Mastering Sporty Chic

Your Guide to Effortless Athleisure Fashion
Sporty Chic Athleisure — Where Style Meets Comfort
BY Gina Jones

Sportswear used to be considered the antithesis of chic; indeed, legendary Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld once said: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” Today’s athleisure couldn’t be further from this image: it’s about the blend between formal and casual, high fashion and street chic.

Fashion-forward celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian have embraced this trend wholeheartedly, mixing tracksuits with blazers, sweats and heels. Among the many high fashion houses now adopting sporty chic, Balenciaga has led the way in spearheading this vision of everyday luxury with Lycra leggings, panelled track jackets and trainers beloved by models, artists and influencers alike.

Here, we’ll explore the dynamic world of athleisure, where fashion seamlessly merges with comfort.

Understanding the Sporty Chic Trend

Athleisure is a hybrid style of clothing that mixes sportswear with everyday apparel to create a relaxed, casual look.

While it’s grown in popularity over the last decade, the trend is actually rooted in the early 19th century. As the Industrial Revolution automated more people’s work, it democratised leisure; suddenly, it wasn’t just rich people who had time for hobbies and sports. As peoples’ lifestyles became more active, so too did their apparel.

Sneakers, polo shirts, hoodies, sweaters: these are all items that were invented between the turn of the 19th century and the 1930s. What supercharged sporty chic, however, was the advent of man-made fabrics like spandex in the 1950s. These materials were more flexible, durable and washable than natural materials, modern fabrics for the modern age.

By the 1960s, tracksuits were starting to be worn as streetwear, with Adidas popularising the trend for athletic fashion. The late 70s and 80s saw the rise of hip-hop culture, with artists such as Run-DMC adopting Adidas tracksuits and laceless shell-toed sneakers as their style uniform, which were ideal for breakdancing.

The momentum for sporty chic gathered in the late 90s/early 00s with the launch of Lululemon, a Canadian company that pioneered a new style of leggings based on yoga pants but designed to be worn outside of the gym. Unlike previous retailers in this sector, Lululemon positioned itself as an aspirational lifestyle brand at a high price point.

Now a style staple with fashion-forward celebrities such as Hailey Bieber, it has spawned an array of copycats such as Alo Yoga, Sweaty Betty and Kate Hudson’s Fabletics brand.

The influence of athleisure spans beyond popular culture, however. Sporty chic is now taking over the runway, with Gucci, Miu Miu, and even Hermès branching out into activewear. The athleisure industry is now worth an estimated $348 billion and is still growing. This is a look that isn’t going anywhere.

Defining Sporty Chic: Key Characteristics

At the most recent apex of the activewear trend in the early 2010s, wearing yoga pants to brunch seemed like a daring choice, as up to that point, the go-to casualwear was denim. The pandemic in 2020 brought the trend into a new focus, however, as lockdowns meant people deliberately sought out more comfortable clothing they could relax in.

Once the doors to socialising opened, attitudes shifted; stiff, uncomfortable clothing was out, and effortless, practical sportswear was in, and not just for brunch, but as partywear, workwear and, well, anywhere wear.

Athleisure 2.0 is about taking the best, most enjoyable aspects of activewear: the comfort, the fit, the durable fabrics, and elevating the look. Today, it’s not uncommon to see models like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner wearing Lululemon leggings with a graphic tee and leather jacket, a designer handbag hooked on their arm, heading out shopping. There’s no such thing as ‘off-duty style’ because sporty is stylish.

As celebrity stylist, Mickey Freeman told InStyle magazine, "In a relatively short span of time, athleisure has evolved from an often improvised look that involved mixing and matching pieces into a specific aesthetic that designers continue to reinterpret, and even incorporate into a single garment.”

Whether it’s trench coats that incorporate hoodies or velour tracksuit fabric used for dresses and skirts worn with designer strappy sandals, the influence of sportswear can be seen across the spectrum of runway designs now.

While the key characteristic of athleisure is the balance between comfort and style, more recent iterations of the trend are also bringing technology to the fore. ’ Next-gen athleisure’ features ever-more complex fabric tech, including advanced anti-microbial, moisture-wicking, durable fabrics. High tech has now become high fashion.

Building Your Athleisure Wardrobe: Must-Have Pieces

For those looking to curate a stylish athleisure wardrobe, the good news is that it’s made up of some versatile pieces that will not only last a long time but should also blend well with other style staples you already have.

A quality pair of leggings, for example, can be dressed up with a stylish blazer and boots to go out in or dressed down with chunky knits and trainers for lounging in colder weather.

Likewise, a great pair of trainers can pull together any number of outfits. One high fashion example is the recent collaboration between Puma and Lemlem. Its new NITRO shoe is a lightweight version of the original with a chunky sole featuring Lemlem’s signature geometrical prints, a must-have for fashion-forward sportswear fans.

More recently, shapewear has become an athleisure wardrobe essential, thanks in part to Kim Kardashian’s Skims brand, which popularised a more inclusive approach due to its wide variety of skin tone colours and sizes.

Its bodysuits and cycling shorts have become go-to items for fashion lovers, worn under a bomber jacket with trainers in a nod to 90s icons like Neneh Cherry or layered under jeans with heeled boots for a more sophisticated look.

Styling Sporty Chic: Creating Effortless Outfits

The key to effortlessly styling sporty chic outfits is to balance comfort and fashion. A simple pair of leggings, for example, can be elevated with a luxe leather jacket; likewise, you can dress down a skirt and heels with the addition of a sporty parka.

Keep it sophisticated by opting for black and contrasting fabrics that compliment each other, such as denim and silk.

The fit is very important if you want your athleisure look to be chic; balance baggy items like hoodies with tailored jackets and slimline yoga pants. Think Bella Hadid: the model cultivates a casual yet elegant look by balancing oversized items like tracksuit bottoms with very fitted tops and carefully chosen, delicate accessories.

The great thing about today’s athleisure offerings is that they can be enjoyed by fashion fans of all sizes. So many brands now are offering more size-inclusive athleisure collections that are both sporty and stylish. Reebok’s recent collaboration with curve model and influencer Francesca Perks, for example, featured some of the brand’s classic 90s pieces reworked and refitted for a new generation.

While it’s tempting to view athleisure as a kind of off-duty uniform, in fact, the joy of it is in the little personal touches that can be added: a wry slogan tee here, a meaningful bit of jewellery layered on top of a sweatshirt there, it’s how you mix it that makes the look your own.

Bella Hadid / Credit: Getty Images

Accessorizing the Sporty Chic Look: From Sneakers to Statement Pieces

The difference between sportswear for the gym and athleisure for the street is surely in the accessories. For day-to-day styling, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a baseball cap or a luxe backpack are ideal. If, however, you want to elevate your athleisure for evening drinks or the office, for example, you’ll need to up the ante with accessories like structured bags, a leather jacket and heels.

In terms of Instagrammable accessories, New Balance sneakers are the brand to be seen in. A favourite of influencers and models, its timeless appeal harks back to the 80s when its 990 sneaker was THE breakout shoe for gym-goers and street style alike. In recent years, it has gained popularity as part of the new Scandi aesthetic, worn with trench coats and Ganni statement blouses.

While the Scandi look is about understated cool, there’s another end of the spectrum that athleisure also occupies, which, depending on your style personality, may have more appeal: sexy sporty chic.

Proving that functional doesn’t have to mean frumpy, Rihanna’s recent Savage X Fenty sportswear collection was full of dramatic, sensual athleisure looks with sheer cut-outs, panels and sexy silhouettes, styled with leather pleaser boots, slicked-back hair and smokey eye make-up.

Dressed up or down, sporty chic is a versatile look that adapts to your personality - or whoever you want to be that day.

Sporty Chic Versatility: From Gym to Everyday Life

For those of us with busy lifestyles, sporty chic is a gift. There’s athleisure for all occasions, and you can seamlessly transition from gym sessions to everyday life with versatile pieces you can wear for coffee AND to your Body Pump class.

Successful layering is key to pulling this off, and for this, you’ll need some hard working basics, such as a quality puffer jacket that can be slung over gym leggings and a tank top, and easygoing footwear you can slip on and off, such as Birkenstocks, which you can switch your gym trainers out for come lunchtime.

For cool, multipurpose dressing, take inspiration from Zendaya, who wore her gym tracksuit to the front row of Fashion Week - yes, really! Pairing it with a draped trench, pointed-toe pumps and red lips, she showed how workout wear can be reimagined for a new setting.

She’s also perhaps single-handedly responsible for making ‘tennis core’ a thing again. In her latest movie, Challengers, she plays a tennis player and her wardrobe of crisp tennis whites, flared skirts, and playful jewellery is inspiring fashion lovers to take courtside style into the streets.

This love of all things sporty has extended to nail art, too; sporty fluro stripes and geometric shapes inspired by our favourite sportswear are among the top nail trends 2023.

Elsa Hosk / Credit: Instagram

Conclusion: Mastering Sporty Chic Athleisure for a Stylish Lifestyle

Channelling your inner Sporty Spice needn’t be a chore, and you don’t have to abandon your current style staples to make athleisure work for you. The key is balance: everyday items with luxe accessories, practical and stylish, baggy and close fitting, everything in moderation creates a look that’s sporty and stylish.

It’s a look that throws the traditional fashion rulebook out of the window; you can wear a hoodie to cocktails with friends if it’s layered under a tailored blazer with silk track pants, for example. Sneakers are chicer if you’re wearing them with tailored trousers or a silk jumpsuit like Phoebe Philo. Those ASICS trainers can be worn with an oversized boxy blazer suit a la Kaia Gerber. Finding combinations that work for you and your lifestyle is where the fun comes in.

In the past, many people felt they had to dress up to be stylish, but athleisure 2.0 is about having the confidence to dress down with a sporty chic twist.