The gentleman’s guide to jogging. Alex Bilmes. January 21 2016
The new sportswear brands that shape up — whether you’re running a triathlon or nipping to the pub.
Which neologism takes the prize for the most irritating of the moment? Take your pick of “mansplaining”, “Brexit”, “hangry” and the numberless other pleased-with-themselves portmanteau words that arrive each year to torment OED lexicographers.
In fashion-speak (“fashspeak”?), there is a clear winner: “athleisure”. What does it mean? Well, the point where athletics meets leisure, obviously. In practice: the trend for sporting clothes notionally designed to be worn while exercising for activities other than exercising — lunching in Lycra, nipping to the dry cleaners in yoga kit, putting out the bins in running shoes. Which might not be so offensive, until you see the clothes: a kaleidoscope of clashing techno prints in lurid orange, garish yellow, fluoro pink and headache green.
Linger on any suburban street and it won’t be long before you encounter a human distress flare in glow-in-the-dark T-shirt, bum-hugging “sports leggings” and neon bubble trainers. It’s true your aesthetic assailant may be out for a jog, or even staggering home from a triathlon, but it’s as likely they’ve popped to the off-licence for a bottle of Vouvray and a pack of Marlboro Menthols wearing what, until recently, would have been called “gym kit” — and particularly ugly gym kit at that. It’s not quite as mad as wearing a business suit to go swimming, but it’s pretty odd.
For half a century, teenagers have repurposed sportswear as an off-duty uniform to the extent that few people now notice. You could be forgiven for thinking that tracksuits are designed for bingeing on television and crisps, and tennis shoes made for hanging about on street corners. (Honestly, they weren’t.) The sportswear giants — Nike, Adidas, Puma — have long found it convenient to advertise the technical properties of their “apparel”, even while little of it will ever be used on a running track, or tennis court, or sports field. (“Anyone seen my pub shoes?” a student housemate of mine used to shout in preparation for an evening of pint-sinking. He meant his Reebok Classics.)
“Athleisure” takes this a trainer-shod step further, not only because of the hi-viz hues, but because technical sports gear is not so easily passed off as mufti. A form-fitting phosphorescent Contour Dri-FIT T-shirt from the Nike Running label is not at all like a Lacoste cotton pique polo shirt, equally appropriate for a sunny Saturday sitting outside a café as it is for a gripping five-setter. It is constructed from a nylon/polyester mix with mesh panels designed to wick away sweat caused by a vigorous cardio workout. Unless you perspire particularly heavily during the BBC’s War and Peace on a Sunday evening — and admittedly, it is its own kind of endurance test — you should save your Dri-FIT T-shirt for the other kind of marathon, where you run 26 miles. Because unless you are one of the very few people in the world who looks good relaxing in blazingly bright athleisure, you look silly, and desperate, even if you are doing actual exercise.
The good news is that it is now possible to exercise and not look like a set of malfunctioning traffic lights. And, as a result, it’s possible to go to the dry cleaners in your running gear — if you must — without looking like a mid-life crisis with knobbly knees.
Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and the rest offer plenty of running gear in navy, and black, and grey, with minimal branding. (Those who run in the dark, on badly lit streets, should know that the subtle reflective strips do just as good a job of alerting drivers to your existence as does all that lairy neon.) Better yet, a new breed of sportswear brand — inspired in part by cycling labels such as Rapha and Paul Smith’s “531” line — is making a play for the market.
At the head of the field for runners is Iffley Road, a British label selling smart, technical running gear in dialled-down designs. Named after the track in Oxfordshire where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, Iffley Road, based in south-west London, was founded in 2013 by a married couple, Claire Kent and Bill Byrne, she a former luxury goods analyst in the City, he a former IT consultant, both committed runners. The idea was simple: to make running gear that is as stylish as it is practical.
They started with three items: a crewneck T-shirt, a half-zip running top and running shorts. Made in Portugal using a fabric called drirelease, their most outré detail is a wide stripe, based on Bannister’s singlet that also inspired the discreet, embossed roundel logo. “We hope it’s the kind of thing you can wear to go for coffee after your run,” says Kent, “but the absolute guiding principle is that it should be functional.”
(Iffley Road "Richmond" Storm Jacket)
Other brands are also entering the market: Soar Running offers “performance running wear that you can sweat, move and breathe in” in similarly appealing navy, maroon and grey. LA-based Aether makes muted performance clothes for hardy outdoorsmen.
And longer established and more traditional labels are getting in on the act. Hackett, the British men’s outfitter, is introducing its HKT Sport Performance range for spring/summer, with running tops and sweatshirts in merino wool, stretch polyester shorts and lightweight, rainproof jackets.
Even the trainers are improving: I opened my suitcase on a recent work trip to discover I’d forgotten to pack my running shoes. Happily there was a branch of Niketown minutes from the hotel. I chose a pair of Lunarglide 5s. In black and white.
I wouldn’t wear them to the pub, though. That’s what my tennis shoes are for.
Alex Bilmes is editor-in-chief of ‘Esquire’