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Meet the designers changing the face of female fitness

A wave of small, female-led labels is taking gym kit beyond the workout.

Meet the designers changing the face of female fitness

This ensemble is from Parisian heritage label Ernest Leoty. (Photo: Instagram/Ernest Leoty)

"Women don’t need a hand-up or empowerment from brands. No motivational quotes to help them get out for a run or say, ‘It’s OK to eat a cupcake’,” says Joanna Turner, one of the three founders of London-based activewear brand LNDR, a label that took on Nike for infringing its intellectual property and won.

 “We wanted to create a brand around the lifestyle we wanted to live,” says Turner. “One that cut through all the marketing fluff and fast-fashion trends. We believe in better products and less of them. Women are smart and just want great products that make them look and feel good, pieces they can rely on so they can just get on with it.”

AT LNDR, those standout pieces include everything from seamless, waist-to-ankle sculpting leggings and high-neck, long-line sports bras through to soft, yoga-ready, merino wool track pants, matching loose knits and funnel-neck, apres-ski jackets made with recycled polyester padding.

The wellness revolution of the past few years has triggered a wave of independent, small and female-focused activewear labels with a similar ethos to LNDR – often run by women in tune with precisely what their customers need from their clothes. A high-profile example is the return of Beyonce’s Ivy Park range this month. Originally launched with Topshop in 2016, the star bought back the full rights for the name from Philip Green in November 2018.

Selfridges, through activewear buyer Louise Sadgrove, was one of the first stores to invest in LNDR, and puts the female exercise experience front and centre. She says Selfridges’ Body Studio “was conceived as a space for women to discover brands that respond to their fitness and wellbeing needs”.

“Activewear is at the core of what we offer, with niche and independent labels founded by women best placed to understand what is important to our customers,” Sadgrove says. “Our approach is to seek out brands from around the world with a positive story to tell and a focus on quality, innovation and style.”

Seattle-based label Girlfriend Collective, founded in 2016 by wife-and-husband team Ellie and Quang Dinh, focuses its messaging on body positivity, using a range of models of different sizes, ages and ethnicities in all of its marketing campaigns.

 “Our core values are all about recycled materials, ethical manufacturing, performance and inclusivity but, at the end of the day, it all comes down to accessibility,” says Quang Dinh; Girlfriend Collective’s sizes range from XXS to 6XL. “We strive to be as accessible as we can through the types of products we create, making great activewear in a size range that will continue to expand,” he adds. “Our customers are our biggest supporters, advocates and critics. They celebrate us when we do things right and help us be better when we make mistakes. We’re extremely lucky to have them and want to work hard to do right by them.”

This month, London-based brand Silou will launch a sub-brand, the Raya Collection. Founded by former model Tatiana Kovylina and yoga teacher Phoebe Greenacre, the small capsule collection of unitards, gym tops and leggings is made in Europe using the latest shapewear technology. It also includes bonded seams for a more streamlined silhouette and garment flexibility.

Parisian heritage label Ernest Leoty has a more unusual story. Once a famous 19th-century corsetry maison, it has been refashioned by chief executive Marion Rabate as the first “couture-for leisure” brand. Not surprisingly, the brand focuses on fit, with crop top-style sports bras and bodysuits conceived using corset technology that is both couture-level flattering and comfortable.

New York label Wone also focuses on a minimalist aesthetic. Launched in 2018 by Kristin Hildebrand, who was formerly creative director at Nike, it has an all-black collection of high-waisted leggings, loose-cut T-shirt tops and wide-legged popper-pants that look more like chic loungewear than gym-ready kit – but everything is made from professional athleticwear fabrics. Shortly after the brand launched, it was snapped up by sites including Net-a-Porter and Matchesfashion.

A strong colour palette is something that unites all of these female-led fitness brands; today, consumers want gym kit that can take them from barre class to brunch and beyond, and the splashy patterned leggings and fluoro tops that had a moment four or five years ago are starting to look slightly garish. Instead, all of these labels offer kits in hues of navy, charcoal and khaki – pieces that can blend with existing garments in a customer’s everyday wardrobe.

“We sell technical activewear you can wear to the gym as well as items that work with your daytime wardrobe,” says Tiffany Hsu, buying director at luxury website Mytheresa, citing brands such as Lanston, Ernest Leoty and Live the Process as some of the site’s most popular.

Nelson Miu, merchandising director at Hong Kong and Chinese luxury stores Lane Crawford, agrees that versatility and understated styling is key to an activewear brand’s success today. “Our customers integrate their active styles into their day-to-day wardrobes,” he says. “They look for items that are comfortable but not too technical; they have to be fashionable.”

Prism², founded by former fashion journalist Anna Laub, was built on this ethos. The multipurpose crop-tops, vests and leggings are stylish and understated, and are designed to be worn in a multitude of ways. “When I am travelling, I can pack these pieces in my suitcase and know they are versatile enough for several different workouts,” she says. “Plus, I can go swimming in them or wear them as a bra or as control wear under a dress.”

Her pieces are also sustainable. “All our packaging is compostable, recycled or recyclable,” she says. “Our philosophy is to make long-lasting classics that are fashionable and ethical, but with functionality and comfort at their core.”

By David Hayes © 2020 The Financial Times