It was 2006 when a painful, seemingly ineradicable rash had spread across my inner thighs. A meathead friend from the gym told me to use hydrocortisone cream, dump my cotton boxers and get the ones Under Armour makes. I did as he instructed. The cream healed the rash and those Under Armour BoxerJocks ($20) prevented its recurrence. In a marketplace of disappointing products and false promises, these undergarments were flexible, breathable and fit like a dream.
Fast-forward seven years. By then, I owned ample amounts of Under Armour-style products for the gym, but I was still wearing cotton and wool pants to work. And while those pants kept getting skinnier with the trends, my thighs retained their tree trunk-like width. The stage was set for a catastrophe.
One day, in the midst of a boisterous discussion, my tapered-leg pants ripped, leaving a gaping hole in the crotch. I ducked behind the lectern and finished the class, but I resolved that something had to change.
I worked as a college professor and gave very animated lectures—I moved around, gesticulated, jumped on desks, squatted, raged against the dying of the light, all that Dead Poet’s Society Stuff I assumed academics should do.
But such perpetual motion posed a problem. One day, in the midst of a boisterous discussion, my tapered-leg pants ripped, leaving a gaping hole in the crotch. I ducked behind the lectern and finished the class, but I resolved that something had to change.
Only it didn’t, and the whole process repeated itself a couple weeks later: same rip, same hole, same duck-and-cover maneuver.
Not long after, I went to Portland for an academic conference. After my sessions had ended, I walked around the downtown and wandered into lululemon, a clothing outfitter some of my CrossFit friends liked and many of my non-CrossFit friends scorned.
I had assumed their merchandise was geared primarily toward women, and it was, but among all the yoga gear were the pants of my dreams: commission pants ($128), ABC pants ($128) and even some shiny sweats that could conceivably pass as work pants under the right circumstances.
“Bro, you can squat way below parallel in all of these,” a clerk at the store told me.
I tried the pants on, squatted below parallel and then hurried out of the changing room to purchase them. The die had been cast: I was about to become someone who wore athleisure.
And lululemon wasn’t enough. I quickly exhausted their monochrome long-sleeved shirts, sweat-wicking polos and dress shirts. I started following basic business casual clothing trends at department stores such as Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom’s, too.
Now, I wore stuff that worked with my body rather than against it. While on public transportation, I could sit comfortably and without manspreading into the spaces of others. I could race along moving walkways at airports. I could charge up the stairs to appointments for which I was always fashionably late, heedless of concerns about flapjack stains under my armpits or torn seams in my pants.
And when I was seated in front of a computer, typing away, I felt as if I was tucked in bed and preparing to punch a one-way ticket to slumberland. You couldn’t put a price on that, although Betabrand, EYSOM (Exercise Your State of Mind) and the other boutique athleisure companies certainly do—often a steep one.
But each of their garments is intended to be the garment, the highest and finest example of its kind. They are given such definitive names like the “Foundation” T-shirt (EYSOM, $95) and the “Best Travel Pant” (Betabrand, $118); what else could possibly be done to improve them?
I even splurged on an XL version of Betabrand’s “Suitsy” ($378), an extra-soft suit onesie I’ve surreptitiously worn to weddings and other social events. I wasn’t going to be tied down or held back like the Don Drapers of yore—those gray-suited, white-collar worker bees whose outfits wouldn’t let them work out on the monkey bars during a lunch break.
I needed to be able to function in my form, and I wasn’t about to relinquish that privilege so I could fill the grandfatherly pants of Humphrey Bogart, who wore trousers so high on the waist that he could doff his dress shirt without exposing his nipples.
But some observers believe we are approaching peak athleisure, with an inevitable plunge waiting on the other side. They claim that many of these companies are going to fail—that lululemon, in fact, was already heavily discounting its merchandise and that something new would rise in its place. But what?
Will I have to relive the legend of the baggy pants, my Jnco-wearing adolescence? Will I again be forced to stuff an oversized but not overweight body into apparel classified as “skinny?” Or perhaps, like my father, I will have to start wearing old school Sansabelt stretchy-waisted garments ($79), those unattractive pleated-front khakis he jokingly referred to as his “all-you-can-eat specials.”
Nope. I’m not going back. Like Jerry Seinfeld, I always hated buying clothes and fantasized about a future when we would all be wearing interchangeable silver jumpsuits. But until that time comes, I’m traveling in comfort and rocking my Suitsy for as long as I can—or at least until someone notices that there’s a secret zipper behind the fake buttons.
Because trust me, friends: Once you go athleisure, you never go back.