Why Yoga Pants Could Be the New Denim

Are workout clothes the future of day-to-day fashion? Gap is hedging its bets in that direction, thanks to enormous growth of its activewear chain Athleta. Other major retailers like H&M, Uniqlo, and Forever 21 are also embracing sweat-style in their lines, as it appears to be the next big opportunity in the fashion market.

The trend is called “soft dressing,” according to Glenn Murphy, Gap CEO, and it’s about more than clothes that transition from gym class to brunch. While part of this shift can be attributed to the proliferation of fitness as a priority in people’s lives, the huge gains in activewear sales are also driven by women who aren’t exercising at all, but those “commuting in comfort, running errands with efficiency, working from home in secret spandex,” writes Jenni Avins at Quartz.

“This is the new denim,” Murphy said on an earnings call in February. He says that many of the factors driving the growth of activewear parallel the forces that led to the explosion of the premium denim category, now worth $1.2 billion in the U.S. alone according to market research firm NPD Group, and an important engine of growth for a wide range of fashion brands.

Spandex as style is something high-end brands are moving toward in an effort to become a relevant touch-point in every aspect of a woman’s day. Betsey Johnson and Tory Burch have announced they’ll release activewear lines in fall 2014 and spring 2015, respectively. Fashion brands such as Rag & Bone, Donna Karan, and Emilio Pucci are also producing more items that embrace functional comfort.

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While it’s clear that yoga pants are having a moment, pulling off “soft dressing” with style requires some thought. We spoke with fashion stylist Janelle Nicole Carothers for advice on how to give your favorite comfy fitness clothes more mileage and still look pulled together.

1. Focus on fit. Don’t sport gym clothes that are too small or too big. Pants should fit flat on the waist, without digging and pinching. Your clothes shouldn’t have to be tugged on with every twist and turn your body makes.

2. Handle with care. Read the washing instructions on your workout gear. And, double check seams every so often. Proper cleaning and care will add some mileage to your wardrobe and prevent thinning fibers, and unsolicited peep shows in the sunlight or yoga class.

3. Consider the occasion. Activewear is totally acceptable style for checking things off your to do list: grocery shopping, lunch with a girlfriend, and running other errands. But don’t show up to your mother’s retirement party in gym clothes.

4. Accessorize. Large aviator-frame sunglasses are perfect for a city chic look, and can cover a flushed, un-made up face after the gym. Large hoop earrings will distract from less-than-perfect hair.

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5. Choose functional fabrics. If you’re going from studio to street, be sure you’re wearing items made with synthetic fabrics that are specifically designed to wick away sweat. Wearing damp clothes is no fun and only leads to skin irritation and mildew.

6. Know when to invest in new items. Just as you’d never wear a blouse with a coffee stain on it to the office, you shouldn’t sport activewear that’s discolored by sweat. Yellowing and permanent sweat marks are signs of items pushed past their prime.

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