In 2020, the year of the great quarantine, is there a more appropriate piece of apparel than what we now think of as yoga pants? Two years ago, these stretchy leggings — minus the classic yoga pants flared ends — had already surpassed jeans in popularity; by now, they’re just dunking on denim. It’s no secret why: They’re the rare item that both looks great and is extremely comfortable, which is truly a revolution in women’s fashion. But why are yoga pants so expensive?
Seriously, it’s just polyester and Lycra, right? Why do they cost triple figures? Are they really that complicated? What the heck goes into making them? Alongside Andrea Olsen, assistant professor of outdoor product design and development at Utah State University, who’s worked with large yoga apparel and active-wear companies in the past, we get to the bottom of things.
Alright, what are these things really made of? Why are yoga pants so expensive?
In terms of what they’re made of, are we talking the $20 leggings or the $100-plus leggings? There’s a big difference! “The $20 leggings probably just have a very inexpensive polyester-spandex fabric and they’re sewing it together and that’s what you’re getting,” Olsen says. But the triple-figure leggings from, say, Nike or Lululemon? You’re paying for an R&D laboratory that’s engineered a pretty special fabric and design.
The fabric that their labs produce is likely a recycled polyester nylon with (deep breath) four-way stretch; moisture-wicking technology; a crotch gusset with special fabric to stay cooler down there; and an anti-microbial finish so the pants don’t get so funky after one use. Finally, the fabric will have a special peaching finish that really softens the material and, among other things, really encourages the customer to buy it if they’re able to cop a feel of it.
Essentially, Olsen says, it’s the act of brushing the face of a garment with an abrasive roller, which breaks some of the surface fibers and makes it extremely soft. Think of it like rubbing Velcro all over a garment, except that the end result looks a lot better! Oftentimes this softness is achieved with chemicals, too, sort of the way a dryer sheet softens fabric.
Do expensive pants really fit better than the cheap ones?
Mostly, yes. Some of that is down to the engineering, which, again, comes out of these R&D labs that the big brands have. They’re testing how different fabrics interact with the wearer’s body through different movements: As they stretch into a lunge, for example, all the while factoring in how nice the material feels when doing all of this.
There are also other important design points: Nice pants probably won’t have outseams, so that if the wearer actually uses the pants for yoga, they won’t be bothered by seams when lying on their side.
Then there’s the wide waistband and the yoke in back (that long, triangle-shaped piece below the waist), and a crotch gusset for more mobility (typically found on expensive pants). If those are tailored correctly, the leggings will stay in place and even accentuate a figure the right way. But really, much of that better fit is down to the material.
Why does material affect the fit?
Because cheaper fabrics don’t hold their shape. Olsen says some brands call this “quitting” or “recovery.” For example, if the wearer bends their knee then straightens, yet the fabric remains bent. Or maybe the wearer’s backside starts to sag after wearing the leggings a while. That’s what shitty fabrics do. The reason why customers rave about how certain brands flatter their figure has a lot to do with the nicer materials they use, so that and the soft finish add a psychological element to the comfort of leggings.
Does it actually cost a lot to manufacture them?
The fabrics may be proprietary to the brands and the R&D is a lot of sunk cost, but these brands are still contracting out the manufacture of leggings to far-flung factories in Asia — they’re not exactly made by generations of Swiss artisans way up in the Alps or whatever. And because they’re designed to stretch anyway, the manufacturing tolerances don’t tend to be too extreme.
“I think that [leggings] are very profitable!” Olsen says. “The labor that goes into it, they’re essentially either flat-lock or surged together. It’s a very quick procedure to sew them. I think most yoga lines are going to have very healthy margins.”
So they make a fortune off these things?
Lululemon has nearly 500 stores worldwide, and revenues of $4 billion. It was all built on their coveted leggings. Many women have more than one pair! So yeah, it’s such a big market that dropping a bunch of money into research and development is a no-brainer for these big companies in the, uh, arms race for legging dominance.
The next step, Olsen says, will be manufacturing them with 3D apparel software, in which you can basically select a particular computer file and the machine will construct the legging from start to finish, with minimal seams, different thickness in different areas, materials like mesh engineered into them without any sewing, and no waste whatsoever, unlike with cut-and-sew construction.
These machines work slowly but efficiently. They’re definitely the future in the next decade as the equipment becomes cheaper, but probably only for high-end pants. The vast majority of leggings, for now, are still traditionally made.
Are expensive yoga pants here to stay, then?
Sure seems that way. Leggings pretty much changed fashion: “Trends come and go, but changing an entire category? It’s unheard of,” Olsen says. They’ve become such a staple because they’re simply an improvement on jeans: They’re both form-fitting and comfortable. But there’s also something more going on. “If you’re achieving the same body-hugging look in jeans, you can’t sit down very well, and you’re going to have a muffin top,” Olsen says. “Even if you’re really thin, that fabric is going to cinch you in. But with leggings, you get the same look; the spandex can really hug you in and can make your curves look perfect. It’s very boosting, psychologically.”
No matter what the item is, if it’s psychologically boosting, people will go mad for it. And they won’t mind paying the overly high price.