A lot of what makes up modern fashion for most people is the aspiration of looking effortless. No one wants to look like they put a lot of thought into their outfit, but would rather just look like they threw it together. There is truly no better way to capture that aesthetic than through athleisure— the style of dress that incorporates leggings, joggers, hoodies, sneakers, etc., to acquire that ‘just left the gym’ look. While exercise wear maintained relevance through the 80s into the early 2000s, it was not until the 2010s that it really permeated the mainstream.
Today, athleisure represents a lifestyle of self-care and wealth, however, that was not always so. Many of the people that pioneered the style have been left out of its modern heyday. Take, for example, FUBU, or “For Us, By Us,” the streetwear brand created by a group of black designers in the early 90s. The brand introduced many athleisure staples, such as beanies, casual sports jerseys, and non-athletic sneakers. FUBU was almost immediately embraced by rappers, athletes and other black 90s tastemakers. Early FUBU designs truly captured 90s black culture, such as t-shirts that said ‘What happened to poor Rodney King,’ or ‘Free Mike Tyson.’
Almost every rap video made in that era included someone in a FUBU item. Black influence on athleisure did not stop there, and even after FUBU’s decline in relevance, rappers still held a great influence over modern American fashion. Back when Kanye West was “the old Kanye,” his style consisted of baggy jeans and sweatpants, usually matched with Polo Ralph Lauren shirts. His style bridged the gaps between traditionally black dress and white signifiers of wealth. It wasn’t until much later that the wealth took over.
Today, the brand that is most synonymous with the concept of athleisure is Lululemon. However, the brand’s founder, Chip Wilson, rejects the athleisure label because he thinks it has come to represent people who want to be perceived as though they work out, but do not live the actual lifestyle. Wilson, who made headlines in 2015 after saying some women’s bodies “just don’t work” for Lululemon clothing, stepped down from the board of directors in 2015, but Lululemon’s elitist characterization remains.
It’s hard not to maintain that characterization while selling $109 sweatpants. Other popular athleisure brands, such as Outdoor Voices and Fabletics, also try to represent the lifestyle for a specific type of woman, although they vary in price from Lululemon. Brands with longer histories, such as Nike, have even changed their aesthetics to appeal to the new athleisure crowd.
When Chip Wilson said that some women’s bodies don’t work for Lululemon, he was talking about larger bodies. Bodies of men and women who don’t go to $170/month Pure Barre gyms because they don’t have the time or money. While fashion has always been exclusionary, this feels more sinister. Athleisure is not just about the clothing you wear. It’s about the person you can be, the activities you can partake in, the social circle you can have.
Leggings and athletic half-zips have become more of a status symbol than mink coats, however, the gatekeepers of this symbol don’t want everyone to be a part of it. Wilson believes his brand, and others like it, should work for white, wealthy bodies.