Critical Shopper: ‘Oh, Thanks, These Are Just My Gym Clothes.’

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Critical Shopper: ‘Oh, Thanks, These Are Just My Gym Clothes.’

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Critical Shopper

By KATHERINE BERNARD

Athleisure is a usefully proportioned portmanteau: It uses all of the word “leisure” but less than half of the word “athletic.”

At Bandier, an expansive new athleisure store in the Flatiron district, there’s an in-house fitness studio right upstairs that offers a weekly schedule of opportunities to exercise.

The setup defies the assumption that athleisure clothes are for running around town more than actually running. And for some, spending the day in a gym look or wearing leggings to a meeting may make exercise feel more convenient; once you’re dressed, the gym is always metaphorically right upstairs.

But mostly, athleisure is about fitness culture: dressing to be seen by those who will note your fitness level, the same way they may note your manicure or blowout. The idea is to look effortless. The response to any compliment you get while dressed in athleisure: “Oh, thanks, these are just my gym clothes.”

The founder Jennifer Bandier opened her first shop in Southampton, N.Y., in 2014, with a highly curated selection of athleisure labels, fit for … well, looking fit. Her new store is on a stretch of Fifth Avenue where people dash. They dash enough to make anyone feel as if it may be good to wear a sports bra all day, every day.

In June, Ms. Bandier told Refinery29 that there are plans to open an in-store juice bar and to hold album listening parties. (Ms. Bandier is a former music manager.) For now, the space doesn’t invite you to linger.

The first thing I notice when I walk in are two blown-up stencil portraits of women on the wall, one of whom is wearing sunglasses and holding her ponytail up in the air as if she is trying to drag herself into three-dimensional space.

A stairway up to Studio B, the exercise studio, is lined with rainbow spray-painted hearts. Aside from this color-burst, the scheme is black, white and gray, with bright green accents floating in the space like lime slices in water.

In the middle of the room, three comma-shaped gray couches are arranged to face one another, just a little too far apart for any seated parties to share a private joke. Just as well, because shoppers seem serious. Most of the women in the store (everyone in the store is a woman) are already wearing leggings, shopping for more leggings.

“If you’re a woman, chances are you’re wearing leggings,” Ms. Bandier told Bloomberg in 2015. Bandier’s yearly earnings have been reported at $20 million, so this assertion is a great business model.

But what’s the appeal of leggings, really? For one thing, most of those here are made of the same material as slimming shapewear: It’s a subtle way to walk around wearing Spanx-like garments as clothes, while looking like you’re achieving health and wellness.

To appear uniquely stylish while exercising (or potentially exercising later) is another achievement. Elevated leggings, the kind sold at Bandier, have design details: windows covered in mesh, razor-cut slits across the shins, colorful piping in the seams, photorealistic prints and credit-card-size pockets hidden at the waistband. They’re styled with matching sports bras with crisscross wraparound straps and cutouts and neoprene or mesh jackets.

One thing about leggings: They really show your bottom. As I watch the movement in the store, most shoppers drift around the perimeter following the path of the racks, and every time they pass a mirror, they make a subtle quarter-turn and look over their shoulder. Everyone. In the dressing room with my own collage of leggings, I was impressed that manufacturers seem to know about these frequent back glances.

Most of the leggings come in funky printed patterns: a field of sunflowers (Terez, $72), the New York skyline, neon laser beams and tree branches (Prismsport, $88), all shapes and graphics that could easily feel embarrassing if improperly positioned on someone’s rear. But they aren’t. Consistently.

Still, the best pair I tried on was a pair by Stella McCartney for Adidas ($95), which are built with shiny black shorts attached at the waistband.

The act of pulling skintight stretch pants on and off for a half-hour is humorous exercise. An #activefashion hashtag printed on the mirror in the dressing room mocks me, but also reminds me of how visible these clothes are meant to be.

Bandier carries mostly new brands born in the midst of the athleisure wave, as yet “undiscovered” to me. When I read their names — Koral, Vimmia, Alala, Alo, Varley, Olympia — I think, “This is what the autobots will be called when DreamWorks writes a ‘Transformers’ sequel with an all-female cast.”

The clothing itself — racerback tanks, stretchy long-sleeve shirts, lightweight jackets, T-shirts — is relatively homogeneous, but a lot of the shirts are printed with unforgettable mantras. As I read the phrases on some of the shirts in the store, I recall a quippy Dodie Bellamy line: “Maybe life is really that kind to future writing projects.”

The first tank I see says SPIRITUAL GANGSTER in uppercase gold lettering ($56). Another: i’d cook you breakfast ($42), all lowercase. Another tee is shredded in front, as if you held a cat too close (Monrow, $98).

Pick whatever personality you want: spiritual, sultry, chic or tough. Just be sure you get your butt to an exercise class.

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