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Activewear becomes the new dress casual

Baseball jackets and cashmere track pants will vie for the spotlight alongside more traditional evening gowns and fur coats at New York's fashion week as designers seize on shoppers' growing penchant for athletic wear.

The fashion world has woken up to a trend that's driven strong sales at Nike, Lululemon Athletica and Under Armour for the past couple of years: increasingly, men and women are trading in jeans for sweatpants, yoga gear and shorts, and unapologetically wearing them anywhere and everywhere.

"It's huge," said Roseanne Morrison, a fashion director at the Doneger Group, a New York-based researcher of industry trends. "It's the new uniform."

With activewear sales growing more than four times as fast as the $201 billion U.S. apparel industry, according to NPD Group, it's not hard to see why designers from Cynthia Rowley to Todd Snyder planned to show so-called haute-casual or sports-deluxe clothes at fashion week, which started Thursday.

In years past, high fashion has typically trickled down into everyday clothing. The activewear trend is a "truly casual," bottom-up phenomenon, Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst, wrote in a blog post last week. As workout gear becomes more fashionable and is worn in more places, streetwear is looking more like athletic apparel.

Throwing on a zip-up jacket over track pants has become a lifestyle choice for men and women of all ages, shapes and economic means. Ladies who lunch sport $1,000-plus Chloe leather track pants while high-school girls flock to Under Armour's $20 running shorts. Yoga addicts and couch potatoes alike snap up Lululemon's $82 Wunder Under pants.

The numbers show how consumer choices are transforming the industry. While overall U.S. apparel sales rose 2 percent last year, activewear sales surged 9 percent to $33 billion, according to NPD, based in Port Washington, N.Y.

The trend has opened a chasm between chains that still sell a lot of denim and those positioned in the activewear sweet spot. Under Armour's sales rose 35 percent in its most recent quarter while Nike's profit exceeded analysts' estimates. Apparel chains will record a 1 percent gain in same-store sales for the last quarter, according to analysts' estimates averaged by researcher Retail Metrics Inc.

Under Armour shares have surged 25 percent this year; Abercrombie & Fitch Co., which continues to focus on denim, flip flops and tank tops, has gained 5.5 percent.

While overall U.S. apparel sales rose 2 percent last year, activewear sales surged 9 percent to $33 billion. Shown, Lululemon workout clothes on display in December in New York. Illustrates ACTIVEWEAR (category f) by Cotten Timberlake &Copy; 2014, Bloomberg News. Moved Monday, February 10, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg News photo by Victor J. Blue). - Bloomberg