“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” So pronounced Karl Lagerfeld, the designer and creative director of Chanel, in a 2011 interview in Vogue. Lagerfeld, the German designer with a talent for a brow-raising maxim, can’t be too happy with the “personal chaos” that has taken hold in the five years since. The sweatpant, and its athletic complement, the sweatshirt, have become staples on every catwalk in both the women’s and menswear shows, with designers at Chloé, Gucci and Bottega Veneta, Christopher Kane, Vetements, Ami and Astrid Andersen having all cleverly appropriated the tracksuit.
“I think feminine athleticism has come to be a new signifier for luxury and status,” says Clare Waight Keller, creative director of Chloé, who featured long fluid tracksuit pants and track tops in her SS16 collection. “It’s really interesting now when I travel because I see so many people who turn up at airports in tracksuits and loungewear. Ten years ago you just wouldn’t do that. The tracksuit, and sportswear generally, have become a part of the modern wardrobe.”
“Our activewear sales have seen a triple-digit growth year on year,” says Roberta Benteler, founder and chief executive of online luxury womenswear retailer Avenue32.com. “We’ve seen this mood filter into the ready-to-wear brands for the past two seasons. And it’s become such a strong area of business that for AW16 we relaunched our activewear category.”
The tracksuit’s genesis can be traced back to the 1930s, when the chemist Wallace Hume Carothers was hired by DuPont laboratories to help develop a synthetic alternative to silk, which was highly expensive and largely controlled by the Japanese, who had 80 per cent of the market. The resulting fabric, nylon, which went into commercial production in 1938, was cheaper, easily manufactured and ideal for the growing leisurewear market.
The tracksuit industry has been booming ever since. In the 1960s, it presented designers with the perfect opportunity to market “space-age” fabrics (the flag Neil Armstrong planted on the moon was made of nylon) to professional athletes and a public increasingly influenced by sports stars. It was the first piece of apparel Adidas ever made, designed for the German footballer Franz Beckenbauer, in 1967.
From that point forward, the tracksuit’s story has been one of highs and lows, punctuated by moments of great creativity, flash popularity and sheer ghastliness. Who can forget the cellulose triacetate and polyester monstrosity that was the shell suit of the late-1980s? Or the early noughties, when velour-covered derrières emblazoned with the word “Juicy” in rhinestones were seen from Melrose to Middlesbrough?
The tracksuit’s hop, skip and jump into high fashionability arguably began at the 1980 Wimbledon final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe, which was notable not only for the epic court play but for the tracksuits the players wore: Borg in Fila and McEnroe in Sergio Tacchini. Borg’s in particular — the Fila “Bj Settanta Mk1” — was hugely expensive at the time but became a piece of cult clothing: George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham! made a statement in Fila’s Terrinda Mk3 tracksuit top, worn with a lot of protruding body hair and very little else in 1984. Its lasting legacy was evidenced in Florence last week, when Gosha Rubchinskiy collaborated with the label to make the Fila tracksuit a star of his SS17 show. Likewise, in 1986, Run-DMC released the track “My Adidas” on their Raising Hell album: when they were photographed in front of the Eiffel Tower a year later, they all wore matching three-stripe tracksuits, catalysing the crossover between sportswear and street style that is so prevalent today.
Then as now, the tracksuit continues to make statements, but in a more refined context. “One of the areas I was researching for my SS16 shows was music, specifically the rave scene of the early 1990s,” explains Waight Keller. “I remembered from when I was in that time-bubble myself there was this ease with what we wore, which was sporty comfort clothes. I thought it would be really interesting to mix the boyish attitude of trackpants with the more feminine and softer side of Chloé. It’s the ultimate way of dressing for comfort that can actually be really chic and feel quite tailored.”
Ami creative director Alexandre Mattiussi was brought up in a period when the tracksuit had less to do with the gym and more about personal expression. “I love tracksuits because they represent an effortless combination of sportswear and streetwear that I find cool and sexy,” he explains. “For Ami, I combined my recollections of my own youth in the 1990s with visual references from cinema, particularly La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.” The seminal French film about youth and racial alienation in the suburbs of Paris features a character, Saïd, in a Sergio Tacchini tracksuit throughout.
“To me the tracksuit represents my generation and our different references towards status and gender,” says Astrid Andersen, the Danish menswear designer who has developed a cult following for her streetwear-inspired clothing. “When I see a man in a tracksuit, he can look as successful and powerful as a man who would conventionally wear a suit. It’s significant to fashion because it’s part of a new way of expressing identity.”
Men’s “athleisure” is now even a feature on Savile Row. Ozwald Boateng collaborated with Nike for the Brazilian national football team, and more recently Kilgour created what it calls a “multipurpose suit” in a cashmere blend for each of its last three seasons.
“The working world is more relaxed today and it is natural that people want to feel relaxed when working,” says Carlo Brandelli, Kilgour’s freelance creative director. “The tracksuit is the embodiment of this idea. It’s a suit, after all, so it feels like you are conforming in some way, but it’s casual, so you are comfortable.”
Karl Lagerfeld may not be so exhausted with life that he’s ready to don a pair of sweatpants, but for everyone else, the tracksuit is fast becoming a comfortable and stylish second skin.
Photographs: Corbis/Getty Images; Catwalking