Rarely does a whole category of clothing shift the way it has for yoga pants.

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The first pairs of yoga pants Lululemon sold in 1998 were a simple item for women to wear at the studio. 

They were a mix of nylon and Lycra — synthetic elastic fibers that provided the stretch and softness needed to manage all those sweat-inducing contortions.

Yoga, first as an exercise and later as a cultural phenomenon, had yet to take hold. The pants simply filled a niche for yogis who were looking for a higher-end alternative to plain cotton leggings.

Two decades later, they’ve conquered the closet, even for people who never see the inside of a yoga studio. In 2014, teenagers began to prefer leggings over jeans. Then people started wearing athletic clothing to run errands. Now they’re wearing yoga pants to the office. 

U.S. imports of women’s elastic knit pants last year surpassed those of jeans for the first time ever, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fashion trends seesaw constantly, but rarely does an entire category shift. 

Competition mounts

The popularity of yoga pants has, predictably, led to a flood of competitors as brands fill every market segment, from Old Navy’s $20 pants to Lucas Hugh’s $230 versions. Lululemon Athletica, largely credited with bringing stretchy pants to the masses, has poured money into developing new fabrics to fend off rivals.

“Consumers expect a lot more,” said Sun Choe, chief product officer at Lululemon. “They’re washing their garments more and more, and from a quality standpoint, it needs to stand up. They’re expecting some versatility in their product. They expect to be able to wear that pant or tight to Whole Foods or brunch.”

Lululemon’s original fabric, Luon, with a high proportion of nylon microfiber as opposed to a more typical polyester blend, was trademarked in the U.S. in 2005. Many of its newer fabrics are branded and geared toward specific uses, such as Nulux, a compression fabric meant for sweatier workouts. 

Leggings from market competitors use a similar strategy, promoting the versatile pants through branded fabric combinations. Adidas has Climalite material, while Nike has Dri-Fit. Even Target’s C9-branded fitness collection flexes high-functioning fabrics: Freedom Fabric is a soft blend of polyester and spande, while its Embrace Fabric hugs tightly to the body for a cozy feel.

What was once a simple stretchy legging, it seems, has become an engineering marvel. Not too surprising, though, when you realize that about $48 billion is being spent on activewear in the U.S. every year.

Working to stay ahead

The story of a breakthrough product that gets swallowed by America’s corporate behemoths is an old one. Lululemon is dead set on not letting that happen this time.

Tucked away in the basement of its Vancouver headquarters is a lab called Whitespace, the retailer’s research and development skunkworks. Here a team of about 50 employees works to come up with the brand’s next big idea. It’s developed lightweight seamless bras and made yoga pants with repurposed yarn combinations normally used in lingerie. The staff isn’t made up of just textile workers tasked with making new fabrics. It includes scientists as well as physiologists, mechanical engineers, neuroscientists and biomechanists.

Alexandra Plante, director of innovation management at Whitespace, is responsible for taking what she calls “duct tape prototypes” and turning them into actual products. With a background in materials engineering, she delves into fabrics, yarns and polymers. 

Lululemon’s research arm does motion-capture testing and uses pressure sensors that allow researchers to test how garments work as they move. The team can even test “hand feel” to help it figure out how to “engineer sensations” for that critical commercial moment when you feel the fabric for the first time, said Plante.

Back when Lululemon sold nothing but Luon, the company saw customers using the pants for all sorts of workouts, including high-intensity training the fabric was never meant for. So after R& D identified how consumers wore them, and for what, Lululemon developed material specific to each activity.

This watch-and-learn strategy became a virtuous circle, one that helped the craze turn into a full-on commercial earthquake.

A lasting trend

The biggest businesses in the athletic wear space have invested heavily in growing their womenswear lines — especially in developing new fabrics and features for the once-simple yoga pant. In 2014, Nike began working toward a $7 billion sales target for its women’s business, reporting almost $5 billion in revenue. 

That same year, Adidas began directing its youth brand, Neo, toward younger women. The company quickly became a formidable threat to Lululemon’s dominance. Last year, women’s sales for Adidas grew by 28 percent, making it one of the company’s strongest segments.

Active bottoms and leggings are now a $1 billion industry, according to NPD Group analyst Marshal Cohen. Their appeal to consumers has yielded rapid sales growth that shows no sign of going away, he said. 

Where Lululemon found success with female consumers by providing a niche product that could satisfy casual and active uses, major brands such as Adidas and Nike completed the picture, confirming just how strong the athleisure trend could be.

These days, there are more than 11,000 kinds of yoga-specific pants available at retailers worldwide, according to data from retail research firm Edited, across both men’s and women’s apparel.

“Now that this easy-to-fit, easy-to-find, easy-to-wear, easy-to-care-for product has emerged as a fashionable product at the same time, you’ve got the perfect storm,” Cohen said. “You have to be doing something pretty wrong to not have success in this type of product.”