work it


Last week I tried out a class at a friend's kickboxing gym. You don't expect a boxing gym to be the nexus of all things style, but I found myself deep in conversation with two other women debating the merits of loose tank tops for exercise (comfy but slides around and gapes too much when say, doing push-ups).

The women were in leggings that weren't just any leggings - mesh panels and seams mean to flatter; gorgeous prints, and sports bras with elaborate strappy backs, shown off by drapey tanks. They looked great, just like the women in Instagram accounts of Lululemon, Nike, Under Armour, et al.

(The men just wore shorts and no shirts. So simple, life for a man.)

There's so much going on out there in this sportwear market because a crazy amount of women are willing pay big bucks for sports bras and sweats - if the style is right. This is all very new to me, since I've always bought my sportswear in discount bins and during warehouse sales - the point of sport wear was that while they weren't very interesting, they didn't really date. You buy something that works, and wear it forever. Literally - being made of essentially, plastic, my exercise gear last eons. One of my sports bras date from my college years. Running shoes were the only things that fell apart and needed changing.

On a performance level, it's nice to have so much to choose from now - there's actual progress on the materials front. Things have gotten incredibly comfortable. I used it be grateful for any kind of wicking and breathability but now you get wonderfully light fabric, some of them woven like fine knits, soft as air.

Second, they're finally flattering, and there's a style for everyone, whether you like it aggressively sporty and "pro" looking, vintage-y like a Wes Anderson movie, fashion-y with bright prints and complicated straps, or minimalist, in cool, tasteful palettes.

I was inducted into this world of fancy sportswear recently, when I got a Lululemon gift card for my birthday. I'd only gone into the shop once and left intimidated by the prices and creeped out by cultishness of it all, without trying on anything. So this time, when I did try stuff on, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact the things are actually quite nicely made, and the materials definitely feel more luxe on the skin than most.

It's easy to let all this great marketing get into your head - pictures and videos of women working out with each other and doing amazing things and looking all glowy and sweaty. It's the photogenic version of what I loved about sports growing up: being part of teams and sharing in the camaraderie that comes with pushing yourself and rooting for each other and the exhilaration of your body actually becoming good, or at least able, at something.

Now it's becoming another lifestyle, another aspiration being pushed to us by companies looking to make money. But it's also pushing fitness and sports for women into the spotlight. These ads showing women playing football (soccer to Americans), tennis, swimming, running, climbing mountains, skiing, practising MMA, Crossfit, yoga, boxing, dancing - these are all things I want my hypothetical daughter to know they're capable of. Yes, most of these are athletes that also happen to be good-looking and marketable, or they're models, but at least they're demonstrating something positive and empowering. I can get behind that.

But as always, there's the need to separate the gold from the dross. I find most of the high-fashion options out there laughable - which is most of the stuff you find on in the Net-a-Porter sports section. Marmot and Patagonia make tops and leggings that are surprisingly suitable for regular running and studio-based classes, considering they're better known for their outdoor gear. Among the big mass brands, Nike and Under Armour suit my body type best, and I think they win in the quality + accessibility stakes. I admit that Lululemon wins in the "who can make the softest jersey of all them all" stakes, but I can't really get behind the company's vibes and am pretty put off by the bad press.

I think Stella McCartney for Adidas is shockingly poor quality and and the designs are impractical. I do have one of her tops purchased for a mere S$15 years ago during a sale that's not bad, but the brand often uses materials that feel plasticky and the leggings in my experience never sit right on my body. Also, I love Uniqlo but they definitely haven't quite hit the mark where sportwear is concerned. Cotton On Body makes cute things, but I had one top that lost its colour and shape so fast that I'll never try it again.

Which are your favourite sportswear makers?


materfamilias said…
The cultishness of Lululemon is definitely off-putting (I mean, seriously, who admires Ayn Rand! Really?!) but wow! I'm wearing running shirts I bought four and five years ago, and I wear them weekly -- the stuff is good quality and generally thoughtfully designed. My husband wears it as well, especially for yoga.
Anonymous said…
Nike. Like you said, they are basically unbreakable. I got a bra tank top dated 2009. I got a few pieces from Marika Tek and 90 Degrees too. I find them not bad. always has some selection with brands that I never heard of, which if the price is good, I do not mind to 'try'.- I Ying
Amanda said…
Yep, the quality of the Adidas collabs. with designers is pretty ghastly - especially for the price you're paying. Even the Y's x Adidas stuff falls apart almost as soon as you put them on. I think Lululemon has gone downhill over the years and like materfamilias, I find their owner's philosophy is annoying and against my own personal beliefs, so I refuse to support the company.

Anyway, I'm really into Athleta right now, I bought a couple of their relay capris and they make my butt look like I've been working out for ages even though I'm the slowest and pansiest in my tabata class. Gap also makes decent exercise pieces though I suspect it's terribly expensive over there.
jamie-lee said…
I've always wanted to try the Stella McCartney for Adidas collections so it's a shame to hear that the quality is horrible. I've been needing some new workout gear for a while (I have some running shorts that are 12 years old...) but the prices of it all have been incredibly off putting.

Lululemon for one - I think they have a great range but the prices always scare me off; I can't seem to justify spending over $100 for a pair of leggings (although I'd gladly pay that much for a linen t-shirt or a jersey; strange priorities I guess) that I'm just going to wear to work out and get sweaty in.
Shutterbug K said…
My race-day uniform is
- Nike Legend leggings (Dri-fit cotton, great for mild California weather. also comes in capri lengths)
- Nike tanks in the summer, or Under-Armour's half-zip ColdGear shirts in winter. Layer Uniqlo Heattech as needed. Or I use old technical tees from other races.
- Gap high-impact sports bras. I also have a North Face compression bra I like, but no strappy backs or nice designs.

I'd LOVE to get into some of the prettier, strappy sports bras but they tend to be thinner and less supportive than I'd like. Then again, I don't think they're meant for running or climbing. I'd wear them casually though--they'd be fun on hot days with shorts and those open back tanks!
grannysmith said…
nike makes really great stuff, my fav sportswear maker as far as price/value is concerned. all of their dri-fit is fantastic, i use it for all activities (ballett work out, yoga, pilates, running, and cardio training). i have short- and knee length and long trousers. i also love their tops, but i also have a couple of addidas 'breathable' tops.
plus sport bras by german maker triumph.
my sport outfit might not be fashionable - but it's perfect for workout!
Amanda said…
Under Armour is the best value I've found. Despite some objections to the corporate culture, I do love Lululemon leggings, so I buy them NWT on eBay to save $.
I used to be a Nike gal - still am, I'm loyal to their running shoes - but I started using the MapMyRun app to track mileage and they're affiliated with Under Armour. They have these challenges - easy ones, like run 30 miles in 30 days - and by the end of it you get Under Armour gift certificates if you complete the challenge, so now most of my workout gear is UA. So basically their marketing strategy totally worked on me, lol! (Also Chris Evans/Captain America in those tight UA shirts in all the Marvel movies, that was some savvy marketing as well, but I digress...)

I like the 'charged cotton' series - both Nike and UA have them. Say what you will about 'dry fit' or 'moisture wicking' or whatever the term they use is, but I find cotton doesn't hold onto as much odors as polyester and poly blends do.

Totally agree with you on Stella for Adidas, and I don't understand why she never uses athletic body types when she shows the collection every season.
Alyce said…
I run, hike, and do "regular" and Bikram yoga, and I have found that I reach for different brands depending on the activity. Most of this I've figured out through trial and error over the past 8 years.

For running, I like Lululemon running tights. The fit works well for my body, I really like the fabric, and I like the pockets. I've tried cheaper pants and I always come back to LLL. I get the basic models in black because it isn't a fashion statement for me, and those are usually the cheapest options. For tops, I think the basic Under Armor tank tops are the best fit and quality for the price. I wear Moving Comfort sports bras when I run. I have a D cup, so I need real support, and Moving Comfort is by far the best. Pricey, but worth it.

For Bikram and swimming, I wear Onzie one piece suits. The fabric is swimsuit material and doesn't hold onto smells. I also have Nike separates that I use when my Onzies are dirty. I've been using the shorts and tank tops with built in bras since 2007. They were fairly cheap (surely purchased on deep discount knowing the state of my finances in 2007) and have held up well. I used to wear and wash each item 2-3 times a week, and never had any problems with them retaining any sweat smell. The Onzie one piece though, is more convenient and bright and colorful, so I reach for them first. I've also previously went through a phase where I said expensive workout gear wasn't worth it, and went to Target and bought a bunch of Champion gear for dirt cheap. But the seams tore easily, the fabric wasn't as good, and they held onto every stink, and were tossed within the year. I bought an Athleta top, which was okay. The fabric also held onto smells, though I kept it longer because it was more expensive. But eventually, my husband couldn't take it and asked me to toss it.

For hiking and camping, pretty much all of my clothing is Patagonia, which I think makes good products for being cold. It also feels more feminine in its design compared to other outdoor gear brands. But really, I keep buying it because I can always get it on sale. I also wear my Lululemon tights hiking when it's hot as hades during the summer because I find the skin tight clothing more comfortable when I'm covered in sweat.

I also have two or three Lululemon tank tops, purchased on sale, that are not particularly useful for any specific sport, so I'll wear them casually. Given the negative associations I generally have with the Lululemon brand, their shirts aren't worth it, even on sale, so I don't buy them anymore.
Natalie said…
Nike for me too. The stuff is comfortable, reasonably fashionable and is generally built to cope with actually exercising in it.

There's a brand in Australia called Cotton On that does really cheap super cute stuff like neon cross strap bras, printed leggings, cut out tanks etc when you want something different to complement all the quality stuff and mix it up a bit.

Some of the high end pieces are beyond me - I can't get on board with paying $250 for a pair of tights, no matter how good they look.
Girl About Town said…
I have a pair of very basic 4-year-old Lululemon leggings and they've only recently started to pill. Another pair I bought at the same time had a lot of seams as part of the design and they would start sliding off as I worked out! Needless to say, they look fine because they are not worn often. That said, the cultishness of the brand is really off-putting and I never feel comfortable in the shop. The New York Times article on the fellow who started the brand also skeeved me out.

Lately, I've loved Sweaty Betty. I was initially drawn to the brand because I thought the pieces looked cute. The pieces I have bought feel lovely on - soft, comfortable and they hold up during workouts (in my case, yoga and barre). They are quite spendy - they do have 20% off sales once in a while. And since I've only just started wearing the gear, I don't know how well they will hold up in the long term.
lin said…
materfamilias: i love my sports bra because it's so soft, but you're right, the more i know about the brand the less i like them, so i doubt i'll repurchase when the time comes.

i-ying: i'm still nervous about buying things online...things never quite fit me right

amanda: gap is very overpriced in singapore, i don't think i've bought anything there in years. i googled "tabata" and oh my god, anyone who tries something like that and didn't give up after one time is NOT a pansy.

jamie-lee: yes i highly recommend not waisting your money! unless it was really really cheap on sale somewhere. i despise tights that slide down my hips when i sit...

i think there's lots of good workout gear at good prices - it's always worth paying a little more but not that much more, because at the low-end i find stuff to be just less comfortable.

shutterbug k: i think i have the same nike ones! they're excellent and indestructible and i love that it was made using less water and recycled plastic.

i don't have much boobage to support, but my one requirement for sports bras is that they be very stretchy on the shoulder straps - i feel extra sensitive about tightness in that shoulder area and i always feel like i might pass out when it's too tight.

grannysmith: i second the nike love - and i think their designs are nicer and more "classic" than other big sportswear makers.

amanda: underarmour only arrived in singapore last year -- when i need some new gear i definitely will give it a try.

koko: i use mapmyrun too! but their marketing in singapore isn't quite as enticing...

alyce: that is a very comprehensive summary! you're right about the way fabrics hold smells, that's something i've found in cheaper brands, and the fact that i stay damp longer in clothes by some brands also really annoys me.

natalie: cotton on is available here too, and yes they make cute stuff, although sadly the quality doesn't really hold up -- the colour on one top faded really quickly and looked shabby in less than a year or regular wear.

on a separate note, their tanks and shorts (in viscose and nylon and other poly materials ) are so good for the beach - they dry quickly and usually don't show water stains that easily. i also love their basic tank dresses which are surprisingly flattering. i also like their pajamas.

girl about town: sweaty betty looks cool! but i'm always a bit nervous about ordering stuff online from brands i have no experience with -- something always goes wrong. perhaps when there's a sale, to take the sting off..

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