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Women’s activewear market takes off

Chicago Tribune
Modified: October 10, 2012 at 6:00 pm •  Published: October 10, 2012

photo - Newton running shoes are displayed in the shoe department at Deka, a women's activewear store in Chicago, Illinois, on September 28, 2012. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Newton running shoes are displayed in the shoe department at Deka, a women's activewear store in Chicago, Illinois, on September 28, 2012. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

CHICAGO — In side-by-side dressing rooms, running buddies and best friends Kristin Lewicki and Dara Sparella tried on, modeled and mulled over matching outfits to wear in Sunday’s Chicago Marathon — bright pink running bras under “creamsicle pop”-colored stretchy workout tops, heather-gray warm-up hoodies and compression running tights.

More than an hour later, the women, both 33, emerged from Lululemon, a women’s sportswear shop, having spent about $400 each.

“You gotta do something, go out in fashion,” Lewicki said. Sparella added that, “No matter what size you are, the Lululemon stuff looks good.”

In the five years she has been shopping at Lululemon, Lewicki became such a devotee that even though she didn’t need to, she took a 16-hour-a-week job in August at one of the retailer’s locations. “The whole company spoke to me,” Lewicki said.

Apparently there are a lot of women who have no trouble spending nearly $100, and sometimes more, for a pair of workout pants they think will make them look stylish whether they’re jogging or running errands. Last year, activewear sales increased 6.7 percent from 2010, compared with women’s apparel gains in 2011 of 3.1 percent, according to research firm NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Canada’s 13-year-old Lululemon Athletica Inc. is the driving force in the segment, operating nearly 200 stores in the U.S. and Canada, with sales last year topping $1 billion, up from $711 million the year before. Retail experts describe its customers as affluent, driven, active and fit, an apt description for Lewicki and Sparella.

Despite their busy lives — Sparella is a manager at a retail store and Lewicki is in nursing school — the Chicago residents spend much of their off-hours running, strength-training and cycling, along with doing some yoga. In December, they’ll run another marathon in Honolulu after nearly a month of detoxing with smoothies, juice and veggies.

Their Saturday routine has them up by 4 a.m. for a 14- to 23-mile run, followed by an hourlong fitness class. The women said they like to wind down with veggie juice followed by “girl talk” and green tea at Starbucks. Sparella, who is soon to wed, jokingly said she’s so busy that she gave her fiance an invitation to the wedding and told him to show up.

Lululemon’s fitness-whisperer mojo is aspirational — brand gurus compare its cultlike following and gangbusters growth to Apple Inc.

Launched in 1998 by Chairman Dennis “Chip” Wilson, Vancouver-based Lululemon shuns billboards and commercials in favor of a more grass-roots approach: free Sunday morning yoga classes, running groups and community billboards in stores. Its sales associates are known as “educators” who aim to know customers by name.

Their fitted workout pants, which start at $82 but go as high as $128 and are known for boosting derrieres, sucking in stomachs and giving the illusion of sleek legs, have made evangelists of customers who proselytize to friends, family and strangers about the apparel’s fit and durability. Many customers post photos of themselves wearing the activewear on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

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