Nike’s a strong competitor as line blurs between fashion, athletic brands

On the 394-acre Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore., amid the six-acre Lake Nike and the beach volleyball court and the two main gyms and the hair salon, is the Nike Sport Research Lab. Signs at the entrance read: “You are in a Nike innovation space and we have some rules: No photography, no social media, escort all visitors, report suspicious activity.”

Put away your phone and go through the electronic gates, and you will find yourself in a long hallway made from the spongy material of a track, with a stripe down the center.

“That’s our runway,” said Barry Spiering, Nike’s director of applied apparel research and a former research physiologist for the Army, during a tour. He was being literal — it was once the running track Nike used to measure athletes’ performance and its relationship to what they wore — but the other meaning of the word did not escape him.

Though much was made this week of an athlete-studded event in New York — where Nike revealed uniforms for this year’s U.S. Summer Olympic team as well as the company’s first self-lacing shoe among other new products — sports and sneaker culture are only part of the story. After all, once you have the contract for the American Olympic team, not to mention the NBA, dozens of top tennis stars and assorted soccer teams, growth has to come from somewhere else.

It is not an accident that Nike’s big reveal was staged in Moynihan Station, an official site of New York Fashion Week, and was designed by Bureau Betak, the production company that has masterminded elaborate runway shows for Christian Dior, Roberto Cavalli and Michael Kors.

A young woman wears Nike running shoes near Fashion Week events in Paris, earlier this month. (CRAIG AREND/NYT)

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Fashion, Nike is coming for you.

The company has quietly, but systematically, been courting the fashion world since 2014, and fashion has been in something of a collective swoon in return. That was when the model Karlie Kloss fronted one of the Nike women’s campaigns, and it held a fashion show in New York where models such as Kloss and Joan Smalls walked alongside such athletes as the tennis player Li Na and the marathoner Paula Radcliffe. Fashion editors from Europe and Asia flew in and sat in the front row, many with their Nikes on.

Last summer, Nike opened an invitation-only training facility on Grand Street in Lower Manhattan, where glossy-magazine-ites do yoga and work out with assorted models and other influencers. A few seasons ago, for fashion week, the company created a “concierge” program to keep editors fit as they went to London, Milan and Paris (a time when exercise and healthy habits notoriously go by the wayside). Among its devotees are Cindi Leive, the editor of Glamour; Stefano Tonchi, the editor of W; Michael Carl, fashion market director of Vanity Fair; and Ariel Foxman, editor of In Style.

“There’s no sense of a quid pro quo,” Leive said. “It never feels grasping.” It is presented, rather, as an experience Nike can finesse for its fashion community, just as in the larger world it has created Nike Training Club and Nike Run Club, free apps that suggest tailored training programs for members.

However, as a result of using the Nike program during shows, Leive acknowledged she was more likely to post pictures of herself on Instagram “in head-to-toe Nike gear” provided by Nike, running in the Paris half-marathon, which she has done twice during fashion week, among other activities.

Though she said she did not consider Nike a fashion brand, the visual of a major fashion editor implicitly endorsing Nike by wearing it sends a powerful message to her 17,700 followers, as she admitted. Both Tonchi and Carl acknowledged that they, too, wear more Nike now than they used to.

The effect of all this is simple: While Nike may not overtly identify itself as a fashion brand, and while traditional runway names may not see it as a competitor, to consumers considering what piece of clothing to buy, it increasingly seems like one and the same.

For years, sportswear (the official fashion term for separates) and the clothing actually worn to play sports grew on parallel tracks, but recently the lines have begun to bend, and they are now on a convergence course. When they hit, the result may be as disruptive as the explosive growth of fast fashion a decade ago.

Last year, Macy’s did a survey of the most Instagrammed fashion brands. Nike was No. 1, with 47,747,991 hashtag mentions — 2½ times that of its closest competitor, Prada, and almost six times that of Michael Kors (as well as Coach) — and 18,715,326 followers, four times that of Prada, and 3½ times that of Kors. In the 2015 BrandZ study of the top 100 global brands, done by the research firm Millward Brown, Nike ranked as the most valuable apparel brand at 28th, four spots ahead of Louis Vuitton and 14 ahead of Zara.

Around the same time, Goldman Sachs and Teen Vogue surveyed female millennials ages 13 to 29 — the consumer group with which fashion is most obsessed — to establish their “love list.” In it, Nike was No. 2 in the “top 50 brands fashion forward girls love the most,” after the makeup brand MAC and before Marc Jacobs (18) and Kate Spade (21).

“The affinity gap between fashion and athletic continues to narrow for the third year in a row,” the survey’s authors wrote.

According to Marshal Cohen, the chief industry analyst of the NPD Group, this is “a game changer.” It is being driven by the relaxation of strict professional and social dress codes; changing consumer values, which prioritize comfort, achievement and sustainability over aesthetics alone; and the awakening of the sports world to the power of style.

And while it is not entirely lost on fashion, as the introduction of performance collections such as Tory Sport and Derek Lam’s 10c Athleta collaboration indicate, such nascent brand extensions may have the unforeseen effect of both legitimizing athleticwear as acceptable everyday clothing and underscoring the expertise of the traditional sports brands in this area.

Last year, Nike revenues increased 10 percent, to $30.6 billion, and its women’s sector was up 15 percent, to $5.7 billion. By 2020, Mark Parker, Nike’s chief executive, said he wants womenswear to have doubled, to $11 billion. And while some of that will come from performance wear, a lot of it will come from what Nike calls the “everyday athlete,” and its version of “sportswear”: styles that go from the gym to the office or home.

Fashion brands “are going to have to run pretty fast to catch up,” said Cohen, of NPD. “If they don’t do it soon, it will be too late.”

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