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Office Wear Essentials?

Globally, athleisure is a growing segment of the attire market, estimated to be worth a whopping $350 billion by 2020. Now both fashionistas and athleisure marketers predict that those 'cool' and comfortable sneakers could well invade the starchy domain of the workplace too

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

At a social gathering recently, the conversation veered around – or down to be more literal – to sneakers – yes, those cosy footwear that are so comfortable to gallivant around in  but are  so wrong as formal wear. Some at the gathering felt that comfortable as they are, sneakers could boost productivity at the workplace.

The old school differed. Office wear, they felt should be dark, conservative in design and have a ‘business look’ about them. Most agreed that it all boils down to how sneakers are defined. Someone said, “Why not? It will increase productivity. If your employees are comfortable they will be more productive.” Perhaps, but would Indians really kick off those black leather shoes and take to jogging to work in sportswear?  

“As more companies promote leisure wear, we will definitely see sneakers become mainstream and an everyday wear,” says Abhishek Ganguly, Managing Director, Puma India. “As the lines between sports and style continue to blur, we believe it is important to stay ahead of trends, taking inspiration from athletic wear for everyday style," says Ganguly.

'Sneakers or high heels, it should be their choice'

"Whether its reintroducing iconic sneakers like the Puma Suede, which has a rich sporting heritage and is now a popular street style  to our association with Virat Kohli’s athleisure brand ‘one8’, which was co-created by Puma and clocked Rs 100 crores in the first year of launch  we will continue to focus on, and invest in this segment,” says the Puma India managing director confidently.  
 
“I feel nothing is too casual or too formal," says Keshav Suri, Executive Director, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group . "What you wear does not define you but what you do demonstrates who you are. One of my PR executives in Bangalore, Alex, is drag queen Maya by night. She wears a business suit at times, and a sari at other times. If women want to wear sneakers to work, it should be respected. Sneakers or high heels, it should be their choice,” asserts Puri.
 
“Why not?” asks Quikr India Chief Marketing Officer, Vineet Sehgal, asked about his views on sneakers at the workplace. “Steve Jobs wore sneakers! At most startups, technology companies and in a company like ours it is already happening. Today's young, millennial workforce in technology companies believe in functionality and comfort, which is reflected in what they wear to work too,” argues Sehgal.

Grandview Research predicts that the global athletic footwear market would be worth $95.14 billion by 2025. Morgan Stanley research estimates the ‘athleisure’ (athletic wear and leisure) market  to grow to $350 billion by 2020. Technavio says the global athleisure market would grow by $122.66 billion at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of nearly seven per cent, building its estimates around the growing popularity of athleisure wear among corporates in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Corporate houses in these countries encourage fitness activities among employees, prompting them to sport athleisure wear at the workpace. Incidentally companies that have incorporated fitness programmes in their work schedule have been able to bring down the count of “sick leave”. The increasing focus on fitness among the working population will drive the growth of the global athleisure market.

Endoresements by celebrities 
On David Letterman’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Kanye West styled him in Yeezy clothes and the Yeezy 700 sneakers and Letterman seemed pleased with the makeover. Yeezy is a collaboration between Adidas and the American rapper, Kanye West.

The Yeezy 350 v2 sneaker release in June had buyers queuing up outside the branded stores overnight – reminiscent of the queues before Apple stores before new product launches. In Yeezy’s case, some shopping websites crashed when bombarded with purchase orders. The frenzy is fed partly by celebrity endorsements and partly because only limited stock is released at specific locations.  

So, when did rubber soled shoes invade the bastions of high fashion? In his book, Kicks: The Great American Story of  Sneakers, Nicholas Smith writes that we wouldn’t have the modern-day sneakers, but for Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanised rubber in 1839. The first rubber-sole sneakers were made for croquet players in the 1860s, writes Smith. Croquet players needed a durable shoe with a flexible sole to minimise damage to lawns.

The rubber-soled shoe soon got adopted by tennis players too. Elite men and women thus adopted the functional rubber sole and made it fashionable. As outdoor games, lawn sports and subsequently visiting gymnasiums caught on as a trend with growing awareness of health and well-being,  sneakers turned into a lifestyle statement.

 India too has witnessed a wave of  health consciousness among the working population. High stress levels at modern workplaces induce office-goers to opt for some form of exercise. Finally, the startup boom and the evolution of work environments that are less hierarchical, have made room for athleisure wear at the workplace.

“The athleisure space has grown exponentially over the past few years. The category has enabled brands to capitalise on the niche between the traditional sportswear category and the casual wear category,” says Ritesh Nath, Vice President, Cornerstone Sport and Entertainment. “With growing acceptance by consumers of athleisure products, brands like Puma, Adidas, Nike etc. have created specific SKU's to cater to this space. Athleisure has also become increasingly acceptable office wear in most companies,” says Nath. Incidentally, Cornerstone Sport and Entertainment exclusively manages cricketer Virat Kohli, who in turn, endorses Puma sneakers.  
“Brands which have pivoted to adapt to this trend have already begun to see substantial results, with the rest now playing catch-up. It will be interesting to see how, over time, brands prevent cannibalising their traditional categories with the introduction of athleisure,” says Nath. Sportswear is obviously turning into a wardrobe essential and the trend is likely to turn more mainstream. The athleisure market is estimated at Rs 4,000 crore in terms of retail sales and the segment is growing by 25 per cent year-on-year.  

The sportswear brand Puma, for instance, plans to continue to focus on its athleisure or sportstyle products in India. Abhishek Ganguly, is confident that the rising popularity of sportswear, especially among the youth, would spur a 35 per cent growth in Puma’s Sportstyle products. “In fact, some of our global collaborations are extremely popular here. From our recent Puma x Selena Gomez collection to Hotwheels and MTV drops, we’re seeing an uptick in sale not just with Puma’s in-line products but also a growing demand for limited-edition collaborations,” says Ganguly.  

Women have from time to time protested against specified footwear, like high heels being made mandatory at the workplace or formal events. The recent KuToo campaign launched by actor and freelance writer Yumi Ishikawa in Japan, for instance, was a protest against high heels being  mandatory for office-going women.  In 2015, women wearing flat shoes were turned away at the Cannes Film Festival and denied entry to a film screening. A year later Hollywood star Julia Roberts walked barefoot on the Cannes red carpet to protest against the festival’s dress code. Maybe it is time we adopt sneakers as work wear?  
 
Remember Carrie Bradshaw’s overflowing shoe closet in Sex and the City? If  the sneakers fad gains traction, as it seems destined to, shoe closets may only contain athleisure wear – of  an array of shades.


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