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How workout wear became fashionable

Think the words designer and leggings dont go together?Think again.The athleisure trend is turning workout gear into a serious style statement

Its 9.30am on a drizzly Tuesday morning, and in a café on Sloane Avenue in Chelsea there is a sea of women ordering matcha lattes and chia-seed puddings for breakfast, all dressed in sporty leggings, marl sweatshirts and brightly coloured trainers.

They are lithe and toned but, with their perfectly glossed hair and carefully constructed faces of "no make-up make-up, they dont look like theyre about to leap up and go for a run.Their workout uniform, it seems, is purely a fashion statement.

Last year the CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, made a big statement at the Womens Innovation summit in New York City, proclaiming, "Leggings are the new denim.While that might have been true of Los Angeles at the time, it didnt feel like anyone in London was dashing into work meetings in sporty running pants.But now the trend has firmly taken hold, even gaining its own (slightly ridiculous) fashion parlance: athleisure.

"Wearing high-end sports clothes become a new status symbol, says Sally Dixon, a former fashion editor and founder of the premium sportswear company Every Second Counts."It says, “Im healthy, I look after my body.”Which is great.

Dixon is herself dressed in her own black Speed leggings (£98) with a subtle reflective flash at the hip – having just rushed in, not from a workout, but from dropping off a batch of her new-season sportswear at the HQ of Matches Fashion, where the pieces have been selling out since last October.

Clockwise from left:Cassini leggings, £145,Hey Jo; Cotton-mix sweater, £140, by Norma Kamal,i from Net-a-Porter; Windproof hoodie, £29.90,Uniqlo; Air Zoom Stucture 19 trainers, £105, Nike

A fitness fanatic – she has run two marathons and is a qualified pilates instructor – Dixon founded her company in 2011.The fabrics have antibacterial, sweat-wicking properties.But, after seeing how people wear her clothes ("leggings have replaced jeans as the thing people wear when they go for brunch), the new collection has more of a lifestyle focus.

Recently released sales figures back up her view.Last year, we spent £4.5bn on activewear in the UK, according to the consumer market research group NPD – an increase of six per cent on 2013.Running shoes were the most popular buy, accounting for £44m.And according to Mintel, roughly half of those buying sportswear have no intention of using them for actual sports.

Its never been cooler to look like youre moments away from a workout, without actually having to raise your heart rate.With Stellas healthy eating columnist Ella Woodward topping the Amazon book charts and celebrities such as Jessica Alba building an estimated $1bn business from products including organic detergent and nappies, the rise of athleisure taps into the current wellness craze.

The healthy-living industry is now worth a $3.4 trillion globally – nearly three-and-a-half times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry, according to figures from the Global Wellness summit last year.Designers such as Alexander Wang have led the charge, with his athletic-inspired line for H&M last year (at the time he said, "I live in gym clothes.When you go out on the street, its the uniform now.He added:"I am not an athlete).

Net-a-Porter launched a sportswear channel last June; while Gap opened GapFit, its first dedicated fitness-clothing-only store in two units of Box Park in trendy Shoreditch.One of the forerunners, cult Canadian sportswear brand Lululemon, recently launched in the UK and now has nine stores.

"If you want to see the rise of athleisure, you just have to look at what people are wearing in Shoreditch, says Pip Black, co-owner of the boutique fitness studios Frame."The girls in leggings and trainers used to just be coming to our gym, now everyone is wearing workout clothes.

Black and her business partner Joan Murphy, who now have three locations, recently launched an activewear collection with high-street brand Whistles, comprising of high-waisted leggings (£55), slouchy jumpers (£50) and crop tops (£35) in muted greys and blacks.The collection, which was Whistles first foray into activewear, was a success; a second collection is in the works.

While the Frame team and Dixon are relative newcomers on the activewear scene, Tamara Hill-Norton, co founderand creative director of Sweaty Betty, has been established since 1998.Sweaty Betty now has 46 stores in the UK and USA."When we started, there were just brands like Nike and adidas with macho slogans printed across the chest – Just Do It.We wanted to adopt the aspirational lifestyle feel of some of the ski and surf brands out there and create a collection that women could wear and feel great in.

Clockwise from left:Neoprene top, £100, adidas by Stella McCartney; Long-sleeved top, £60, Sweaty Betty; Personal Best vest, £70, Every Second Counts; Gym bag, £118, Lululemon

Dressed in Sweaty Bettys new-season leather track pants, trainers, a Sweaty Betty grey marl short-sleeved jumper layered over a J Crew white shirt, Hill-Norton is a walking embodiment of the brand."People are building sportswear into their everyday wardrobes, she says."Its no longer something you throw on for the school run, then have to change out of later.You can wear it all day.

Sales grow, she says, 20 per cent each year.Bestsellers always include black leggings."We have spent 17 years refining our designs to make sure they flatter those bits of the thighs that women hate, and lift and sculpt your bum.You look so much better in leggings than jeans; and theyre more comfortable.This season, the brand has launched Zero Gravity tights (£90), which have a very subtle pattern and do something quite wondrous to your legs.

While all these brands still have fitness at their heart – they are designed for the sporty woman – Joanne Admiral took a different approach when she launched Hey Jo in June 2012."The leggings are meant to be sold in a boutique fashion shop, alongside premium denim, Admiral says."The brand is about luxury wellbeing and all that that encompasses.We dont want to look like a sportswear company.

You could wear her leggings, made by a tailor in London from luxurious Italian jersey (£149), to the gym – the fabric is sweat wicking – but Admiral made them with a busy 30- to 40-year-old woman in mind.Not, she hastens to add, an 18-year-old who would look good in anything.

"I made them for someone like me, who is someone who works, has four kids and is generally running around, butwants to look fashionable, she says.Four days out of seven, she wears her own leggings.Today she has teamed a two-tone camel and black pair with an Isabel Marant sweatshirt.

The interior designer Kelly Hoppen was her first client online who wasnt a friend."She went on to buy several pairs.So I emailed her to thank her, and she said that she lived in them and wore them with a jacket and boots.She met Deborah Meaden on Strictly, who then started wearing them too, and said on Twitter that she looked great in them, which made me feel so proud.It shows that women of all different shapes and sizes can wear them.

Fashion companies with no links to sportswear are following suit, such as US designer Kate Spade, most famousfor her bags and watches, who last month announced a new turn into athleisure.But the rise of activewear has had casualties in other sectors.

Denim, as Parker predicted, is one of them.Levis CEO Chip Bergh has admitted that his company, whose sales have dipped by more than $2bn in the last two decades, has been affected by sportswears rising popularity.And NPD reports that sales of traditional bras are down 19 per cent, as more people choose to wear sports bras and crop tops instead.

Because just as we abandoned the girdle in the 60s, so were throwing off the restraints of skinny jeans and restrictive bras today.Vive la revolution.All the while subtly making the point that we workout, dont you know…

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