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Fashion labels such as Fendi, Prada and Etro are showcasing activewear on the runway this season
Sands Style / Fashion & Luxury

Fashion labels such as Fendi, Prada and Etro are showcasing activewear on the runway this season

The fashion industry is breaking the boundaries between comfort and style, sportswear and formalwear – and the results are fantastic, writes Christina Ko

It’s official: the wall that has long separated sportswear from formalwear has come tumbling down. Nothing is sacred, but everything is covetable, from neoprene pencil skirts to tops made from old sport socks.

There was a time when the women who wore trainers with their workwear were simply commuters, their heels concealed in their oversized handbags waiting to be tagged in upon arrival at the office. 

And then, one day, someone high up in the echelons of fashion design decided to give these women a break. Why not – gasp! – make trainers with suits a bona fide “thing”? How freeing and women’s lib it was to pair your pantsuit with some simple, affordable Stan Smiths.

Designers have been taking this trend to its logical conclusion in their 2019 Spring/Summer collections. Why stop with trainers? Why not make comfort a priority across all facets of a woman’s life? 

Fear not, dear reader, for we are not making a case for athleisure – the despicable act of wearing your yoga garb outside the confines of your yoga studio. Trainers when you aren’t training is one thing, but athleisure is the antithesis of fashion. Instead, what the industry is embracing is a breaking of boundaries between comfort and style, sportswear and formalwear. At Calvin Klein, for example, Raf Simons combined a classic tenet of officewear – the pencil skirt – with construction elements derived from surfer wetsuits, complete with contrasting internal lining, juxtaposing prints such as leopard against florals and topping the whole thing off with Jaws tank tops. Quieter riffs on the surf trend included a romper or shell top forged of black neoprene, the latter styled with a ladylike pleated skirt the colour of pale daffodils, both topped off with red woollen beanies and a devil-may-care It-girl attitude. 

You wouldn’t imagine Simons getting together with Veronica Etro at the beach to ogle the intricacies of surf culture and its associated garments, but the designer for Italian house Etro too was influenced by the pastime – some of her models even lugged actual surfboards along with them down the runway. There were pieces actually intended for in-water use – printed swimsuits edged in black just like the serious surfers would wear – but also coverups that would look just as awesome on the streets as on the sand. Cropped paisley jackets, unstructured blazers and kimonos, and pyjama-style pantsuits were all comfortable, cool and even, dare we say it, commercial. 

The prints were a little less loud, but the thinking at Sportmax was equally wet and wild (barefoot models with their sandals dangling from waist belts were an early clue, in case the proliferation of racerbacks and bikini tops weren’t obvious-enough signifiers). One sequinned cocktail dress looked like the love child of a Speedo racing suit and an Oscar’s red-carpet gown, while a slate-grey pantsuit was cropped just below the knee, with a relaxed fit and a hooded windbreaker as a topper. 

On other runways, sporting activities were also top of mind, though the inspiration was more land-based. At Off-White, there was a ballet-inspired gown made of spandex on top (the kind once favoured by Jane Fonda in her aerobics videos), which exploded in tulle below the waist. Cycling shorts – a major trend we’ll get to in a moment – made an appearance under a work-appropriate white blazer. Other inventions were less about sport, more about adopting the aesthetic, whether it was garments made from cut-up Nike socks and leggings, or the neon running shorts shown under a white sheer lace dress, or the sports bra that peeked out from under a cocktail frock with a plunging neckline. What more would you expect from a collection named Track and Field, and whose models included former Olympians like Hong Kong high jumper Cecilia Yeung? 

But back to those cycling shorts. If there is one item you want to incorporate into your look this season, it’s a pair of these, and designers across the board gave us plenty to choose from. Fendi did them with button-down safari shirts and other boxy, breezy silhouettes; they were done in basic black or fired terracotta, with ergonomic stripes and cut high and close to the thigh. For his other label, Chanel, the late Karl Lagerfeld kept them a little longer, but just as close-cut, and always in jet black, though the materials varied occasionally. They were worn with jackets, either big and boxy or slim, shoulder-padded and zipped for modesty. 

At Roberto Cavalli, Paul Surridge made a good case for bicycle shorts, proving their versatility – and his – with several variations on the theme. One pair came with a textured tube-top tunic, another was itself embroidered and embellished, and shown with a coordinating crop top. Others came underneath sheer and flowy tops, a nod to the vintage Cavalli aesthetic but made modern with pinstripes, or they were reimagined as suiting, either tone-on-tone or, in one instance, with a structured sleeveless blazer covered in undulating waves made from sequins. They also sat under skirts and dresses, a good option for those who want to indulge in Cavalli’s signature short-skirted sexiness but also wish to maintain a modicum of propriety. For his opening look, Surridge choose Gigi Hadid to stomp out in a tan, zebra-printed short suit and black ankle boots that was two parts business, one part sex appeal. The message was clear: sporty is sexy is stylish, and these shorts are here to stay.

Though the bicycle-short silhouette came out on the runway at Stella McCartney, too, it seemed far removed from the world of sport, covered as they were in the delicate florals redolent of an English garden – but upon closer inspection, their construction, from neoprene, put comfort first, albeit with a playful twist. A blush pink printed jumpsuit that ended above the knee was skintight with a deep V-neck, a shape at once flattering and daring. The satin ballet slippers it was shown with gave it an appeal that lay somewhere between dancer and swimmer, but thoroughly fashion-forward. 

Speaking of swimwear, Prada’s spring/summer showing featured many a bodysuit that would work fabulously translated into functional one-pieces for the pool. These bodysuits with plunging U-shaped necklines, held together by a single strap and button, were anything but conservative, though Miuccia Prada’s version of the cycling short was undoubtedly the easiest to pull off. Her satin Bermudas came mostly in solid jewel tones but also in tie-dye, for the adventurous. A woman of any age or personal style would be able to incorporate them into her wardrobe easily, for day or evening, dressed down for the weekends or with heels for a night out.