Athleisure & the High Fashion Collaboration: Adidas x Stella McCartney

One Monday in 2015, Nike launched a capsule collection, dubbed NikeLab x JFS, with Berlin-based Acronym designer Johanna F. Schneider. That Thursday evening, at Paris men’s fashion week, Adidas unveilled a new collaboration with Junichi Abe’s Kolor. Together, the launches were the latest in a crescendo of fashion-related activities by the world’s top sportswear brands, whose core identities have long been more squarely rooted in athletic performance.

Traditionally aligned with athletes, Nike recently began working with fashion model Karlie Kloss on a major women’s marketing campaign. Though Kloss is a former ballet dancer who practices yoga, the company has never before partnered with a fashion model on this kind of scale. What’s more, in October, Nike staged a high-profile fashion show in New York as part of its "Women's Innovation Summit" — attended by scores of fashion editors and featuring Kloss and a small army of models — to unveil its collaboration with Brazilian designer Pedro Lourenço.

Meanwhile, on top of its longstanding lines developed in partnership with Stella McCartney (Adidas by Stella McCartney) and Yohji Yamamoto (Y-3), in recent cycles, Adidas has launched a flurry of fashion collaborations with designers including Raf Simons, Rick Owens, Mary Katrantzou and Jeremy Scott.

So, why the uptick in fashion activities from the world’s top two sportswear giants?

One of the things that we recognise, certainly in the women’s business, is that there is no performance without style.

 For Nike, a critical factor is the growth of its women’s business and the women’s activewear market overall, to which fashion and style are key. “[Nike] has a $5 billion women’s business and most times people have no idea how large we are. By 2017, we plan to be $7 billion,” said Nike president Trevor Edwards. “We are seeing growth in the performance segments — running and training — and in terms of the style and look that comes from that. Tights are the new denim. We have seen that women interact more seamlessly across running, workout, fitness and lifestyle. We see all those things blend.”

“One of the things that we have learned is the speed at which we have to flow goods into the market,” Edwards continued. “Our frequency is much higher for women’s. Plus, you have got to spread much wider variation on colour. It is still grounded in a great performance product, but the expression of it is much more important. Constantly changing that expression and giving her new looks, new experiences, is a key part of what we do. One of the things that we recognise, certainly in the women’s business, is that there is no performance without style.”

“Nike isn’t a fashion brand. We’re listening to the needs of the athletes and we’re solving them with innovative solutions. But we’re acknowledging the fashion side of [women’s] experience with sport. Women don’t have to choose between highly functional, technical product and fashionable product,” added Julie Igarashi, Nike’s vice president of global design for women's training.

For Adidas, fashion collaborations are a way of expanding the company’s creative ecosystem and keeping consumers engaged and excited by the Adidas brand in a fast moving market. “These days the pace has become so fast. People go to verticals, like H&M and Zara, and expect new products every month. Even with high fashion labels, it’s the cruise collection and pre-collections; every three months you get something new,” said Dirk Schönberger, creative director of Adidas’ sport style division. “We are a very commercial brand, so, of course, we have to deliver — at a minimum every week — something that excites the consumer. The verticals and the [speed of the] Internet have changed the way we do things.”

“Sports style is really a giant consumer vertical; it’s very lifestyle sportswear, so there is much more of a fashion element,” he continued. “It’s what our consumer wants. It’s an essential part of the brand… I think what is intriguing and great about Adidas is the bandwidth of this brand, that it can go from high performance athletic wear to something that attracts the young lifestyle consumer.”

But according to Schönberger, the success of Adidas’ recent fashion collaborations is better measured in terms of brand metrics than sales. “Adidas has always been known for breaking rules and doing something unexpected. This is something that we want any collaboration to deliver. I think the success is not wholly financial; it’s how people are starting to look at Adidas. It helps us to create a lot of energy for the brand. And, it makes people look again, on a deeper level, at the Adidas product.”

“It is the moment of sportswear in fashion,” added Schönberger. “We will see new shoes and apparel dropping: first from Pharrell and then Kanye will follow, then the continuation of our partnership with Raf Simons and Rick Owens. At the moment I am very happy.”

Ever since H&M kicked off the designer collaboration craze with a capsule from Karl Lagerfeld in 2004, buzzy, one-off, mass market collections from high fashion labels have become the norm. But in recent years, the announcements whipping shoppers (and eBay hawkers) into a frenzy aren't just coming from the high street — they're coming from activewear labels. Tim Coppens, Charlotte Olympia, A.P.C., Olivier Rousteing and Cushnie et Ochs are just a few of the fashion brands partnering with athletic companies to lend their names to clothes better suited for hitting the gym than a runway. Even celebrities like Rihanna (Fenty x Puma) and Kanye West (Yeezy, if you live under a rock) are getting in on the category. It's as though a tide of sweat has been unleashed on the fashion world — but why now?

Adidas was ahead of the pack, launching its first fashion collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto all the way back in 2003. Adidas Originals general manager Arthur Hoeld says Yamamoto first approached the brand about using the famous 'three-stripe' trainers for its Fall 2001 show, thinking they would refuse. Instead, a permanent collaboration — called Y-3 — was born two years later, following "a great dialogue of how the future of sportswear could look."

"This was the first time a high fashion designer with such celebrated, close-to-couturier status worked with a sport company, breaking down the walls between fashion and sportswear," Hoeld says. "The result, influence and impact of this partnership can still be seen on the street as well as the runways of many of the large, established fashion houses today."

Adidas followed up with another long-running hit collaboration with Stella McCartney. "When I started, I wanted to change what I saw out there. It was an opportunity to offer women something they could work out in and still feel great about the way they looked," says McCartney. "When we began working on the first season, nobody had created anything like it — a combination of performance technologies with a focused design aesthetic."

"They were game changers - it's a totally overused term, but they really were game changers," says Clare Varga, active director at trend forecasting agency WGSN.  And while Adidas may have gotten a head start on the trend, Nike has spent the past few years evening the playing field, tapping designers like Riccardo Tisci and Olivier Rousteing for high-profile collaborations.

As activewear collaborations have ramped up in recent years, high street collaborations — once the brass ring of partnerships to bring a brand more exposure and bring the designer's vision to a more affordable price point — have wound down. Target, which once offered a high-profile designer collaboration at least twice a year, hasn't announced a new once since Adam Lippes floundered at the end of 2015. Recent designer collaborations from H&M and Kohl's have drawn criticism that they are simply low-quality knockoffs of existing designs from brands like Balmain and Reed Krakoff, respectively, dimming the prestige on both ends of the partnership. While Carly Cushnie of Cushnie et Ochs says she wouldn't rule out the possibility of a high street collaboration, the brand's recent activewear capsule with Bandier is more in line with their values. 

"For us it was a really great opportunity to introduce product that was more of an entry price point for us, and we really felt it was a natural transition in terms of our line and aesthetic," she says."[High street collaborations have] been on our radar, but it's something that we've been very careful about. If we end up doing any collaborations like that, we really want to make sure that the product is represented in the best way possible, and we don't want to just do product that's a lesser priced version of what we're already doing at the ready to wear level."

But more than the accessible price point, an athletic collaboration allows designers to capture an ever-growing sector of the market: Athleisure. The athleisure movement is not just another another passing fad; for the first time, according to Varga, the health and well-being industry is more valuable than the pharmaceutical industry. NPD predicts the global activewear market will reach $178 billion by 2019. "The mistake people make when thinking of athleisure is that it's a fashion trend, when it's actually a lifestyle trend, and that's what makes it completely different from normcore or health goth or the other things that have come out of the sports industry and died off," Varga explains. "It's a lifestyle trend that's come about because of huge changes in the way people dress, the rise of health and well-being, the fact that people are putting a premium on what we call 'wealthness.'" And according to Varga, it's stealing market share from the fashion industry as well.

The solution? Steal it back. As more people wear active leggings and sports bras in every day life, adding an activewear component is just one more way a brand should dress its customer, not unlike branching out into shoes or denim.

"We feel that the Cushnie et Ochs woman was shopping [at Bandier], she just wasn't able to buy us, and now she can," says Michelle Ochs. "We kind of saw that it was also an extension of what we were interested in, and what we thought our customer would be interested in."

The relationship between designer and sportswear brand has changed since Yamamoto approached Adidas nearly 15 years ago; rather than only bringing prestige to the athletic brand, these partnerships have become much more symbiotic, benefitting both parties. "Both the Athleta and Derek Lam 10 Crosby customer are looking for versatility and elevated style," says Athleta president Nancy Green of the brand's collaboration with the designer, which just ended after four seasons. "Lam was drawn to the technical expertise Athleta infuses into its products, while we were keen on exploring the idea of how modern American sportswear intersects with today’s active lifestyle."  

In fact, the hardest part of entering the activewear sector is nailing the performance part of the equation. "The fashion brands that have moved into activewear, the ones that will survive are the ones that actually have good functioning sportswear," Varga says. "You can't fake sportswear."

Varga compares it to Nike's recent decision to ditch its NikeBand and instead collaborate with Apple on wearable tech; rather than breaking into an unknown category on its own, a brand is wise to partner with a company that already has expertise in that area. "Riccardo’s vision pushed us in a direction aesthetically that we wouldn’t have headed on our own. On the other hand, the training product is engineered for performance, which isn’t Riccardo’s expertise," explains NikeLab senior design director of apparel Jarrett Reynolds. "So we were able to contribute our innovative materials and understanding of the body in motion to ensure that the product would perform."

Indeed, for the big activewear brands, the priority is always functionality over courting editorial placement. Sportswear designers, Varga notes, are "quite geeky" problem solvers, who are more interested in engineering new fabrics than in selecting the best patterns for a sports bra. "You will never hear a sportswear designer who likes the term 'athleisure' or the concept," she says laughing. "We're knobs about it."

"For certain collaborations, such as the one with Riccardo, we know that products will become coveted street style pieces," says Reynolds. "But what I’m looking forward to most about that collaboration is seeing athletes wearing the product while training."

With the growing market share, designers may soon look to bring these activewear lines in house and cut out the middlemen. Beyoncé's Ivy Park is a good example of this, Varga says; rather than position it as a collaboration, she's positioned it as its own brand. Varga also notes that, especially in the case of Y-3 and Stella McCartney for Adidas, some activewear collaborations have already "almost become standalone brands on their own."

"Ultimately, I think because trends have such longevity, I'm sure [fashion brands] will move to bring [activewear] in house," says Varga, "but at the moment, collaborations are where its at. They're like the new celebrity perfume — everyone has one."

While there are a lot of these collaborations out there, the market for them doesn't seem to be oversaturated yet, as they are still benefitting brands and delighting customers. "We take a certain pride in knowing we helped to bring about and further the concept of uniting sport and style," says Adidas's Hoeld. "That said, we also don’t view this as a 'trend' or passing fad. It is something we helped start and it also something we never left." Varga explains that within the athleisure movement, there are several "style tribes," including "athluxers" who are snapping up these high-end collaborations in increasing numbers. Though it's currently comprised mostly of women, men are moving in on the action, too. 

"It speaks to all market levels, it speaks to both genders, and it speaks to all product types as well, so it has such longevity," she says. "The active industry has had a coolness loop; it has this knack, because of all the technology, to constantly reinvent and constantly bring freshness. It feeds itself at the moment, plus it's just really exciting."

Make up x Bobbi Brown Cosmetics

Photography x Cedric Nzaka

Layouts x Floyd Mthembu

Shop the collection here