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Monday, August 02, 2021

The quiet fashion revolution powering India’s women runners

Comfortable, stylish and convenient - activewear is the Indian woman’s own superhero suit

Written by Shivani Naik | New Delhi |
November 29, 2020 6:30:13 am
athleisure, sports fashion, activewear, running gear, women runners, Indian women runners, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express newsA campaign shoot still of the sportswear brand Stretchery. (Courtesy Stretchery)

Back in 2006, Sayuri Dalvi wondered why, if it was only about putting one foot in front of the other, more women didn’t run. When she started training women for marathons a few years later, Adidas’ leading run coach from Mumbai would understand that this inhibition had to do with the running attire. Most women who started road running, she says, had no idea about the liberating power of the right kind of clothing. “They’d come in salwar kameez, with a dupatta slung across one shoulder, and walk as fast as they could. Many didn’t know about sports bras, so you had to explain that running attire could be more comfortable and that it was alright to run in shorts and sports bras,” she says.

Dalvi had a trainee who feared backlash from her joint family, but was pleasantly surprised when her mother-in-law encouraged her at every progressive milestone aimed at wearable comfort: from track pants to shorts when she finally grew in confidence. “Some walls, we build in our minds,” Dalvi explains.

Sports brand PUMA acknowledges what’s the single-most crucial purchase that’s brought thousands of women runners into the fold: the sports bra.

“The right kit and gear are very important elements in the journey of a runner. Women runners, when they start to train, look for comfortable sports bras,” says Abhishek Ganguly, general manager, PUMA India and Southeast Asia. Apart from that, they invest in a good pair of running shoes that are comfortable and prevent injuries. “Women also look for the right fit and style in pants and shorts as it is extremely crucial for their run,” Ganguly adds.

Runner Nivedita Samanta, Adidas’s India captain of road races, says running gear has gone beyond tracks and tees. “Weather on race day determines clothing – heat-ready, light, quick drying, sweat absorbing or breathable wear. Even socks are carefully picked,” she says.

The ASICS Runkeeper App saw a 252 per cent rise in registrations globally (31 per cent in India) during the April lockdown this year. As countries unlocked, women bolted out of their confining homes to resume running with a vengeance. “(On the) basis of these statistics, we knew that we had to support the running community in the country,” an ASICS spokesperson said while launching their experimented ambitious ASICS Runners Face Cover mask, that could be used while running at physical peak.

Ankita Gaur, who first took to running in Delhi before moving to Bangalore, spells out the recurring refrain among women: “Not many know just how important a sports bra can be. If you choose the right dry-fit apparel, trust me, endurance running can be an absolute pleasurable activity.”

While chiffons and georgettes, paisleys and weaves, layers and silhouettes have dominated clothing conversations for years in India, the clean cut, no-nonsense, all-functional science of running apparel is the buzzword of the last decade. As numbers of women taking to all manners of athletic activities grew, suddenly it was all about breathable vests.

Deepa Bhat, a Bengaluru-based coach shepherding several nascent running careers, reckons there are more women running in shorts and sports bras than when she started in 2012 — although a whiff of orthodoxy derails this freedom to wear comfortable running attire. Bhat says wearing comfort is a natural progression. “You run and you lose weight, look fitter and look better. You transition from track pants to three-fourths. Running in shorts is the obvious next step, right?” she asks.

Dalvi reckons women who run don’t go on shopping sprees impulsively and the whole activity is a carefully considered process. “Women don’t spend big unless they are sure the activity will stick on. You don’t start running today, and splurge Rs 50,000 on GPS support the next day,” she says. But a good pair of shoes — the runner’s second skin — and a sports bra are non-negotiable.

Dalvi was dealing with weight gain, postpartum depression, dipping self worth and, later, her child’s autism diagnosis, when she started running in 2006, juggling it with her job. In between the child’s therapy and finding her own totem of stability as a newly single mother and working professional, the wardrobe underwent a sea-change.  “More shelves held my running wear and long-term investments went into good, branded tees and sporty lowers that would last me for years and years,” she says. Several pairs of neatly folded sports bras and running slacks, stored in an uncluttered closet could stop life itself from fraying, she notes of a tricky period in her life when the simple act of morning jogs patched her back together.

Ankita Gaur met her future husband in a Noida swim pool, but a serious injury cascading into a confidence crisis ended another enduring love in the waters: her swimming career. “I hated those two-three years when I wasn’t active. Delhi had safety concerns. But when I moved to Bangalore, it was amazing, though these last few years I think twice about safety. Still, it’s the running capital of India, and communities led by amateurs have each other’s backs,” she says.

There are several instances of sexual harassment on the streets early in the mornings, the women confess. But a woman’s right to wear whatever she wishes to, while out on a jog, is something the southern city will go to battle for, she reckons.

Roshni Rai who helps train young girls in Kalimpong, says the hill girls who grew up on football and other sports faced no such starting sartorial struggles. “We knew even half sleeves are very inconvenient when running, so my girls always ran in light-weight, sleeveless tops. Hill people are liberal about modern dressing. But if we are traveling to Delhi, I need to sit the girls down and explain to them that they need to be sensible. Bombay is no problem, but my runners have faced problems in Delhi before. They race in comfortable attire, but otherwise always sensible,” she says.

For years, Kalimpong has taken immense pride in its Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations, complete with all the associated finery. “Our national day celebrations are second only to Delhi, we always boast,” Roshni says while recalling how it all started. “Our band and parades are grand and it’s when the whole hill community comes together. For all these years, the headlining main event was the men’s football match. But I knew my village hill girls can do more than just kick about football. So we started training them and travelling to the Mumbai marathon. Watching them, even the older women took to running,” she adds.

Earlier this year came an especially heart-warming achievement when Saraswati Rai, 42, finished atop the Mumbai Marathon podium in the 40-44 age category, over the 10 km distance. The mother of two and wife of an ex-army officer, had started road running as soon as it became clear that her elder son would be flying the nest, joining the army himself this March. “Kalimpong women run to win,” Roshni says. They wear their running vests, shorts and a heady scent of success now.

Running without a care — save for logging a good mileage — though, was the last thing on anyone’s mind earlier this year when the lockdown got imposed. With nowhere to go, dressing up went out of fashion. All, except athleisure it would seem, riding on the sustained growth of fitness and wellness industries that helped it buck the trend that befell office wear, formals, ethnic and wedding wear in the 2020 no-show.

athleisure, sports fashion, activewear, running gear, women runners, Indian women runners, eye 2020, sunday eye, indian express news Sayuri Dalvi (Courtesy Adidas)

This decade’s biggest fashion-leveller that blurred the lines between office, gym, high-fashion and even casual wear for women mostly, proved to be the clothing of choice for those working from home.

“While every other segment in clothing retail, be it formal, ethnic or occasion wear has seen a 30 per cent contraction in the last few months, athleisure bucked the trend,” says Ankur Bisen, who tracks retail as senior vice president at Gurgaon-based consulting firm, Technopak Advisors.

But athleisure has needed broadbasing. Nirali Mehta & Jeenie Madan, founders of the brand Stretchery, the organic cotton athleisure manufacturers with 91 per cent of their clientele being women, talk about the “unimaginable challenges” they faced at the start of the pandemic. “From work to workout, chores to downtime, all activities were reprogrammed, with clothing needing to be not too casual but comfortable,” the duo explain. Activewear quickly became the day-to-night go-to attire pushing up sales even if people hardly stepped out.
Andrew Leo founded Athflex activewear in Surat that sold about 10,000 pieces bringing in 28-30 lakh in revenues this last year. “Sales suddenly surged in lockdown when online e-commerce opened for health-conscious people, post pandemic,” Leo says of the gym-meets-the runway trend.

Ganguly says that even before the pandemic, group classes like aerobics, zumba, calisthenics, yoga, pilates and dance fitness grew phenomenally in India. “Also, sportswear became a wardrobe essential. Women used sportswear and sneakers as an expression of their style — sporting it for multiple occasions like travel, an evening out and even as office wear,” he says.

Yoga, too, was a force multiplier. Malika Baruah, ceo of Bengaluru’s Proyog athleisure brand, reckons women invest more in yoga gear that’s comfortable, stretchable and breathable; that could chameleon working from home as well as throw in a quick workout. “Loose, soft and comfortable,” she explains. Workout gear suddenly was no longer the preserve of the skinny yuppie on a perennial starvation diet, as all shapes and sizes began to be kitted out in something less throttling than shapewear. Accessories like jackets upgraded casual looks.

“Good athleisure absolutely lends itself to multitasking. Branding of gyms and yoga classes saw women liking to turn up at their workout well-turned-out,” Baruah says.

Observing that the trend has trickled down to  tier II and III cities, Pankaj Renjhen, coo & joint managing director, Anarock Retail, notes: “Athleisure sales broke the shackles of cor-porate formality,” he says.

India found its sharp fashion sense at the start of this decade when all-black activewear of tees and tights got adopted en masse by amateur athletes, shunning the usual splash of colour.

Mehta and Madan trace it further back. While post-war ’50s made women’s clothing more functional, the last few years were about bicep brandishing beauties. “Home body weight workouts to gyms, hula hoop and twisting, aerobics and jazzercise, yoga to marathons. Women getting muscular physiques took its time to get accepted, but there was a shift from the desire to be “skinny” to look healthy, fit and strong increasing demand in women’s active-wear and athleisure,” they add.

Bollywood, too, chipped in. Leo reckons that Gully Boy (2019) did more for athleisure’s visibility on Indian streets than any other brand. Some also credit Manish Malhotra, who kitted out Karishma Kapoor in the trendiest athleisure looks in Dil To Pagal Hai way back in 1997, for making the sporty fashion statement.  Elsewhere, Britney Spears to Sporty Spice shot their videos in pared-down singlets and loose tracks, though the high priestess of athleisure fashion is Beyoncé with her Ivy Park collaboration.

Dalvi acknowledges that social media validation is tripping on athleisure. “You simply need to look nice when you upload a picture even from home. Even a selfie at night sees me dress up in my best gear,” she says. Her first hook came from Orkut. “I was fascinated by those ads of women in nice, fitting track pants, flat abs and a sports bra on Orkut. Then ad agencies put these women on Billboards, and suddenly I wanted to work towards a body like that,” she recalls.

Taking off on a run and grabbing a coffee at the end of the jog doesn’t need a change of clothes now. Finally, the woman who packs a million things into 24 hours has her own superhero suit.

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