After giving birth to her third child, Devon Mish wanted to shed some extra pounds. She relished the chance to replace some of her old workout clothes, dating to her college days.
"I went out ready to spend and just did not find anything I liked," Mish said. "Everything was plain black or solid colors — not my style. I like prints. I like bright colors. I wanted fun, energetic clothing to get me excited to get up in the morning and go to the gym."
The Odenton resident tapped into an emerging trend four years ago when she set out to fill a void for "preppy chic activewear," launching clothing line Devon Maryn. Plenty of others, she found, wanted activewear that doubled as fashion and were embracing "athleisure" style as well.
Mish's business joined a cottage industry that has cropped up in the Baltimore area in the shadow of much bigger global competitor Under Armour. They're hoping to meet growing demand for apparel designed to be worn while exercising — or not.
Athleisure, a category put on the map by yoga pants maker Lululemon, is on the rise at a time when more casual dress codes, greater health awareness and fabric innovations have made it more acceptable and popular to wear athletic wear outside the gym or off the field. The term moved into the mainstream this year with it's own dictionary definition.
"This is one of those trends that's driven by lifestyle, as opposed to fashion dictating how people should dress and live," said Zoey Washington-Sheff, senior style editor for Brit + Co. "The way people live is changing the fashion offerings. That's how you know something is going to be around quite a long time. The reality is the athletic market is big business, and fashion is doing its best to figure out how to stay relevant."
More brands and designers are moving into the space, Washington-Sheff said, making athletic apparel more fashion-driven. That evolution is attracting entrepreneurs like Mish, who say they are succeeding by catering to well-defined niches.
For Devon Maryn, that means women who don't consider themselves hard-core athletes or fitness buffs and who might not relate to the intensity of athletes in Under Armour or Nike ads, Mish said.
"I wanted this to be a nonintimidating brand," Mish said. "My goal was to appeal to that East Coast and Southern woman who wants to wear makeup and a little jewelry to the gym. I'm here to make you feel like it's OK if you want to wear a pretty outfit to the gym, and there's no shame in that. If you're more motivated to work out, all the better."
Other area entrepreneurs are spotting similar niches.
While watching her sons play lacrosse, Sheilah Ruppert noticed that girls playing the sport "were living in these compression shorts" on and off the field.
With the help of her sister-in-law, who designs custom swimwear, she began creating shorts, sports bras and headbands. While selling them at girls' lacrosse tournaments, her own attire — dresses she'd designed out of swimwear fabric to keep from sweating in the heat — began drawing attention.
"I wanted to wear something that wasn't skin-tight," she said. "I wanted something comfortable and flattering when I was outside sweating."
During summer lacrosse tournaments that drew hundreds of teams, "moms kept asking me about the dress," she said, "and I started selling that."
Ruppert runs Spunkwear with her husband from their home in Kent Island. Ruppert designs her own nautically inspired prints, and a factory near Philadelphia makes the clothing. It sells mostly through its website and at events, plus a few boutiques. Sales have increased 20 percent annually over eight years.
The women's line now includes a dozen styles of dresses, skirts and shorts, plus yoga wear and running shorts. Spunkwear still sells girls' compression shorts, sports bras and accessories.
Her customers "love how good they feel wearing our clothes, and they love how they look in them," Ruppert said. The dresses "are designed intentionally to hide flaws. They're really flattering on a lot of body types, not just tall, skinny women, but everyone. People want to be comfortable, and they want to look good."
Jennifer Vick also found inspiration for her 4-year-old apparel business on her sons' lacrosse fields but went in a different direction.
Vick built Glen Arm-based Laxsohard by appealing to players, parents and fans of one of America's fastest-growing team sports with a line of lacrosse shorts and shirts for girls, boys, men and women that can be worn on and off the field. The idea occurred to her, Vick said, after noticing how many girls in the sport were wearing boys' shirts and shorts off the field.
"They wanted to represent their sport, but there weren't a lot of options," Vick said. "The beauty of it was it was something they could wear at practice and then to the mall. … It translates to their everyday life."
Vick, who had sold surgical equipment, began teaching herself apparel design before the term "athleisure" was coined. As a mother looking for clothes suitable for sports practice and other uses, she thought the idea made sense. She began selling Laxsohard-branded clothing made in Columbia during games and tournaments, then online, doubling sales the first year and growing in double digits ever since.
"My goal is to be an authentic lacrosse strong brand," she said. "How we compete against other brands is we have solid quality and fit and authenticity of the fit. We're not a big company trying to make what we have fit into lacrosse. We are lacrosse."
The rise in athleisure has given apparel sales a big boost in the recent years, said Deborah Weinswig, managing director of Fung Global Retail & Technology, in a column in Forbes. Activewear is expected to generate $83 billion in sales by 2020 and steal market share from nonathletic apparel, according to Morgan Stanley.
"It appeals to a wide variety of consumers because it is applicable for almost every situation: going to the gym, grabbing coffee or brunch with friends, running errands and even working in the office," Weinswig wrote.
Others, however, wonder how long the trend will last.
"After a strong eight-year cycle, we believe the athleisure apparel trend has peaked," Camilo Lyon of Canaccord Genuity said in a report this month downgrading Lululemon stock to "sell."
"We began hearing of denim gaining momentum at the summer footwear/apparel trade shows, and now more fashion footwear vendors/retailers are speaking to such trends."
Mish believes the athleisure landscape is shifting, not disappearing.
"When I started this, there was not anything similar on the market," she said. "Now there is. If you look at the industry as a whole, it's gotten a lot more challenging. … Brands that have sprung up all have a nice niche, but there's so much product for activewear … and it's hard to rise above that noise."
To grow, she said, she's positioning Devon Maryn as a lifestyle brand, meaning "the customer wants to wear the brand in all aspects of life."
Vick, too, expects growth and is in talks with sporting goods stores to carry the Laxsohard line.
"It's a fun time to be in this athleisure space, and it's cool to be a part of," Vick said. "It's good to be in a space where you know you have that solid footing. I don't see the trend going away anytime soon."