The Weekend Australian January 2014

"SHORTLY after launching her brand Lucas Hugh two years ago, Anjhe Mules received a surprising phone call. ""It was Trish Summerville, wardrobe designer for The Hunger Games. She googled 'futuristic sportswear' and my label came up,"" says New Zealander Mules from her base in London, where David Beckham's assistant has just dropped by to get a gift for Victoria. Until recently, the words style and sportswear were barely used in the same sentence - let alone the same gym. Glammed-up basketball tanks and track pants paired with heels have strutted the runways for seasons, but now the reverse has occurred - fashion-influenced sportswear is becoming ubiquitous. ""Women no longer want to wear frumpy, unattractive, cheap-looking or masculine outfits when doing sport or exercising,"" says Stefani Grosse, who launched her luxury tennis label, Monreal London, last year. Indeed, the treadmill is the new catwalk, with tie-dye tanks, artwork-printed crop tops and seamless leggings. ""Performance compression tights with black leopard panels"" from Australia's Vie Active will set you back $150. It's workout gear doubling as daywear and it's just as acceptable to wear at cross-fit as at coffee. Says Mules: ""As someone who works out a lot, I felt there was a need for something edgy that could cross over from a workout to daily life."" It's a sentiment echoed by designer and TV presenter Jodhi Meares, who launched her leisurewear label, The Upside, last year. ""It was largely born out of personal necessity,"" she says. ""I practise yoga daily so was in yoga gear all the time and having difficulty finding anything cool that could be worn during and after. I just thought there was a major gap in the market."" Today's multi-tasking, time-poor culture and fitness industry boom means it is more acceptable to dress casually. It's also return for investment, says Marshal Cohen of global market advisory group, NPD. ""Women feel that they are getting more value when investing in activewear like yoga pants which they can wear to the gym, in the gym, and from the gym."" According to NPD, US Sports market sales increased 4 per cent from January to August last year compared with the same period in 2012. Activewear sales outgrew the general apparel market, rising 7 per cent January to August last year, compared with a year earlier, while general apparel only grew 1 per cent . The seeds for chic athleticwear were sown in 2000 when the grassroots brand that is now Lululemon Athletica launched designer yoga apparel, transforming the practice's shanty, low-key identity into a booming, billion-dollar business whose cult ""Wunder Under"" pants retail for $130. Two years later, Adidas collaborated with avant-garde Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto to form Y-3. ""We created something that did not exist before and completely projected the future,"" he says. ""My desire was and is to make sportswear elegant and chic."" Adidas Originals also collaborates with Opening Ceremony, Jeremy Scott and Raf Simons, while Puma's Black Label has partnered with high-fashion designers Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen and Mihara Yasuhiro. Yet it was Stella McCartney's Spring/Summer 2005 range for Adidas that pioneered fusing stylish aesthetics with cutting-edge innovations catering specifically to sports performance. ""With that comes a lot of little alterations and challenges but I enjoy them,"" says McCartney. ""You can put pretty much anything down the runway and give an excuse for having it there - whereas with this range, if it doesn't perform, it's not in it."" Sydney sisters Sali and Julie Stevanja stock Adidas for Stella McCartney in their e-shop, Stylerunner, the first of its kind to specialise solely in ""fashion forward activewear"". In under a year, Stylerunner has 47,000 Instagram followers and for some months growth rate as high as 300 per cent. Its success encouraged the sisters to form StylerunnerMAN. ""We were career girls living an active lifestyle but also loved fashion and shopping. There wasn't anything catering to that,"" Julie says. Now even mega-brand Uniqlo (opening its first Australian flagship this year) markets itself as a ""LifeWear"" company. According to Kensuke Suwa, the company's director of global marketing, it sits in ""the middle between fashion and sports"". Vikram Kansara, managing editor of The Business of Fashion, says this could redefine the brand. ""Seen this way, Uniqlo's true competition may not be fast fashion companies like Zara and H&M, but sporting giants like Nike, which appears to be coming at the opportunity space, between sportswear and casual wear, from the other direction."" Grosse, an avid tennis player who cut her fashion teeth at Calvin Klein and Donna Karan, plans to tackle the golf industry next. Using hi-tech Italian stretch fabrics devoid of polyester, her tennis whites are tweaked with oversized zips, black mesh panelling and embroidered sweatbands with prices ranging from $14 for a novelty tennis grip (hearts, skulls, polka-dots) to $345 for a shift dress. It resonated instantly with exclusive sporting clubs, while MatchesFashion.com and Yoox.com picked up the brand in its first season. ""I think it's one thing to make the garment look good, but it's another to make it perform and support the body with practical features,"" says Mules, who researched for two years before launching Lucas Hugh and produces at one of the most technologically-advanced sportswear factories in the world. ""We really invest in the technology behind athleticwear; material responses to the body, temperature and movement. That's why we have a premium product."" Lucas Hugh doesn't come cheap at $320 for leggings, and its fans include Sarah Jessica Parker, Anna Dello Russo, editor-at-large at Vogue Japan, and Madonna's personal trainer. Oh, and Gwenyth Paltrow has ordered a bespoke outfit. Stylerunner is hesistant to take brands that are ""too on trend"". ""We want products that have been tested for durability like moisture-wicking fabric, four-way stretch, lateral movement and breathability. There's a difference between a performance tight and a tight that's purely a fashion item,"" Julie says. Meares agrees. ""Being functional is the first point of call. We have a fashion identity, but ultimately we're a sportswear brand, not the other way around."" The former swimwear designer's leopard print collection debuted on Stylerunner and sold out within the first hour. At her impressive S/S 2014 presentation at London Fashion Week, McCartney showcased models cycling, swimming and running in precision cut minty-rose gear. If this isn't enough motivation to keep a new year's fitness resolution then it might be time procrastinators got a new outfit. ""We work with top athletes and even they tell me they perform better when they feel like they look good,"" says McCartney, who will dress tennis players Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Kirilenko at the Australian and French opens. She might be right, according to a study from Northwestern University based on the concept of ""enclothed cognition"". Researcher Hajo Adam concluded that what you wear can affect your psychological behaviour. ""I think it would make sense that when you wear athletic clothing, you become more active and more likely to go to the gym and work out."" The last word goes to Team Stella: ""You don't have to sacrifice style for sport."" "