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Chips, Fries and Social Studies

January 25th, 2008 by Devangshu Dutta

At a faux “pubby” restaurant, I asked a friend why she didn’t order fries with the fried fish she had asked for? (I was looking for a carb-fat fix, but couldn’t legitimately order a whole portion just for myself.)

A withering look accompanied the dismissal, “You and your excesses!”

Undeterred, I went on, “But if I suggested having fish and chips?”

“Well, that would be a fine. That’s standard British fare.”  That clinched it for me. “So it’s okay to have it when you call it fish and chips, but not if you ask for “fried fish and fries”?!”

[After all, the Brits call French fries chips. The stuff that the Americans call ‘chips’ are actually called ‘crisps’ by the Brits – more logical, isn’t it? After all, the fries are not really crispy so it wouldn’t do to call those crisps!]

This kind of dilemma generally doesn’t bother the rest of the world – they either pick British English, or American (more and more), or just dispense with English altogether. But for Indians it can be quite puzzling and troublesome, especially those that have pedigreed “convent-education” – i.e. whose teachers were also ‘convent-educated’, and have drilled in the “proper” (i.e. British) spellings and names – and they run into Americanized environments such as food courts.

That led us on to a profound discussion about one of the most global and globally visible businesses – fashion – and how it binds the world together.

One would think that, as a globalised business, at least the fashion arena would be more inclusive and speak a common language. It does, mostly.

Till you hit ‘Sportswear’. It is a little strange.

I’m sure there is a conspiracy afoot – though I’m not sure who’s behind it, or who’s the target. All I know that it gets very confusing.

The first – most obvious and logical – image that springs to mind is that of athletes, active sports, and performance.  Caps, headbands, T-shirts and sweats, wrist bands, shorts, track pants, terry socks – you get the picture.

It’s quite clear.

You may be on the treadmill trying to lose weight, or on the court just keeping fit, or even on the fairways networking with your peers – there is an action-orientation as there is activity involved and a sporting game (whether team or individual).

There is a need for comfort and freedom of movement, a need for allowing sweat to evaporate and keep the body cool (but not too cold in case you are playing in the colder climes), and sometimes a need to prevent the odd wobble.

There is certain kind of clothing that fits the bill, and all of it is not appropriate to all sporting occasions or types of sport. For instance, swimwear on the tennis court may make the game more interesting to the spectators, but is of very little practical value to the players. (Having said that, “convergence” is a big buzzword nowadays, and some of the recent trends in women’s tennis apparel seem to be leading to the same conclusion.)

Good, then, you say – sportswear should be quite, quite clear – it is functional, and meant to enable specific performance.

Or is it?

Scan the websites, shelves or magazines, and the variety of merchandise that parades under the sportswear banner quickly dispenses with that image.  The category encompasses ‘sports-inspired fashion’ (and a truly inspired marketing person must have thought up that term) to casualwear, to clubwear, to the ‘I don’t know where-to wear’.

The sports-inspired look that grew big a few decades ago (think sweatshirts, track pants and sneakers) … and for some brands it seems to have become big again in recent times. The link back to active sportswear is quite clear in terms of styling, fabric and so on, so the use of the term is understandable.

The sporting brands also wanted new avenues to grow.

So you’ve got adidas, Reebok, Nike and their ilk doing casualwear or ‘leisurewear’, even as they plaster the billboards with sportspeople from basketball, football, cricket, and other games. But it’s not their problem – if someone with a ‘comfortable’ Body Mass Index wants to emulate the active image of Shaq or Air Jordan without really meaning to get down to the court, who is the brand to complain? Just make the ‘sporty’ clothes looser, bigger.

But somewhere along the way, sportswear seems to have become the ‘catchall’ category – a melting pot of styling (or the dustbin of style cues), depending on whether your perspective is inspired or inspiration-challenged.

For instance, it is easy to imagine that somewhere along the way, someone who did great T-shirts thought that actually he could increase his sales by selling jeans and chinos as well. And then others caught on to the trick.  Since these brands were already labeled sportswear, the definition stretched and then expanded to accommodate – just as sportswear does!

So now it is understandable to find some casualwear masquerading as sportswear.

But then you have menswear clearly targeted at the sport of ‘pulling birds’ and the womenwear geared for hunting at night. What should be clearly labeled clubwear is pretending to be casualwear and inching surreptitiously close to the sportswear label.

Then, there are these preppy types bringing on their University-team type look.

And the ‘ethnic’ print inspired skimpy halters and skirts whose only sporty function is to increase the heart-rate (the onlooker’s, not of the person wearing them).

The big thing about sportswear is ‘cool’.  Often it is about cutting edge.  So if the ‘cutting edge’ style looks like it won’t remain alive long enough to become a category by itself, it’s conveniently shoved into the sportswear category.

Sportswear is about slick and quick. It’s so fluid, so large, and so all-encompassing and messy (where are the boundaries?), that if there is a businessperson wanting to grow a brand fast, sportswear would be the category to follow.

It’s clearly a category for the Indian market, because there are plenty of bright young businesspeople who want to grow it big and quick.

I’m expecting a sportswear deluge. Just don’t ask me for figures or growth projections – let’s just say, they are elastic and accommodating like the category.

[Just to complete the story I began with – I got my friend’s fries, and wolfed them down, the waist elastic of the sports-inspired track pants expanding comfortably. None of that clubwear masquerading as sportswear for me – I was geared for the active sport of mall-crawl.

My friend meanwhile was going on about this particular store in New York, when I said, “I didn’t know they had shops for people interested is the social and historical study of mankind.” And that started a whole new argument – but that’s another story for another time.]

[This was the closing column "Checkout" for the inaugural issue of the Indian edition of Sportswear International.]

Posted in Apparel, Branding, Consumer, Footwear, India, Lifestyle & Fashion, Marketing, Product Development and Design, Retail, Soft Goods, Strategy, Textiles, Uncategorized | No Comments »

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