Technical Wear: The Better Athleisure

When your clothes are this comfortable, anywhere can be your gym. 
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When your clothes are this comfortable, anywhere can be your gym. 
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There’s an undeniable appeal to wearing gym clothes all day. Stretchy shirts and leggings conform to the body, a welcome relief from the way raw denim can feel like a crunchy prison for your legs. Sweatpants are cushioned and comfortable, plus there’s no need for a belt. And then there’s the empowering feeling that if a zombie apocalypse happens, you’re fully prepared to run away in sweat-wicking comfort.

Yet “athleisure,” the term of choice for the trend of 24/7 athletic wear that emerged with the popularity of women’s clothing brands like Lululemon, still has a few drawbacks. Namely, that wearing gear in various shades of gray and neon is ugly and completely inappropriate on a day-to-day basis for an adult human who doesn’t work at a Crossfit emporium. By embracing the soft, flexible fabrics of athleisure, we neglect the rest of fashion that evolved to help us differentiate between work and play.

There is a simple solution: Instead of going straight for the Lululemon men’s line of spandex, look for the gentler euphemism of “technical wear” or “technical fabrics.” These clothes take the innovative design elements of athleisure and work them into outfits that won’t look totally out of place in the office. They use high-tech materials to create suit jackets, jeans, and shorts so that no one at work will realize how comfortable you are.

Technical wear is fairly difficult to find in stores, so in this case, online shopping is your friend. The clothes you’re looking for are typically made by smaller brands who cater to smaller markets—but that also makes the clothes more unique. The Brooklyn brand Outlier started out with a single pair of perfect cycling pants ($225) that remained in development for years. The fabric is both tough and breathable thanks to a double weave composition, and it’s treated on the outside so that dirt and water slide right off.

“We want to build the future of clothing,” the company’s manifesto proclaims. From cycling pants, Outlier moved into shirts, socks, and jackets that include intricate details designed to get you through the day, no matter what survival maneuvers it involves. Their merino button-down ($175) retains its structure despite its soft fabric. Outlier’s blazer ($550) puts the sport back into sport coat with a cotton-nylon blend.

Arcteryx brings up the higher-end of technical wear, with minimalist suit jackets ($599) and merino wool coats ($399). While the price point is higher than the usual expectations for yoga pants, technical wear means your purchases are more durable than a single-season buy from a menswear retailer. It’s like buying a winter coat—keep a piece till you feel like it has done its job instead of throwing it away when it inevitably wears out.

As a style, technical wear takes the qualities we prize in our technology—efficiency, speed, user experience—and translates them into what we put on our bodies as well. Like drinking bulletproof coffee (which comes with yak butter for added protein and supposedly brain-positive nutrients) but less disgusting, technical wear is meant to be functional. Unlike the ubiquitious basketball shorts of the 90s, just because an outfit feels like gymwear doesn’t mean it has to look like it.

I first encountered the brand Ministry of Supply in the shop area of a rock-climbing gym. In the bouldering area, climbers scaled walls wearing clothes they could have gone to the office in—collared shirts, tight-fitting pants. The only difference was the multi-colored rubberized climbing shoes on their feet. To accomplish the feat, they might have been wearing Ministry of Supply’s archive dress shirts ($108) or dress slacks ($138). We’re a long, long way from zip-offs.

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Even the Japanese basics brand Uniqlo has been in on the trend. It calls function-forward clothes “LifeWear,” which includes heat-reflecting fabrics and super-light denim. The important thing is that these clothes look normal. The blog Business of Fashion calls it a “survivalist streak” for menswear, but it’s more about adaptation than extremes. With more flexible work schedules and more movement between office and gym (sometimes they’re even in the same place), we need clothes that follow suit.

Exercise and activity can take place in a broader range of spaces and times. After all, it’s always possible to exercise while you’re in a gym-friendly outfit, so why not just put it off a few hours, then a few hours more? Run home from your date. Do pull-ups on a streetlight. Being active doesn’t mean you have to look like you’re about to participate in the Hunger Games. If athleisure is still tempting even in the era of sweat-friendly oxfords, at least make sure the sweatpants are tailored and do some running once in a while.