July 14, 2024

Flex Tech

Innovation in Every Curve

“Today Fitness Is Fashion.” Read Vogue’s 1994 Take on Designers’ Then-New Fixation on Sports

It doesn’t take Ralph Lauren to wake up the fitness world to that fact. Increasingly, companies like Nike, Reebok, and L.A. Gear are responding to fashion’s fascination with athletic gear by streamlining their products so that they can go to the gym and to the local coffeehouse. “We try to stay as performance oriented as possible,” insists Jim Riley, vice president of apparel design and merchandising at Reebok. “But now with heavy-soled boots conquering the street, we have to think about that, too.” The result: a pair of Reebok Jams that look exactly like Doc Martens—the boot that’s put a deep tread mark in the $6 billion sneaker business.

The crossbreeding doesn’t stop there. Back in the design studios of such fitness giants as Reebok in Stoughton, Massachusetts; Nike in Beaverton, Oregon; and L.A. Gear in Los Angeles, designers take inspiration from such disparate sources as perfume bottles, hockey uniforms, mail-order catalogs, and, of course, fashion runways. It comes as no surprise, for example, that as fashion designers began deconstructing clothes several seasons ago, shoe companies like Nike and Reebok did the same, turning out sneakers that “exposed the technology” in much the same way a peek under the hood of a car would expose coils, motors, and honeycombs. More recently, Donna Karan sent anorak-inspired dresses, A-line skirts, and long trench coats in glow-in-the-dark silks down her spring ’94 runway at about the same time L.A. Gear was getting ready to introduce its state-of-the-art running shoes that have a Lumitex fiber-optic panel in the tongue to light them up at night.

Much as the executives of these companies would like to think that they don’t look to fashion for inspiration—“We’re strictly performance driven,” snips one Nike exec, while L.A. Gear president Mark Goldston throws around terms like meaningful demonstrative technology—their designers do. “Let’s face it, we don’t live in a dreamworld where what’s functional will be appealing,” says Nike designer Kathleen McNally. “We emphasize the function aspect of a product, but we also think about the street potential. We”re inspired by distressed fabrics, a gritty, more urban look. It’s not about thong leotards anymore; it’s about a superathletic look that has a more rock ’n’ roll attitude to it.”

Function isn’t the message of advertising anymore, either. Where sweat was once the great stimulus for sneaker sales, now fitness companies have turned sports into a metaphor for life with ads that target passions and states of mind. One Reebok ad for its hip, streetwise Boks line of “athleisure” shoes taps into the listlessness of Generation X with phrases like “Be careful. It’s an easy-listening world out there.” And in an attempt to attract more female consumers, Nike recently created a campaign that equates working out with falling in love. “The idea was not to make the ad so sports specific,” explains Nancy Monsarrat, divisional advertising manager at Nike. “We’re widening the net by leaving the interpretation open-ended, so you could relate it to a relationship or an athletic activity. It’s just more about life.”

Sound familiar? “My clothes are about living,” echoes Lauren. “A big part of how people live their everyday lives today is active, whereas years ago it wasn’t. You used to see a kid with his grandfather, and the kid would be wearing sneakers and the grandfather would be in a suit. Now they’re both in sneakers.”•

Image may contain Niki Taylor Publication Clothing Footwear Shoe Adult Person and Magazine

COVER LOOK: Two newsmaking trends for spring—fitness-inspired fashion and the return of pretty color—meet on model Niki Taylor, who sports Chanel’s azalea-bright jacket, white tee, and a pair of signature beige-and-black blades that careered down the Paris runway. Echoing fashion’s colorful thinking: the move toward pink tones in makeup. Here, Cover Girl’s Remarkable Lipcolor in Fabulous Fuchsia. Jacket and tee, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Suspenders and blades, Chanel. Fashion Editor: Grace Coddington. Hair, Christiaan; makeup, Brigitte Reiss-Andersen for Jacques Dessange.

Photographed by Arthur Elgort, Vogue, January 1994