Apparel sees rapid growth as athleisure becomes norm

Brand analysis of apparel industry from Kantar BrandZ Most Valuable Global Brands 2021 ranking report.
apparel industry head pic
Martin Guo 2015

Editor in Chief, Kantar China Insights, China

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Kantar BrandZ™ Most Valuable Global Brands 2021 ranking report includes in-depth analysis of brand landscape and trends of 18 categories. We will publish the analysis content about a number of categories in English and Chinese. This article is based on the category focus section of apparel industry.

Key findings from the apparel and luxury sectors in this year’s study include: 

Diversifying channels such as live streaming content, gamification and subscription models played a key role in driving growth. Nike and Lululemon both benefited from investment;

Athleisure brands are highly differentiated in their positioning. The top three athleisure brands have an average of 130 on the Difference Index vs. 111 for the top three global fashion brands (the average brand scores 100);

Of the apparel brands, Uniqlo saw the fastest growth of 88%, thanks to its unique business model – avoiding appealing to fast fashion like competitors, ordering large batches of basic wear that won’t go out of fashion. Further, it’s ethical business model is recognised by consumers as being inclusive, available for all shapes and sizes and environmentally sustainable;

UK brand ASOS and Chinese sports brand ANTA entered the category ranking for the first time thanks to domestic success in their home markets. ASOS’ growth comes thanks to its strong digital offering and differentiation – being seen as having a rebellious heroic personality which sets it apart from competitors. In contrast ANTA has tapped into health and wellness trends over the last few years;

Apparel brands saw some of the fastest brand value growth in the last year as shoppers grew their athleisure wardrobes, according to the Kantar BrandZTM Most Valuable Global Brands 2021 ranking. Released today, the study reveals apparel category grew in value by 53% over the last year, outpacing the growth of media & entertainment Top 10, and second only to consumer technology. 

The sector benefited from changing habits during lock-down as shoppers prioritised loungewear and athleisure brands such as lululemon, Nike, Puma and Adidas. This year also saw improved showings from some fashion brands as well – with Uniqlo doing especially well thanks to its strengthening position in China. The result was a banner year for top Apparel brands.

lululemon is perhaps the poster child for how a brand can master the flexibility imperative. It’s not just that Lululemon clothes are physically stretchy – it’s also that they can move seamlessly across multiple day-parts and environments. Just as crucially in a post-pandemic world, Lululemon has retained its strong associations with health and wellness. 

By the third quarter of 2020, many leading athletics and athleisure brands began their return to profitability. They did so on the backs of beefed-up online shopping portals, which are on track to account for more than half of sneaker brands’ sales over the next few years. 

Crucially, direct-to-consumer ecommerce offerings have reduced apparel brands’ exposure to a wobbly wholesale market. In 2020, several leading department store chains in the UK, Europe, and the U.S. declared bankruptcy. So, too, did a number of apparel brands targeted toward the shrinking middle segment of the market: labels like J. Crew, Topshop, Ann Taylor, and Men’s Wearhouse. Even mass-market apparel behemoths like Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo have found themselves challenged by a crop of online-first, “fast-fashion” labels like UK based Boohoo, China-based Shein, and US-based Fashion Nova. These have proven especially popular with Gen Z and Millennial consumers.

There is a dichotomy in apparel: sustainability is a growing priority for shoppers, but is often viewed as expensive and unattainable, while fast fashion is still hugely popular, despite the related environmental concerns. This is compounded by the success of retailers like BOOHOO and MISSGUIDED, and the growing traction of Shein, which demonstrates that price remains key. 

Emerging disruptors to this landscape are not new fashion brands, but secondhand platforms like Depop, The Real Real and ByRotation, which have transformed perceptions of thrifting or sharing into a fashionable hobby. As tech platforms, they focus on creating communities and engagement instead of products. Following suit, retailers like Selfridges and Levi’s have initiated their own resale programmes. Increasingly, access to fashion is taking precedence over ownership, and the idea of having the latest trend is, frequently, being superseded by the desire for the most unique find or the best bargain.

Action points for brand building

Supply chain and labour issues represent some of the greatest reputational threats to apparel brands. It’s not enough to “go green” and talk about carbon neutrality and environmental impacts. Brands must think hard about how to manage and communicate about the human side of the Responsibility equation.

Leading apparel brands can’t afford to cede tools like Instagram ecommerce, Snapchat AR, and “Live Shopping” shows to their Direct To Consumer competitors. Omnichannel commerce increasingly means embracing multiple routes to online purchasing.

Celebrity collaborations, these days, are table stakes – and if a brand isn’t savvy about creating the perfect match, the resulting products could get lost in the hype shuffle. Apparel brands need to first have a crystal-clear picture of their own positioning, in order to then judge which IP and celebrity partners will be a good fit for collaboration.


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