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New York Fashion Week: Athletic menswear grows up

NEW YORK — If the menswear collections coming down the runways at the recently wrapped New York Fashion Week are any indication, fall 2014 is going to be filled with laid-back luxe — unconstructed, blanket-like outerwear, chunky novel knitwear and a quilted one of everything. But the biggest trend coming off the runway — and what might really be a game-changing look for the American male of nine months hence — is the upscale take on the lowly sweat pant.

Sure, there were plenty of sharp tailored suits to go around, as well as softer versions of traditional menswear suiting in fabrics including Glen plaids, herringbone and houndstooth. (One standout version of the latter was menswear designer Todd Snyder's barracks jacket with the pattern printed on buttery soft shearling.)

But you couldn't have tossed a kettle ball last week without hitting a new take on the old-school athletic silhouette that hasn't changed much since you last laced up for gym class: loose-fitting, super-soft, drawstring waistband and elasticized ankles.

Snyder, whose entry in the sweat pant parade was a gray wool double-knit number with a black tuxedo side stripe (shown paired with a black jacquard dinner jacket that made it the perfect formalwear choice for something like, say, the ESPY Awards gala) said upscale athleticwear is part of a changing mind-set.

"That's the sensibility," he said. "Kids these days, they're all active. I think [we're past the] the times of being either a jock or a nerd or an intellectual. Those lines are blurred."

Band of Outsiders' Scott Sternberg can also attest to the growing appetite for an athletic take on trousers. His fall and winter 2014 men's "Death of the Newspaper" collection (inspired by a visit to the L.A. Times building) includes versions in comfy-cool black-and-white-striped cotton terry, gray boiled wool with red-and-blue-striped elasticized cuffs and a brushed wool herringbone with cargo pockets

"We have a lot of sweat pants in this collection," Sternberg said, "and I was just talking to sales and they wanted more. And these aren't just typical sweat pants, by the way. We're doing them in cashmere suiting fabrics, we're doing chino sweat pants, we're doing all kinds of versions of it."

Unlike trends that trickle down from the runway, this seems to be a case of trickle-up response to demand — at the Agenda action sports trade show in Long Beach last month, brands said retailer demand for the sweat pant style, which had been gathering steam for several seasons, showed no signs of slowing. "The retailers want anything and everything in that silhouette," Ryan Rush, founder and president of action sports brand Valor Collective, said at the time.

And, according to NPD Group's chief industry analyst Marshal Cohen, the activewear market grew 9% in dollars for the 12 months ending December 2013, compared with 2% growth of the overall apparel market in the same period.

"Consumers have inspired their own fashion trend, and many manufacturers and retailers are just now catching up," Cohen wrote in a recent report. "Activewear has been around for a long time, but not since the '90s-inspired Juicy Couture Warmup suits have we seen so much attention to the activewear market."

Given that the humble zip-front hooded sweat shirt has crossed over to haute hoodie status, there's a logical argument to be made that there's room in the American luxury customer's wardrobe for an upscale version or two of its downstairs neighbor.

Sure, the notion of wearing tuxedo-side-striped sweat pants at a high society soiree may sound faintly ludicrous now, but there was a time when the five-pocket blue jean was the province of miners and cowpokes too. Sweat pants might not sprint to denim-level ubiquity, but they gained some serious momentum with the fall and winter 2014 collections.

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