Tracking the fashion rise, fall and return of the tracksuit

The sportswear favourite is back after a considerable hiatus

Founder of The Luxury Arcade, Lina Mustafa. Courtesy Lina Mustafa
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When I played varsity volleyball in high school, part of our team uniform was a tracksuit to wear to and from our out-of-school matches. Emblazoned with our team mascot, the leopard, the matching red and navy blue sets featured trousers with stripes down the outer side of each leg, and each stripe was fitted with a row of snap buttons. 

When I graduated from school, I thought I was leaving these sports kits behind. But, less than a decade later, tracksuits – and tearaway trousers – have made their way into mainstream fashion.

We should all have seen it coming – especially since, in recent years, jeans have become more acceptable in environments where they would previously have been deemed unsuitable. If ripped denim can be perceived as an appropriate textile at a prestigious industry event like fashion week, then jersey tracksuits should hardly seem out of place. 

"I think the reason why it's become so mainstream is because people are generally shifting to a more dressed-down, relaxed look," says Lina Mustafa, founder of the Abu Dhabi-based boutique, The Luxury Arcade. "We're finally moving into more comfortable and subtle attire. It also helps that celebrities have adopted this way of dressing."

This style had its heyday two decades ago, in the 1990s – nothing screams "nineties child" louder than a velour tracksuit. Celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were often spotted in head-to-toe, candy-coloured velour ensembles in the early 2000s. But tracksuits then quickly fell into oblivion, at least within fashion circles, and sweatpants were once again relegated to home-wear .   

While the tracksuit may have remained a permanent go-to outfit for niche urban artists and hip-hop stars such as Snoop Dogg and DJ Khaled, it has cultivated a more mainstream following over the past year, with major players in the fashion industry sporting these ensembles with flair.  

In recent seasons, it has become the unofficial off-duty uniform of American-Palestinian models Gigi and Bella Hadid, social media's "It-girls". At times baring their midriffs, and at others, teaming tracksuits with stilettos, the sisters have shown that sportswear can still be stylish, and this has inspired fans to follow suit.

Although tracksuits can come cheap, since entering the luxury realm they have garnered high price tags. One brand worn by both the Hadid sisters is Olivia von Halle – her popular Missy tracksuit is made from a silk-cashmere blend and costs Dh4,700.

The designer is a former trend forecaster who worked with brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and ­Lamborghini ­before launching her eponymous label. She explains that a big selling point of the tracksuit is its versatility.

"I love that you can dress it up or down – Bella Hadid wore our Missy tracksuit out to dinner with Kendall Jenner and teamed the pants with a crop top. But then someone like Jennifer Lopez, who is a busy mum with two kids, wears hers to go shopping [in] LA," says von Halle. "It's super-practical and just fits really well into people's lives – who wants to go to the airport to spend 16 hours travelling in five-inch heels and a tight dress? It feels old-fashioned and outdated. Modern living is all about being comfortable while looking chic."

It became evident that tracksuits were officially on fashion radars in late 2015, when they started appearing on spring/summer 2016 runways. At Chloé, a deep red version was shown, with slits up the ankles of the trousers, and with a zip-up ski-inspired sweatshirt, while at Gucci, an emerald green rendition was adorned with fur and embroidered silver flowers. Around the same time, Halle envisioned her line of lux tracksuits.

"My experience as a trend forecaster has led me to design in a very reactive way. I tend to have a 'moment' where I just become completely and utterly obsessed with one thing which I want, need and obsess over, and then we start to explore that idea in the studio. In 2010 it was pyjamas, a trend which is still going strong, and in 2015 it was tracksuits – and here we are," she says.

Naturally, like all fashion trends, the fad filtered down to the high-street, and sportswear labels known for their quality tracksuits reaped the success of the elite-approved style. Old-school athleisure brands such as Champion and Fila, for instance, have become covetable labels for millennials. Others, like Nike, Puma and Adidas, have also become popular among consumers who, a couple of years ago, may never have stepped foot in an athletic-wear store.

Some sportswear brands have partnered with luxury designers for limited-edition collaborations. Mustafa says that her personal favourite is the Adidas X Alexander Wang collection. "Adidas on its own has great tracksuits and the femininity and sportiness that Alexander Wang is known for, makes it a great combination," she explains.

But how can one discuss tracksuit designers without mentioning Juicy Couture? While practically every Hollywood celebrity has owned at least one of the now-notorious velour tracksuits, many sold them off in the late 2000s. The brand, which had formerly provided go-to attire for everything from grocery store-runs to overseas flights, was eschewed by its previous fans. But, just last month, the American label appointed celebrity stylist Jamie Mizrahi as its creative director, most likely wanting to attract the new breed of athleisure consumers.

Still, the tracksuit that's trending right now far surpasses the peppy parameters set by Juicy Couture. This year's designs are sport-inspired, devoid of jewel-encrusted logos and, at times, are genderless.   

"It's a style that's been ignored for so long, and something about it just feels so right at the moment; it pushes style conventions in a really fresh way," says von Halle of the tracksuit.  

So, don't take it as an insult if you're hosting a formal gathering and a guest shows up in sportswear. If you find it offensive, you're simply old-fashioned. Even Mustafa, who owns a boutique and attends a fair share of glamorous events, claims that tracksuits are no longer off the table when considering an evening outfit – as long as they're suitably accessorised.

"I can't say there's one place I wouldn't wear a tracksuit, as I've shown up to dinner in a tracksuit and heels before," she admits.


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