Athleta, the Gap-owned activewear retailer, is looking to push its technical, performance fabric beyond wicking.

On Tuesday, the company is releasing a new line of technical products. Called Sculptek, the leggings, tops and sports bras promote a “360-degree stretch” in order to improve fit and movement.

It sounds like common sense: stretchy fabric should stretch. But Athleta’s Sculptek fabric doesn’t have a “pinch point”  at which it resists further stretch and makes for an uncomfortable wear. It was made with a seamless stretch that’s “sculpted” around a woman’s figure, no matter her size or effort expended.

“Our designers worked with a fiber technology company to create a new fabric that had a seamless stretch, no pinch point, and that was supportive without being overly compressive,” said Sarah Carlson, vp of design and innovation at Athleta. “We wanted to create workout gear that would respond to a woman’s body — no matter her shape — when she moved.”

Athleta’s collection of workout tops, leggings and sport bras already list a few properties that promise a better-performing fabric: They’re breathable and seamless, they can wick moisture and don’t smell.

According to Pano Anthos, managing director at XRC Labs, which works with retail startups, the key component of the new product is that it’s a responsive, not reactive, fabric. A reactive fabric simply gives based on body movement, while a responsive fabric changes its behavior based on what it senses.

“Wicking is table stakes today. Why would someone buy something without that capability?” said Anthos. “Performance fabric is not static. Every year, the ante goes up, and we’re in the early days of responsive fabrics.”

The Athleta team has recognized that the activewear market has become inundated with players, and that differentiation by product innovation is necessary to keep sales up. At Gap, Inc., Athleta’s reported sales are lumped together with high-end retailer Intermix’s. In the second quarter of 2016, Gap reported that Athleta and Intermix sales together climbed to $200 million from $178 million in 2015. Overall, Gap, Inc. sales for the second quarter (including Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta and Intermix) decreased 2 percent to $3.85 billion.

As athleisure’s moment as a fashion trend slows down, athletic retailers like Athleta and Lululemon are left to confront a customer who is now awash with black leggings. Now that technical fabrics that have wicking, odor-resistant and breathability properties are default, athletic apparel retailers have to look beyond those basic terms to stay ahead.


An Athleta model in the Sculptek leggings and tank top.

Carlson attributes Athleta’s ability to innovate on the product level to an internal system called the “Bluesky Pipeline.” She describes it as a circle that starts with a new product or technology that the company wants to explore. From there, it travels through a series of tests to determine whether or not it’s an Athleta fit that can scale. If it is, it continues on to the core team, where more people on the fabric, design and R&D teams tailor it to the Athleta brand through advanced concept engineering. From there, the product is sent to the “X Lab,” where customers and employees test the apparel in a few ways, including taking it out for a run on a nearby track at Athleta’s Petaluma, California headquarters. The Sculptek fabric has been in this type of production and testing for over a year.

“The customer has high expectations for products that move with her, because she’s experienced our performance apparel. It wicks, it quick dries, it breathes,” said Carlson. “Athleta has its antenna up at all times, so we keep track of all things happening in technology. Our innovation team touches on every part of our company.”

Anthos said that this approach to internal retail innovation creates an entrepreneurial halo effect.

“Athleta is creating an ecosystem that attracts entrepreneurs and promotes activity and interaction and innovation,” said Anthos. “It’s a positive flywheel. The company starts it, and it continues to be improved upon.”

Since the activewear space is comprised of players from fast-fashion companies like Uniqlo, which sells its Heattech leggings for $22.99, to athletic brands Under Armour, which creates product with the needs of top-performing athletes in mind, specialty retailers like Athleta have to stay two steps ahead to stay afloat.

“Consumers are demanding increased comfort and functionality in their clothing across categories,” said Katie Smith, senior fashion and retail analyst at data analytics company Edited. “Activewear brands have to push further than ever before to lead technical innovation, to not only keep up with the functionality their consumers demand, but to delight their consumers too.”