NEW YORK, United States — Over the past year, one very specific outfit has infiltrated all corners of the celebrity world: the sweatsuit.
Winnie Harlow wore a hot pink Tier NYC sweatsuit during a recent visit to Instagram’s headquarters. Jessica Alba suited up in a red one for her latest TikTok dance routine. The comedian James Corden frequently rolls into CBS’s LA studio in a Gucci sweatsuit, while Priyanka Chopra’s airport style includes a white cashmere Mandkhai sweatsuit, and Gigi Hadid jets around New York in a banana-yellow Cotton Citizen edition. Influencers like Leandra Medine and Arielle Charnas frequently show off their colourful sweatsuits on Instagram too.
Today’s sweatsuits bear only a passing resemblance to the skin-tight terry Juicy Couture ones that flew off shelves the last time the garment was on trend nearly two decades ago. They’re fitted but not tight, and drape over the body without being oversized. They tend to be one colour, often pastel hues, with minimal branding.
“It needs to have a 70s leisure vibe,” said the designer Scott Sternberg, whose basics brand Entireworld has developed a cult following for its colourful sweatsuit assortment. “It’s boxy, but drapes, and is not too oversized but is also not shrunken. The pants can be really tough: they are straight down the middle, but they certainly can’t fit like leggings, and they are not oversized.”
It’s boxy, but drapes, and is not too oversized but is also not shrunken.
As with most celebrity-driven trends, plenty of regular people want in as well and brands at every price point are scrambling to cash in. At the high end of the market, Net-a-Porter sells Nili Lotan cotton-jersey sweatsuits for $500 and Farfetch has Yeezy Sunday Service sweatsuits for $470. British fast-fashion brands Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing are leaning heavily into pastel sweatsuits that retail for as low as $14, while activewear brand Outdoor Voices’ selection cost $150 and are designed to theoretically wear while exercising. Gap heavily marketed colourful cotton sweat sets in February, and the designer Sandy Liang hopped on the trend with a parent-kid sweatsuit collection in collaboration with the children’s brand Two Bridges.
“They’ve gone from something you wore on the couch to an every-day, ready-to-wear must-have,” said Shefali Shah, chief merchandising officer of the athleisure boutique Bandier, which has seen double-digit growth in its sales of sweats.
The recent pile-on can be chalked up to the sweatsuit’s viral popularity, plus the fact that the garments are easy and cheap to make, meaning fat profit margins for labels that get the look and fit right.
Sweatsuits, and their counterpart, the tracksuit, were sportswear staples back in the 1970s. Hip-hop culture helped catapult them into everyday attire in the 1980s, and the luxury sweatsuit emerged as a trend in the 1990s.
In more recent years, sweatsuits started to blow up alongside the wider shift toward more casual dressing, with finance bros trading in their peacoats for puffer vests, women proudly wearing yoga pants outside the gym and designers putting sneakers on the runway.
The more successful you are, the less you have to dress up, and that means sneakers and sweatsuit.
“The more successful you are, the less you have to dress up, and that means sneakers and sweatsuits,” said Samuel Krost, the founder of New York-based streetwear company Krost, which sells sweatsuits for about $300. “It’s become the norm for a VC to walk into a meeting on a Tuesday wearing sweatpants. It would be almost uncool to show up to work too dressed up.”
Celebs who proudly sported monochrome sweatsuits for the paparazzi, like Kendall Jenner or Justin Bieber, began to bring the trend to the masses in 2018, and brands like Sternberg’s Entireworld and the LVMH-backed luxury loungewear label Madhappy saw their sweatsuit businesses pick up steam. These days, style icons like Kayne West, Kim Kardashian and the Hadid sisters embrace the sweatsuit on a near-daily basis as a luxury-chic it-item.
The main concern today is for my clients to be comfortable, look good, and get the most out of their outfits, and a high-end sweatsuit checks all those boxes.
“The main concern today is for my clients to be comfortable, look good, and get the most out of their outfits, and a high-end sweatsuit checks all those boxes,” said Cassandra Sethi, a New York-based stylist who frequently buys her clients sweatsuits from Pam & Gela and Italic.
It certainly helps that bright sweatsuits are the perfect Instagram bait. And for the Netflix-and-chill generation who subscribe to the belief that staying in is the new going out, a fashionable sweatsuit that is both comfortable and photogenic is a must.
“In streetwear, people buy nice hoodies to wear with leggings, but now with Instagram culture, people have shifted to matching sweatshirts and sweatpants because it’s an easy ‘look,’” said Peiman Raf, co-founder of Madhappy.
Some trend-watchers see sweatsuits as the natural successor to the leggings crazy. Brands associated with that trend, like Lululemon, Alo Yoga and Beyond Yoga, also sell sweatsuits.
“I think people were ready for the next big thing, and sweatsuits are something you don’t have to worry about looking good in,” said Sethi. “They work for every body type, and they are good for hiding transitions like gaining or losing weight.”
With so many brands offering customers the sweatsuit “look,” the space is getting crowded. Labels like Champion that have made the garment for decades are a factor, and Amazon is a threat as well: the e-commerce site is swimming with cheap sweatsuits sold by anonymous sellers.
Sternberg said investing in fabric is crucial for brands charging a premium. Entireworld has been sourcing french-terry fabrics from Japan.
There are nuances that matter to customers who will pay a price for clothes that feel a certain way.
“We couldn’t compete ... on price because we’re a small brand but there are nuances that matter to customers who will pay a price for clothes that feel a certain way,” he said.
Krost noted that company branding on sweatsuit needs to be subtle, but still be visible. His sweatsuits come with small patches on the arm so the look is still minimalist, but branded.
“The product should be just enough for shoppers to feel like, ‘hey, we are a part of this,’” he said.
Liang noted that for high-end designers, luxury sweatpants can be a good access point: "Someone who might not be able to invest in a bigger piece could buy a sweatpant. It's a stepping stone to the brand," she said.
Brands are also treating basic cotton fabrics as luxury; boasting that it’s organic or recycled, and adding high-end touches like hand-stitching or hand-dying, which is working for brands like LA’s Cotten Citizen.
“Shoppers will pay a premium when they are told they are given details about quality,” added Shah. “And if there are different colours and fits, they will be back for a second and third purchase.”
Trends come and go, and the shelf life for nostalgia-driven clothing is often short.
Sternberg said fit’s important for brands that have found success with sweatsuits to not rely too heavily on the trend. Krost, for instance, has branched out into a line of colourful men’s cotton suits.
“[The sweat suit] is the carrot that you dangle, but then our job is to tell them why they should buy everything else,” he said.