Fitness & Fashion: the Activewear Market in China

In a bid to embrace a healthy lifestyle, athleisure is the latest trend to dominate the Chinese market

The versatility of athleisure, which by definition is clothing that can transfer between the office and the gym, lends a whole new meaning to the term smart casual. Health and image conscious customers have a perfect incentive to indulge in activewear. Sitting comfortably between Chinese consumers love for streetwear and a growing interest in sports participation - and a desire to appear fit and healthy even if one isn’t practising a particular sport. According to analysts at Euromonitor this ideal of looking sporty ‘has become the new sexy’.

Maia Active's social media content takes it one step further for its viewers
Maia Active's social media content takes it one step further for its viewers

Off to a running start

The government has begun encouraging a healthy China initiative which has prompted a shift in attitudes towards fitness. Gym and health club revenue has grown significantly and in 2016, Shanghai alone was home to well over 1,000 gyms. The traditional perception of beauty among China women is changing as well, shifting away from a preference for being skinny to a desire to be fit and healthy. This, coupled with the push for sports participation has opened Chinese consumers to fashionable yet functional activewear and it is currently the second largest global market, second only to America.

Gartner L2 suggests that the preference for athleisure in China is in line with the popularity of streetwear, as well as marathon running and a general increase in sports participation, from basketball and football to tennis and yoga. Lululemon was one of the first athleisure brands to enter into China. Back in 2017 they collaborated with fitness KOL (Key Opinion Leader) influencer Tiffany Hua at Unroll China in Beijing and saw 5,000 attendees in a single day. Leading on from this, the China launch of their global campaign ‘This is Yoga’, which garnered 240 million impressions and 26 million video views and has cemented it as a favourite in the athleisure market, and a favourite amongst China’s budding yogis. This is an excellent example of omni-channel marketing and online to offline campaigns that allow brands to interact with niche audiences, and pave the way to growth in China.

Activewear has become part of the everyday staple wardrobe. Dressing for the gym is an exciting and a style conscious decision - there are a number of activewear brands on the market all with niche specialties and designs. It’s not just sports giants such as Nike and Adidas making their mark in this area - global luxury players are having to work to stay relevant among millennial consumers by appealing to their fitness-savvy consumers.

‘Whereas most luxury brands have been closing their stores in recent years in China, sportswear giants are expanding their store network, to showcase the brand and spread their lifestyle positioning’, says research agency Daxue Consulting. Thanks to designer Alexander Wang who predicted this trend back in 2012, nowadays trainers and sweatpants are a regular feature on the catwalk as brands work to keep up with this trend. This highlights the influence of the athleisure market on the world of fashion and a demand for high end activewear that needs to be met.

Activewear China: Nike vs. adidas Digital IQ Index Footprint. Source: L2Inc
Activewear China: Nike vs. adidas Digital IQ Index Footprint. Source: L2Inc

Finding your brands’ perfect fit

More and more celebrities, models and fitness KOL influencers are being seen in athleisure, and they regularly post their favorite brands and workout routines across social media. These brand ambassadors play an important role in brand awareness, driving sales and dictating trends. Especially in China, KOLs have a huge following on platforms like WeChat and RED and dedicated fan bases, meaning they can make or break trends.

Looking at niche segments, such as yoga or even running is guaranteed to set oneself apart from the already heavy competition, as has been seen with Lululemon. Brand loyalty is also increasingly important and Chinese consumers often already have a brand in mind before making a purchase decision, less swayed by discounts and more looking for a strong brand reputation and high quality, comfortable and chic products.

A number of local brands have appeared on the market, however they are yet to have the same impact as there is still a preference for foreign brands, generally with a better reputation among Chinese consumers. This is where athleisure and sportswear brands can optimize their selling potential in China by promoting their story and pushing a healthy lifestyle, as well as their product. For athleisure brands, offline events such as sponsoring marathons and other sporting events could be the obvious ticket to China market growth - what better way to test out your activewear than to see it in action.

As mentioned earlier on, Chinese attitudes toward exercise are still transitioning but a real change in society is under way. Knowing how to reach those key audiences and convince new customers is a challenge that can be won via localized content and thoughtful planning which is where many brands fall flat. This may seem obvious but our advice is partnering with the right agency and taking time to understand your audience - crucial first steps to entry of which brands ought to be aware of the pitfalls.

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