For Under Armour, the story was always the same: Form follows function.
The Baltimore sports apparel company's gear was designed to keep you sweat-free, while its tight fit showed off the muscular physiques of those lucky enough to have them. The brand was never known for being fashion-forward.
But that was then. Now the billion-dollar firm, which as recently as three years ago limited its clothing offerings to shirts, shorts and other athletic wear in only the most basic colors, is looking to up its game — and expand its business — with zebra-print leggings for women and graphic T-shirts with slogans such as "Rain. Snow. Sleet. Wind. Brave the Run."
Under Armour's reach for fashion fame is intended to build on its market strength among hardcore athletes. Its position secure, analysts say, it now faces pressure to come up with ways to keep its product fresh to retain old fans while attracting new customers.
The 15-year-old company has responded by recruiting talent from the nation's top fashion design schools and taking greater fashion risks to modernize its vision.
Under Armour follows the trajectory of industry giants Nike, Converse and Reebok, all of which long ago diversified from sneakers and other workout gear to introduce bolder and flashier styles over the years. Remember the '80s-era basic white Nike with blue swoosh across the side?
Analysts say if Under Armour wants to be a true powerhouse, it has to make its gear attractive beyond the locker room. They point to Nike, which has become as much a lifestyle and fashion brand as it is a sportswear brand.
"I think there is a glass ceiling on how big the true athletic business can be," said Matt Powell, an analyst at research firm SportsOneSource.
The research firm NPD Group reports that nearly 80 percent of activewear is used for nonsports activities. And according to SportsOneSource, more than 85 percent of athletic footwear is used for activities other than the one for which it was created.
Under Armour's newest "look book," which previews the offerings this fall, features gym bags that look like designer purses and colorful puffer vests that might be worn casually on a brisk day. There are tops in the latest fashion trends that could be worn straight from the gym to an afternoon trip to the mall — a Dolman-style top, for example, that hangs slightly off the shoulder and is wide at the sleeves.
"Consumers who love a product love to buy it again," said Marshal Cohen, senior retail analyst with NPD Group. "But they don't want to buy the exact same one again. They'll replace the black-and-white and build their wardrobe with color."
Howe Burch, executive vice president and managing director at the advertising firm TBC in Baltimore, said companies in competitive industries need to reinvent themselves three or four times a year in small and big ways to stay interesting to consumers.
But with change, analysts and sports marketing experts said, comes risk. The company must balance being fashionable while remaining credible with serious athletes.
"The thing with fashion is that it is a slippery slope," Burch said. "What is in fashion one day may not be the next day. Under Armour has done such a good job of building performance credibility they can now step out of the box a little bit and express themselves with a strong fashion sensibility."
Under Armour officials said the growing focus on fashion is part of the company's strategy to stay ahead of the competition. They emphasize that performance is still their No. 1 goal.
The company, which once declared cotton its enemy, introduced its first cotton T-shirt this year. Under Armour says the shirt has the same moisture-wicking capabilities of its original line. The company is also testing a new device, the E39, which measures the athlete's heart rate, speed and other vital signs as he or she works out.
"Ultimately, we will never compromise the performance aspect of what we offer," said Noreen Naroo-Pucci, senior creative director of women's and youth apparel at the company.
Indeed, Under Armour recently sent an email blast to shoppers under the subject line: "Sure, Our Accessories Look Good … But They Also Perform."
But the company also acknowledges it had lagged behind the fashion curve. Managers began hiring designers with fashion backgrounds a few years back.
Naroo-Pucci has worked at The Limited Brands in Hong Kong, Champion in Italy, and Fila in Italy and New York. When she came on board three years ago, Under Armour was using only six color palettes in its women's line. Now there are nearly 30. The company introduced more vibrant colors into the men's line starting in the spring 2011 collections. A neon-pink color called "cerise" will be available in the men's fall/winter 2012 collection.