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Opinion pieces on business & economic issues

LEE Min-Hoon

Sportswear Fashion Boom

LEE Min-Hoon

July 31, 2009

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With cosmetic surgery becoming much more common and extreme make-up and hairstyles reaching their limits, "natural-looking" beauty has been gaining increasing attention. Hollywood celebrities are often caught on camera with no make-up and unkempt hair obviously gone untouched by a hairstylist, seemingly indifferent to getting their picture taken. And their clothes and shoes? The same nonchalant attitude, as if they don't feel the need to impress anyone. Yet, somehow they still look chic.

The key fashion items behind this natural look are the "sweat pants and sneakers" combo. As world renowned stars are found in striped sweat pants and hoodies walking around shopping centers or jogging around the neighborhood, this relaxed form of attire is indeed fast becoming a fashion trend for not only Hollywood stylists but also the general public.

The trend has been a great opportunity for Nike, a sportswear company which previously focused on menswear after repeated failures in appealing to its women clientele. During the past few years, it has reaped tremendous sales revenue in shoes and clothes by linking famous athletes to its brand, but its strategy was mostly embraced by men. Efforts to promote its women's sporting line with celebrities such as soccer star Mia Hamm and tennis celebrity Serena Williams seemed to boost sales, but most women continued to remain uninterested.

Nike then recognized the need to develop women's clothing based on the lifestyle of women. The company closely watched the consumption behavior of its female customers and concluded that their interest in working out was increasingly growing, and that they valued functionality while at the same time wanted clothes to look good when worn. It also found that women wanted something fashionable that would take them from the gym to the office, or even out on the town.

Nike immediately added sensuous colors to its line of clothing and selected trendy designs. For example, it lowered the waistline of its sweat pants, mirroring that of popular jeans; this design allowed for slight exposure of the lower abdomen, gaining huge popularity with teenagers and twenty-something clubgoers. It also released Swarovski crystal-decorated T-shirts, generating a lot of attention with female customers. Adidas and Reebok have also partnered with world-class designers, contributing to the most recent sportswear boom.

The trend has also rapidly evolved in Korea . Despite contracted consumer sentiment due to the global financial crisis, women's interests in health and beauty remain high. Fashion experts say that the sportswear industry has been growing despite a weakened global fashion industry as people during this recession opt for daily leisure activities that don't require special sports equipment or lessons. In particular, women sportswear with simple designs and functionality are in vogue, especially those that can be worn in the office when casual clothing is permitted. According to major department stores in Korea , sportswear sales have recently enjoyed increased sales of more than 30%.

In Korea , it is especially hard to deny the effects that hit reality TV shows, such as "Infinite Challenge," "Family on the Go" and "Two Days, One Night," have had on strengthening trends. Teenagers' fashion interests have deepened with the help of young TV celebrities such as Lee Hyo-Ri and Lee Seung-Ki. Also, as more consumers try to deal with high oil prices and become more health-conscious, bike commuting has been on the rise . Against this background, sales have boomed as many substitute street wear with sporting wear. Furthermore, the relatively new five-day workweek has increased leisure time , allowing for more family outdoor leisure activities.

Amid an ongoing economic downturn, there is widespread speculation of restructuring plans, and various methods to address the contraction have been pouring out. Yet, corporate executives are not confident that their attempts to weather the storm will end in success.

Under these circumstances, it may be safe to follow what customers need. Given the characteristics of sportswear, which are clearly differentiated from that of business attire, companies can safely admit that the recent boom for sportswear is a reflection of customer needs. This "need for slowness" reduces the fears of economic uncertainty and stress from school and work and allows people to cope with a fast-changing, digitalized world.

Taking into account such needs, what product will be the next big star? Just as the sportswear market boomed in the face of a fashion industry in crisis-mode, leaders should pay attention to the hidden needs of customers so they can find new opportunities that others have yet to consider.

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