03/04/2014 05:34 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

From sweats to sneakers, athleticwear goes upscale and mainstream

TORONTO - From Jennifer Beals sporting a slouchy, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt in "Flashdance" to Melanie Griffith pairing power suits with sneakers in "Working Girl," athleticwear popularized in '80s films and fashion are part of a style revival seeing a surge in sport-inspired looks.

What's more, consumers who gravitate toward sweats and sneakers are seeing the staples of casual comfort becoming decidedly upscale, as high-end labels bring their own luxe touches to activewear.

Tom Ford featured sequinned football jerseys emblazoned with his name and the number 61 (the year of the designer's birth) during his London Fashion Week show last month.

In January, Chanel featured models pairing couture creations with sporty accessories such as sneakers, white cropped boleros, fanny packs and silver elbow and knee pads. Designer Karl Lagerfeld said he wanted the sneakers to "bring couture back to reality." Chanel continued to embrace activewear in the fall-winter collection unveiled Tuesday in Paris, as top model Cara Delevingne and others wore sneakers with their ensembles.

British designer Stella McCartney has also made a significant mark on athleticwear through a longtime partnership with Adidas. She was appointed by the company as creative director of outfits for Great Britain's Olympic and Paralympic teams for the 2012 London Games.

Julia McEwen, fashion and beauty director at Canadian Living, said there are a number of reasons the athleticwear trend has had staying power, part of which can be attributed to the love many have for easy-to-wear items.

"There's a reason why Uggs have been popular for so long. We like things that are comfortable, and this trend is very comfortable," she said.

"I think also high-tech fabrics have really come a long way in sportswear, and so designers are interested in using that as their canvas for their clothing."

McEwen said the trend has its origins in street style, pointing to the number of models captured in images travelling between shows in runners and tuques.

"I think the street style bloggers and photographers kind of picked up on that and then, of course, designers — they're smart. They want to create things that are a little bit of blogger bait."

Sneakers in particular seem to be a signature element in the athleticwear resurgence, whether it's consumers clamouring for the latest pair of designer kicks or celebrities sporting flashy pairs at high-profile appearances. During the recent Academy Awards telecast, Oscar nominee Pharrell Williams seemed to be taking style cues from Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" as he performed "Happy" onstage wearing red sequinned high tops reminiscent of the fictional character's famed ruby slippers.

In its exhibition "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture," the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has more than 130 artifacts from 1820 to 2013 on display in the exploration of the history of sneakers.

The museum's senior curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, said she's interested in the construction of gender in relation to dress. During a recent panel discussion held at the University of Toronto's Hart House, she said she believed that sneaker culture affords men the opportunity to wear something new, different and fashionable and is helping to reshape how they shop.

"It's a shift in consumption patterns and masculinity that's very profound," Semmelhack said during "Sneaking into the Big Leagues: Emergence of Sneaker Culture in Mainstream Society."

McEwen said she also sees men embracing high-end runners as part of formalwear ensembles, even eschewing dress shoes in favour of pairing sneakers with their suits.

"Especially with menswear, there's not a lot of areas that you can really have fun with. So I think they're definitely hanging on to that and I think having a good time with it."

Dion Walcott collaborated on the "Out of the Box" exhibit and is an avid sneaker enthusiast, who has been collecting for more than 10 years and once had nearly 200 pairs. He's since downsized to 55.

"I don't follow the trends anymore. I'm now more about comfort and what I actually like versus what everyone else likes," Walcott said in an interview prior to the panel discussion at Hart House, sporting a multicoloured custom pair of sneakers.

As co-founder of Toronto Loves Kicks, Walcott is part of a community movement that creates, develops and hosts a wide range of events and initiatives using sneakers as a way to capture the attention of youth and the masses.

When it comes to big-name brands seeking to establish a foothold in the burgeoning athleticwear market, Walcott said he sees their efforts more as a matter of dollars and cents than necessarily embracing sneaker culture.

"Will people say they're ripping off a culture? I can see how someone can say that," Walcott said. "But I can also see if I'm Chanel and my customers are looking for a pair of sneakers, and they're going to buy Nike versus Chanel ... then why wouldn't I just maximize on what my customer is asking me for?"

For those seeking to embrace the athleticwear trend beyond the realm of gym gear, McEwen recommended swapping their standard pairs of shoes with sneakers in a cool colour or graphic pattern. On the apparel front, she suggested looking for pieces featuring "classic touches," such as a racerback or T-shirt-style dress, or cropped pants with a stripe along the side.

"These aren't full-on, sporty athleticwear pieces, but they kind of give a little bit of a nod to it; so that way, it's easier to incorporate," said McEwen.

"It's not something that you're going to look back on a couple of years from now and (say): 'Oh, yeah, I'm never going to wear that again.'"

— With files from The Associated Press

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