“They were all wearing trainers and layers of black,” says Evelyn Cotter, a career coach based in London. She’s describing a recent public speaking conference she attended, where the crowd of ambitious young professionals were dressed in a uniform way.
“Everyone had come straight from work, they were wearing black jeans and smart sneakers, but it definitely felt professional,” adds Cotter. “It’s a conscious style choice. It’s not just what you throw on to play with your dog in the garden.”
The industry of ‘athleisure’ – sporty clothes and shoes that people don’t necessarily wear to play sport – grew by a staggering 42% between 2008 and 2015, according to Morgan Stanley research. More recently, its influence has begun to creep into offices, where workers’ clothing is becoming increasingly relaxed and designed for comfort. The Society for Human Resource Management, an international organisation, tracks how many employers allow workers to dress casually every day, and that figure rose from 32% in 2014 to 44% in 2016.
It’s a conscious style choice. It’s not just what you throw on to play with your dog in the garden
It’s not just trainers making their way into work uniforms. There are also suit trousers with a drawstring waist, designed to blur the lines between tracksuit bottoms and smart trousers, and perfectly conventional-looking dress shirts and jackets made with the type of hi-tech fabric that you’d usually associate with hiking or the gym.
‘Expectations have changed’
UK designer Joanna Sykes has designed her new collection entirely around this theme, referring to the look as “tracksuit suiting”. It includes tracksuit bottoms smart enough to wear with jackets and a white poplin shirt that fastens with a zip.
This athleisure thing, I don’t see it as a trend but more of a permanent lifestyle shift - Joanna Sykes
“This athleisure thing,” Sykes says, “I don’t see it as a trend but more of a permanent lifestyle shift. More and more people are working remotely and on the move, and expectations of a woman’s uniform in the workplace have changed. People want to feel more comfortable, but they also want to look smart.”
Professional clothing needs to be increasingly functional and versatile, Sykes says, so “you can style [an item] in a lot of different ways, and it isn’t a ball of creases when you take it out of your suitcase.” The most popular items in her collection, she says, are the luxe tracksuits.
Not everyone can get away with wearing a tracksuit to work, of course, and Cotter advises her clients to pay a certain amount of attention to the usual attire of their clients or bosses when deciding how formally to dress.
Harvard researchers have found that those who intentionally resist convention come across as competent and powerful
Harvard researchers have found that those who intentionally resist convention come across as competent and powerful – they call it the “red sneaker effect” – but Cotter suggests that, “if putting a look together isn’t your natural strength, then play it safe.”
Even traditional-looking suits are being improved by sportswear technology. Fabrics pioneered for use by athletes and explorers, or even for extreme sports, are being adapted to create workwear that is wrinkle-proof, breathable, sweat-wicking and temperature-regulating.
Athleisure’s influence has begun to creep into offices, where workers’ clothing is becoming increasingly relaxed
Ministry of Supply, based in Boston, Massachussetts, sells dress clothes that promise to do all of the above. Launched by Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, the company sold over 75,000 products in 2016, and has surpassed that figure this year.
“We see activewear and athleisure as the gateway to what we call ‘performance professional’,” says VP of operations Brian Kennedy. He says that dress clothes have historically been “high maintenance and low performance,” adding: “our aim is to reverse that trend.” The company’s CEO Gihan Amarasiriwardena even ran a half marathon in one of their suits, to test and showcase its performance credentials.
Also mixing men’s sports dress with tailoring and fashion is British brand Cottweiler. For Ben Cottrell and Matthew Dainty, the designers behind the sportswear-inspired, high-concept fashion label, it’s the fast pace of contemporary life that’s driving the trend.
“People need to be able to adapt quickly to various situations throughout the day,” they write in a joint email, “from the gym to work to the club, so it makes sense to soften the formality of workwear. Advances in fabric technology play a big part in this shift.”
This autumn sees the brand collaborate with Reebok for a collection that will combine “the technical and cultural legacy of Reebok with Cottweiler’s unique vision,” the sportswear giant said when announcing the project.
"Sportswear is of growing importance and influence at the moment as it is reflective of the way we live our lives,” add the duo. “The function and comfort of sportswear fabrics and cuts lend themselves to fast-paced life very well.”
“People are becoming more understanding of what clothing properties they actually need on a daily basis, such as breathability for commuting, or water repellency. Our approach is to formalise sportswear.”
People are becoming more understanding of what clothing properties they actually need on a daily basis
On the womenswear front, another brand selling activewear-inspired corporate clothing is Aella. The company was founded by Yale and UCLA graduate Eunice Cho after she talked with friends about how they “hated officewear” and “dreamed of wearing yoga clothes everywhere.” Aella started with one hero product: black trousers with some stretch, in six styles.
The company’s slogan is “uniform for going places,” and its website makes clear that it’s aimed at women with busy schedules, who aren’t prepared to be uncomfortable for the sake of looking slick.
Cho describes her work as a “feminist mission,” and adds, “we should wear clothing that frees us to do whatever we want.”
If that means dashing across town after work to get to a public-speaking event after a full day at work, trainers and stretchy trousers make a lot more sense than power suits, pencil skirts and stilettos. Looking very 2017 is just a bonus.
To comment on and see more stories from BBC Designed, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also see more stories from BBC Capital on Facebook and Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.