five years ago, when exercising was an all-out event. Getting a workout meant buying all the right gear, piling into a Jeep and driving to the side of a mountain and doing a day-long hike. It also meant big-name, all-encompassing sports brands, like Nike and Adidas, were front and center for consumers.

China’s health and wellness boom has driven sportswear growth to a point where it threatens to overtake luxury goods by 2020, according to a Euromonitor International report. In many cases luxury brands like Chanel and BMW are even beginning to embrace it. In response, the activewear market is rapidly starting to diversify, making room for smaller brands hoping to capture an increasingly discerning group of Chinese consumers. For these activewear shoppers, working out is less of an event and more of a lifestyle.

Ou knew this when starting her brand last year. With a fashion background—she graduated from Parsons School of Design and did a stint with J. Crew—she noticed a major gap in the market when she came to China. Simply put, she couldn’t find gym clothes she liked.

She noticed many of the international brands’ clothing weren’t well-suited to Chinese body types or to the climate. So she set off to create a higher-end, functional, stylish brand that would appeal specifically to Chinese consumers, with quality fabrics and a price tag that would be competitive with some of the leading international fitness apparel brands on the scene.

“Everybody can see that this market is going to be one of the biggest, and people want to have options,” Ou said. “The market is shifting in that consumers really want to express themselves and not have the same item as everyone else.”

The proof so far, is in the sales. Since launching Maia Active in June 2016, Ou says Maia Active sales have grown five times from February to July, and she expects growth to continue at this rate. Most of her sales are currently through online channels, including Tmall. But, being a premium brand, she also does pop-up shops at luxury hotels and sells at boutique gyms. One such gym is Space Cycle, sandwiched between shops like Christian Louboutin and Kenzo in Beijing’s upscale shopping center Swire Taikoo Li.

Space Cycle, which is less a gym than it is a platform for fashion and fitness experiences, is one of those examples in China where luxury and fitness markets seem to collide. The gym claims to boast a membership portfolio that includes famous Chinese fashion KOLs and CEOs of big-name brands, who enjoy events and collaborations at the gym with brands like Mercedes-Benz and Armani. It’s here that Chinese activewear brands like Maia Active and Particle Fever are finding a market, and Ou said she believes it has a lot to do with how the definition of luxury is changing for China’s rising middle class.

“In the past you see people who want to buy luxury goods because they want to be seen carrying something that represents them, and they need the item to prove their status,” she said. “The shift of mentality that I personally see is people are more willing to invest in themselves, such as by traveling, going to cooking classes, or exercising. It’s not about a bag you wear everyday to show that you have money, but more about mental enrichment.”

Supermodel He Sui (right) with Lane Crawford stylist Lando (left) wearing Helen Lee at the Lane Crawford pop-up. Photo: Courtesy of Lane Crawford
China’s leading luxury department store Lane Crawford is also recognizing this shift in attitude and how it plays into fashion. Lane Crawford has a whole roster of international boutique sportswear brands and collections in its stores, ranging from Perfect Moment and Live the Process to Adidas and Stella McCartney.

But in a sign that things are diversifying even further, this month Lane Crawford hosted its first fitness apparel pop-up featuring local designers. After receiving positive feedback from The Fit Room, a section of the department store that debuted last year, it launched Fitness x Fashion, featuring collections Chinese designers Helen Lee and Particle Fever, which was a winner in Lane Crawford’s Creative Call Out last year. The designers worked with Woolmark to launch two trendy, sustainable, and stylish capsule collections featuring Merino wool. Chinese supermodel and fitness enthusiast He Sui was the feature KOL for the collections.

Lane Crawford is well-known for its support of local designers, but its China VP Irene Lau said its decision to feature ones that focus on activewear was a move that reflected the shift in health and wellness as a lifestyle choice. Lau said it’s social media that largely drives these trends as young consumers are increasingly exposed to fitness and lifestyle icons both local and international.

“[These consumers] are looking for brands that successfully mix the sense of fashion with fitness,” she said. “The pieces that can easily work with their wardrobes are preferred.”
Particle Fever, one of Lane Crawford’s featured brands whose co-founder worked with Lady Gaga on her album ARTPOP, is finding a huge fanbase on social media for its eccentric, artsy, and fashionable spin on technical sportswear. Their collections are primarily unisex and offer the wearer multiple styles and ways of wearing one garment. Co-founder 9JIN says she is confident that as Chinese gym-goers become more educated on the possibilities for quality fabrics and style, they are increasingly ready for something a little more unconventional.

“Chinese consumers are very smart and international right now, and sometimes, they are under-estimated,” she said. “We have launched so many very edgy pieces at the very forefront of sportswear design, and they are all being well-accepted.”