With women willing to spend $100 on a pair of cute yoga pants, retailers are racing to make workout clothes that are as much about style as sweat.
Athletic clothing has traditionally been relegated to the gym, where women would huff and puff in un-glamorous get-ups.
But now that more women are pursuing active lifestyles -- juggling Pilates and spinning classes with busy professional and personal lives -- what was once a limited market for fitness apparel has taken off.
High-end brand Lululemon Athletica has been adding to its yoga and running lines, experimenting with cycling products and opening stores in new markets. Gap's Athleta, until recently a catalog- and online-only company for women, will open seven stores this year.
Performance athletic company Under Armour is introducing a new yoga collection this summer and redesigning its sports bras and underwear for 2012.
Mainstream retailers have caught on. Fast-fashion chain Forever 21 began selling active wear in February, following Gap, which introduced its GapBodyFit line last fall. Nordstrom and Target, which have their own private-label brands, have been expanding their women's sportswear offerings. Even lingerie company Victoria's Secret sells yoga pants and "bralettes."
"It's an underserved, under-represented market that's growing," said Howard Tubin, a retail analyst at RBC Capital Markets. Brands are eager to quickly roll out new merchandise because the core active-wear shopper is the ultimate consumer: female, relatively young, fashion-forward and willing to spend money.
Retailers say they're not only filling a void in the sports apparel market, which has predominantly catered to men, but also correcting a long-standing flaw in athletic clothing for women.
"The assortment that has historically been available to them has generally been reverse-engineered from a male garment, made smaller and made pink," said Scott Key, senior vice president at Athleta. "Women are demanding true performance items, but that are attuned to their specific needs."
For their part, general retailers are touting affordability and accessibility.
At Target, which has been adding products to its exclusive C9 by Champion active-wear line, the discounter wants to offer athletic merchandise without "the intimidation factor of walking into a specialty boutique or a sports store," spokesman Joshua Thomas said.
The most expensive active-wear item at Forever 21 is a long-sleeved sports top with a partial zipper for $22.80. The Los Angeles-based chain also carries sports bras for $8.80 and workout pants for $12.80.
Victoria's Secret, meanwhile, is upping the glam factor. Its "bling bootcut yoga pant" features rhinestones and animal prints.