Inside the rise of activewear in China

f the growth, followed by the US market at 15 per cent. Overall, the worth of the global sportswear retail market has increased by 22 per cent, to US$666.2 billion ($960.8 billion), Euromonitor reports.

The rise in health awareness, along with more accessible digitised-exercise amid the pandemic, has expanded the Asian sportswear market tenfold.

In China, a yoga and pilates craze has taken over social media as the country has continued to go in and out of lockdown since last year. Exercise livestream sessions became a viral sensation on social networking site Weibo, with celebrity trainers such as Liu Genghong amassing more than 55 million followers through his workouts.

In the third quarter of last year, the CEO of popular athletic apparel brand Lululemon, stated that China, “delivered a really strong performance, with total revenue increasing by more than 100 per cent in the third quarter”.

But it’s not just Western brands that are cashing in on Asia’s new workout obsession. The rising demand for Asian-fit activewear has pushed local brands such as Li Ning and Anta to new heights and birthed a plethora of independent brands, hungry to fill this gap.

Chinese look inward

After a rough post-pandemic recovery, coupled with the recent Xinjiang cotton controversies, mega brands like Nike and Adidas are facing fierce competition from Anta and Li Ning, and other local rivals like Hongxing Erke.

This is largely credited to China’s new wave of nationalistic pride that has urged consumers to embrace the ‘GuoChao’ phenomenon. Literally translating to national trend, GuoChao encourages the use of China-made products or products that contain traditional Chinese cultural elements.

Hong Kong-based Anta is one of the companies benefitting from GuoChao. The sportswear company is projected to become one of the biggest sporting companies in the world. Just last year, it had its most successful year yet, as its market value jumped 157 per cent, to $64 billion. The brand is also making its mark overseas, with multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals in the NBA, while rapidly opening stores in neighbouring South-east Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

This is in stark contrast to Nike’s performance the past two years. The American sportswear company’s first fiscal quarter of 2022 yielded poor results in China. Earlier in February, Nike revealed sales had fallen by 8 per cent, year on year. This was a notable improvement from the previous quarter, however, which produced a 24 per cent drop.

But a full recovery for Nike does not seem likely anytime soon. In June, Nike China announced that it would be ending the once popular Nike Run Club app, due to dwindling user activity – a clear signal the brand is losing appeal, even amongst its most loyal customers.

Indie brands rise to the occasion

The increased demand for Asian-fit activewear, especially for the yoga category, has created new opportunities within the sporstwear market. The segment that was once dominated by Lululemon now faces competition from new independent Chinese brands such as Moly Vivi, She Is A Spark and Maia Active.

To differentiate themselves from Western competitors, these brands are taking a more localised approach, tapping into Chinese fitness trends such as hosting frisbee and flag football events, which have all become recently popular among young Chinese consumers.

The brand that has made the largest impact on China’s activewear landscape, however, is Baleaf. Backed by Junyi, a Xiamen-based company that focuses on cross-border commerce of sportswear goods, Baleaf has been dubbed Asia’s next Lululemon. The brand was first established in 2014 and has since extended its product categories across yoga, running, outdoor, swimming and cycling.

The brand has already introduced its products abroad through online marketplace Amazon. In fact, it can regularly be found in Amazon’s bestselling brands under the yoga category. Bilzar, an Amazon seller central partner, states that Baleaf’s yoga shorts are the best-performing product in their segment, with over 40,000 pieces sold every month during the summer. The brand is priced between $16 and $26 and has more than 50,000 glowing five-star reviews on Amazon. Praised for its fit, softness and comfort, Baleaf offers the quality and stylishness of Lululemon’s products without the ultra-premium prices.

Baleaf has positioned itself in a unique space internationally. While most Chinese brands are choosing to ride the GuoChao wave, Baleaf provides little to no indicators of its Chinese origins. With a focus on the US, its marketing promotes diversity and a global outlook.

Holiday destination turned manufacturing hub

China is not the only activewear hot bed in the region.

Bali has been a popular destination for yoga and healthy living for years; however, more recently, the island city in Indonesia has also become the go-to place for sustainable activewear production.

Manufacturers on the island are known to uphold the highest standard in ethical practices and are in close proximity to many sustainable suppliers. From skillful labour to an abundance of natural resources, there are several reasons why many Western and Asian brands have chosen to manufacture their products in Bali.

Australian-owned sustainable brand Indigo Luna is among those manufacturing in Bali. Concentrating on swimwear and yogawear, a small, women-run factory sews all of the brand’s products by hand. Holding to its ethical and sustainable commitments, the brand set strict policies that prevent any human or animal exploitation at any stage of its production. Indigo Luna has also been vocal about ensuring safe working conditions at its factory, along with providing adequate healthcare for workers.

In addition to using biodegradable fibres for its swimwear and yogawear, the brand uses only natural dyes made of tropical plants, like indigo, mango and secang wood, grown locally on the island.

Good Days, a new sustainable activewear brand from Hong Kong, is also sourcing its products from Bali. The company works with Balinese manufacturers that specialise in eco-friendly practices to ensure its products are made as ethically and sustainably as possible. Leftover fabric offcuts from the production process that can be reused for new, saleable items are donated to local charity groups dedicated to helping underprivileged communities around Indonesia.

A signal of a cultural shift

The rise of workout influencers and the sheer number of local activewear startups in Asia reflect a broader shift in cultural values. The pandemic and burnout caused by unrelenting lockdowns is pushing more Asians to embrace health and wellness. For the younger generation, having an active lifestyle means a much healthier way to manage stress.

Culturally, Asians have typically prioritised career and education over wellbeing but this mindset is rapidly changing. In recent years, the Chinese government has been encouraging more health awareness, amid rising child obesity rates and deteriorating mental health among its citizens. Sports and physical education were a central pillar in China’s education last year, with more schools now incorporating gym classes into their curriculum.

For brands, this presents a bright opportunity. As the consumer base for activewear increases each year, the demand for fitness-related products can only grow from here.

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