It's a small step for Under Armour, which plans to add a sportswear line to its core athletic apparel offerings this fall.
But it's also a giant leap into fashion, one the Baltimore-based athletic wear brand is taking with award-winning Belgian designer Tim Coppens.
Known for performance-based gear for athletes, Under Armour hired Coppens to lead UAS, or Under Armour Sportswear, a line for "ambitious young professionals" to wear off the court and field and out of the gym. Coppens is a fashion industry star who designed for luxury brands and athletic wear companies before creating his own New York-based line.
Analysts see the move as a logical evolution rather than a departure from the brand's core.
"The company was founded based on function over form … more about function and less about style, but along the way has been doing a very good job of growing the brand," said Jason Moser, an analyst with the Motley Fool's Million Dollar Portfolio. "There's more brand awareness for Under Armour now than ever before. For them to expand their market opportunities only makes sense."
Under Armour describes the line as "performance sportswear" that's fashion-driven. The company plans to unveil designs of the men's and women's apparel, footwear and accessories in a few weeks, including fashion separates suitable for a professional lifestyle.
The clothing will incorporate the same technology used in Under Armour athletic apparel, such as fabrics that stretch, regulate body temperature and shield from weather, said Ben Pruess, Under Armour's senior vice president of sportswear.
"This comes from a high-performance, innovative brand now put through the lens of your everyday life, through the lens and culture of fashion," Pruess said.
By joining forces with a fashion designer in the way the brand calls on athletes to help create sports gear, "it's a signal that we're going to come at this from the sense of what it means to be experts in sports and experts in fashion," he said. "It has to be purposeful and add something to the greater dialogue in the marketplace.
"There was a youthful, more trend-right, more innovative and aspirational tone missing from the marketplace, young kids who grew up with Under Armour … looking for a brand that represents their generation," Pruess said.
Moser thinks the new line likely will attract new customers as well as appeal to Under Armour's core athletic consumers.
"There are certainly people out there that like the Under Armour brand, but feel the clothing is too performance-oriented," he said. "This move into not just performance but the fashion side of it will open them to new market opportunities that didn't exist before."
The UAS line will arrive as Under Armour looks to expand its reach both globally and through its websites, analysts said. The brand plans to debut a new website, UASportswear.com, dedicated to the new line, which also will sell at Under Armour Brand House stores and as-yet-unnamed upscale retailers, where its products might currently have little or no presence.
The addition of Coppens as executive creative director will help bring fashion credibility and an added dose of "cool" to UAS, helping it better compete with rivals such as Nike and Adidas, Marc Bain, a fashion reporter for Quartz, wrote in a column earlier this month.
Coppens' website says the designer has been inspired by athletic references, "the energy of the city, street culture, as well as a pulse that feels the present and the future."
Coppens' designs mix activewear details such as elastic cuffs, zipper detail and tech fabrics with street and skate culture influences, Bain said. The website for Barneys, one of the upscale retailers that carries the Coppens label, describes it as "eponymous sporty-chic."
"Fashion credibility brings Nike and Adidas heaps of customers beyond those just looking for performance gear or basic athleisure," Bain wrote in the column.
"Those reference points have set [Coppens] apart in the crowded New York fashion scene, and should also allow him to bring something new to Under Armour."
Under Armour already benefits from the "athleisure" trend of people wearing athletic apparel outside the gym and even to work.
An Under Armour sportswear line extends that, though the brand faces a crowded field in the robust sportswear category, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a New York-based national retail consulting and investment banking firm.
"Yes there are going to be many competitors … but they've proven their ability to differentiate themselves," in part through marketing, Davidowitz said. "Their record has been when they do things, they make it work."
The lines between activewear, "athleisure," and ready-to-wear have been blurring, and "a lot is consumer driven," said Zoey Washington-Sheff, a Baltimore-based senior style editor with San Francisco-based Brit + Co.
"There definitely is an audience for what they're doing," Washington-Sheff said.
Activewear has become more chic as high-end designers have entered the field, with Chanel designing sneakers and Stella McCartney developing a line for Adidas, she said.
"People are incorporating these elements into their everyday life, and the evolution of that is ready-to-wear incorporating the technology and fabrication of high-end activewear and athletic wear," Washington-Sheff said, citing Lululemon's high-performance cashmere, for example.
Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank first mentioned plans to enter the sportswear category during an investors day in September, then again during a conference call with analysts in October.
"We will answer the call from our consumer for product that can be worn outside of the gym, court, pitch or field, delivering the same promise, a functionality and form-fit and performance that they've come to expect from Under Armour," Plank said during that call. "This category expands our vision of empowering all athletes on and off the sporting field."
While marketing plans have not been finalized, Pruess said the line will be an option for the brand's team of sports figure endorsers off the field and the court.
Sportswear is one of nine categories expected to help propel Under Armour's growth, including men's and women's training, running, outdoor, golf, basketball, team sports and soccer, though the line doesn't figure heavily into the company's projections of reaching $7.5 billion in sales by 2018.
But Plank said the category represents a $12.5 billion market, based on rivals that derive a quarter of their sales from sportswear.
Launching the new brand comes with some risks, analysts said, such as the possibility of offering products that might not resonate with consumers.
The choice of Coppens will bring fashion credibility — without preconceived notions, Washington-Sheff said.
"It's smart for them to bring someone like Tim on who isn't a household name to people outside the industry," she said. "Tim Coppens doesn't have a known aesthetic to the average Under Armour customer."
The key is blending Coppens' ideas and Under Armour's vision, Davidowitz said.
"He'll be doing something very different for Under Armour," he said, "but if he's talented and he's flexible, that may work beautifully."