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How leggings became a multibillion-dollar industry

By Scarlett Conlon, CNN

(CNN) — Few could have predicted that one of the most derided sartorial mainstays of the 1980s — a decade that has never quite enjoyed the style resurgence of the eras that bookended it — would be a multibillion-dollar industry in its own right by the end of the 2020s. Yet it appears that leggings are, in fact, having the last laugh.

Having been valued at $32.89 billion in 2022, the global leggings market is expected to reach a value of $57.97 billion by 2031, according to analysis by market research company Growth Market Reports. Data analysis by Statista predicts that 4bn pairs of tights and leggings will be produced in 2027. These incredible numbers highlight not only a seismic sartorial shift, but a cultural one too.

While the world’s largest luxury brands are, naturally, all eager to stretch their legs in the category — see Prada, Loewe, and Moncler, luxury brands who all offer leggings in their current collections — this is not a booming business thanks to fashion. Rather the unprecedented and increasing appetite for fitness apparel from brands who have built a loyal following based on sustainability and proven performance wear.

Gone are the days of sweaty, scratchy leggings that lose their elasticity in the wash and create unflattering focal points; the leggings trending right now are highly engineered and made from high-tech materials.

Take Vuori, the California-based brand whose workout tights retail between $98 and $108. Their trademark Vuori “BlissBlend” fabric has been developed using 75% recycled materials to create a super — but weightless — stretch loved by its customer base. The brand say their “BreatheInterlock” fabric meanwhile, boasts “moisture-wicking performance and an “airbrushed second-skin finish.”

“Fabric innovation is one of our biggest priorities,” explained Sarah Carlson, Vuori’s senior vice president of women’s design, whose material innovation team works on site with its mill partners in Europe and Asia for between one and three years to realize their materials. “Our goal is to refresh how people think of and feel in performance fabrics and activewear, while prioritizing materials that honor the environment.”

German brand Hey Honey Yoga is a family-run rising star on the scene whose gym tights retail around $120 are both OEKO-TEX certified and PETA-approved vegan.

“Hey Honey customers seek more than just activewear, they desire a holistic experience,” says Tomma Oeljeschlager who heads up the brand with her sisters Imke von Johnston and Janka Oeljeschlager. “From the beginning, our focus has been on pushing boundaries in this fast-moving industry.”

Hey Honey Yoga say their customers “prioritize functionality, quality materials, and flattering fits that empower movement while reflecting their unique style”, she said.

But it’s a competitive sector with a growing number of major players boasting Instagram followings in their millions including On! Running (1.4m followers); Gymshark (6.7m); Lululemon (4.7m); and, of course, Skims, (5.6m) the brainchild of Kim Kardashian who has been widely credited with the mass popularization of the body-con movement in which leggings play protagonist.

Inclusivity is important

“There’s a hardcore millennial audience embracing shapewear like Skims,” said Lucie Greene, trend forecaster and founder of consultancy Light Years. “A lot of this is linked to yoga, fitness and wellness culture, but there’s also the Gen-Z audience for whom it’s a lot about comfort and casual dressing being the optimal.”

In addition to performance and casual credentials, having an inclusive approach to sizing is key to success in this field, Greene added.

“(The popularity of leggings) is linked to inclusivity. Thanks to expanded sizing by both global and direct-to-consumer brands, leggings are inclusive to all body types in a way that other shopping categories like denim — and even stretch denim — have never been.”

“Inclusivity stays at the top of our mind throughout innovation,” confirmed Carlson, highlighting that Vuori “BlissBlend” has multiple options for inseams and in sizes from XS to XXL. “The material utilizes a special innovative elastane that stretches to evenly hold a variety of body shapes. The result is total body comfort and even-feeling of softness that our customers know to expect,” she said.

Traditional sports brands are in the market, too, including Adidas, Puma, and Nike. The latter says it has doubled its investment in “women’s-specific innovation” over the last two years to help its team to understand more about the female body than ever before, and tights are a key part of that.

“We know leggings are essential to a woman’s wardrobe,” a spokesperson for Nike told CNN via email.

“We have an opportunity to invite more people to experience the benefits of sport and the joy of movement,” they continued. “Ultimately our goal is to design products that make moving easier, for women and girls to feel confident, comfortable, beautiful, and strong, all backed by incredible science and innovation.”

Such innovation, said Greene, is the secret weapon behind this booming business. “Technical precision and proprietary fabrics are becoming a key point of difference, loyalty and storytelling, as well as, of course, a means to charge a higher price point, especially for sophisticated audiences who are investing in luxury concept gyms and various scientific therapies to improve their bodies,” she said.

“In many ways this links to how innovation, generally, is becoming a luxury pillar,” she continued. “Scientific development and exploration have become aspirational for brands to focus on and is seen as a luxury.”

Rewind to the 1980s and leggings as a luxury would have been a hard concept to grasp; fast forward three decades, however, as they’ve proven to be a garment with legs.

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