Athleisure is a fusion of fashion and athletic apparel, fit for a wide variety of occasions, such as at work, school, socializing, and of course, a variety of workouts. Because athleisure often presents an active healthy lifestyle, it is considered to be the ‘new sexy’ for many Chinese. According to Statista, China’s sportswear market value is predicted to reach RMB 310.4 billion by 2020, and there are no signs of slowing down. With a growing passion for fitness, the athleisure market in China is booming.
Fitness has become particularly popular among Chinese millennials
In 2001, there were only around 500 gyms all over China, however, in the past 20 years, it boosted to over 37,000 fitness facilities in China by 2019. According to the report by Global Wellness Summit (GWS) in 2019, 104 million Chinese at least had one fitness app, such as KEEP. Gym memberships in China cost 3,000-4,000 RMB per year on average, but as incomes are rising over the years Chinese are more willing to spend money on healthy lifestyles, inside or outside of the gym. Fitness in China has become popular topic in the daily life.
How to reach Chinese millennial fitness consumers
Additionally, Chinese millennials are shifting beauty preferences from skinny to strong. Hence, going to the gym has become increasingly popular among young Chinese women. Influenced and encouraged by female key opinion leaders (KOLs) and celebrities on Chinese social media platforms, they tend to share photos body progress photos and share their fitness experience on social media platforms.
The sports brand, Puma, invited Rihanna as the chief brand designer. Canadian athletic apparel company Lululemon, for example, builds strong brand awareness within its target customers, using a strong KOLs team which includes local yoga coaches and internet influencers
Different from Gen X in China, who take fitness as a method of relieving stress and preventing diseases, millennials regard fitness as a social activity. They would like to make friends in the gym or on online communities, making socializing a key aspect of fitness culture in China. This is something many Chinese fitness brands have leveraged. As for apparel, the activewear Chinese fitness fanatics want is not just comfortable, but even more importantly – attractive.
Source: XiaoHongShu – Sports & exercise community on XiaoHongShu
The Chinese government encourages a healthier society
In recent years, China has faced many health challenges from an aging population, environmental pollutions, and a developing healthcare system. Health problems, such as growing childhood obesity rates and cancer rates, push great pressure on the Chinese government. To solve these problems, the Chinese government has had to step in to support the expansion of the health sector. As one of the quickest possible solutions to improve the situation of the rapidly aging population and country’s health problem, the State Council put forward the “Healthy China 2030” initiative in 2018.
According to the plan, the Chinese government hopes to engage 700 million people in physical activities at least once a week. According to Nielsen Sports, the Chinese government plans to build a CNY 5 trillion investment in the sports industry by 2025, a strategy covering from improved China’s fitness to encouraging foreign investment, grassroots sport to elite performance. Together with the increasing attention and participation of sports and fitness activities, the breakout of China’s fitness industry, and the encouragement from the government, all of these led to a dramatic growth of demand in the athleisure market in China.
The sportswear market in China is still growing
China’s sportswear market showed rapid growth from 2013 to 2018, exceeding 40 billion dollars in 2018. Although the growth rates are predicted to slow down in the following years, it still sustains around 10% growth, which is much faster than other countries. There still are many opportunities to expand the scope of development for brands in the athleisure market in China.
Data source: Forward-The Economist, design by daxue consulting, Size and growth of the sportswear market in China (2012-2023)
Competition from the China’s domestic brands
China’s sportswear market is the second-largest in the world, only behind the U.S, but is dominated by big international sports brands like Nike and Adidas. Even if the fashion trend of the athleisure market in China, in terms of design creativity or technology innovation, is controlled by those big sports companies, the local brands, like Anta and Li Ning, grew their market share quickly in recent years as a result of products upgrading of Chinese domestic brands.
For example, Li Ning, in the Paris Fashion Week 2018, shocked Chinese customers with the striking Chinese characters “中國李寧” on its clothing products; Anta launched high-tech basketball shoes “KT series”, which got rid of Anta’s stereotype of “cheap and ordinary” in customers’ perception.
Source: Shopnings, Li-Ning x Paris Fashion Week
Competition from fashion brands
The line between sports and fashion apparel are becoming blurred in China’s athleisure market. Most consumers – mass-market consumers – do not particularly seek the functionality of sportswear, but they are increasingly interested in fashion elements of sportswear. In response to this trend, some fast-fashion brands extend their new product lines for the customers who looking for sports as well as fashion. H&M, for example, introduced the H&M Sports series; Uniqlo has also shown more athletic advertising as well as athlete models to better stand out its sports products line.
International sportswear giants like Nike and Adidas have led China’s athleisure market for a long time, but with the entry of fast-fashion companies, they are forced to make changes. Nike began to get in touch with more designers. As one of Nike designers says, “When we pair our athletes with our creative partners we truly have an opportunity to realize the full potential of Nike.” Nike wants to create fashion that not only athletic but also unique, which makes Nike even more appealing to Chinese millennials.
However, fashion sportswear does not mean that consumers just want to look stylish rather than actually workout. “The reason why sports brands such as Nike and Adidas have done so well is they already had that brand image, the prestige you’d want to be associated with,” explains Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor. The brand image of Nike and Adidas, professional activewear and performance-quality product, makes consumers accustomed to buying brands that ranking the first in their mind, which is a core competitive power of an athleisure brand when a traditional sports brand want to become fashionable.
Differentiation provides more opportunities for sportswear brands.
With the rise of income, growing level of sports specialization, and diversity of fitness in China’s urban cities, the differentiation of sportswear brands have become more important. In the past years, popular fitness in China were limited to running, basketball, and ping-pong; now, more and more Chinese are beginning to participate in tennis, fencing, golf, and yoga. It provides more space for sports brands to find their position in the Chinese sports market, such as Lululemon (yoga), DESCENTE (skiing), and BIEM.L.FDLKK (golf).
Tips for brands in China’s athleisure market
Build the brand as a professional fitness brand
Athleisure brands in China should develop their brand image as a professional fitness brand. Among both the general sports brands like Nike and the niche marketing brands like Lululemon, both are the top choices that consumers are familiar with when they think about buying new sportswear. Besides, when brands focus on their professional image, it will be easier to collaborate with athletes and KOLs who care more about the function of a product.
The target customers are changing
Lululemon is an example of a brand with very distinct consumer groups, their customers are generally 20-40 year old, urban white-collar females who are interested in yoga, running and wellness. However, China’s fitness trends are changing fast, when more females became interested in basketball and more males were looking for comfortable trousers for both work and workouts, Nike launched more professional women’s shoes, and Lululemon designed joggers which easily stay dry and comfortable for their expanding male consumer base.
New opportunities in China’s low tier market
The athleisure market in China is booming in urban, first and second-tier cities, but the fitness culture in China’s low tier cities is just beginning. With more and more Chinese taking fitness as a daily activity and the trend of live-streaming all over China, getting touch with those consumers earlier would build awareness and drive revenue.