Athleta has high hopes for Canada

A primed market, vibrant malls and connecting to women's hockey are paving the way for the Gap brand's expansion.

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By Will Novosedlik

Kyle Andrew, chief brand officer for Athleta, loves Toronto’s Yorkdale mall.

Having just opened the women’s performance wear brand’s second Canadian retail location there (the first one opened in Vancouver’s Park Royal in September), Andrew was positively beaming about the difference between Canadian and American malls.

“We were very impressed with how lively the mall environment is up here,” exclaims Andrew. American malls have been in a long decline, which has been driven by growth in online shopping. Many have been shuttered, and those that have survived are struggling to reinvent themselves. Needless to say, the pandemic hasn’t helped.

But here in Canada, top-tier malls like Yorkdale, the Eaton Centre and Park Royal are thriving by comparison to their counterparts south of the border, something Athleta is hoping that will help propel the brand to success in this market.

The fact that parent company Gap and its sister brands have been operating in the same malls for so many years has also been helpful.

“Coming to Canada felt like a very natural extension for us,” explains Andrew. “We’ve done a lot of customer research and spent a lot of time talking to our sister brands about what they’ve learned here. So it felt like we could come into this market on a strong note and with a lot of support.”

While Athleta was originally created as an active wear brand, the product has evolved. “We saw during the pandemic that people are moving away from more formal and more structured clothing,” says Andrew. “People are moving away from having different outfits for different occasions in their day. They want something that can be versatile. They want something that they can wear taking the dog for a walk, and then change their top and put on a blazer and go to work and then take it off and put on a dressy top to go out for dinner. That’s how women are dressing today. We are leading the charge on that trend and I think that makes us quite unique.”

Another of the more unique attributes of the brand is its inclusive sizing. Athleta products go from XS to XXXL, which is unusual in fashion brands. It’s even more unusual to have everything in the same store. Andrew points out that a plus-size customer normally needs to go to a specific plus-size store to find what they want, whereas Athleta puts those sizes in with all the other sizes. The store even has plus-size mannequins so customers can see what the product would look like on them.

Athleta also enjoys a fast-growing girls’ business. The Athleta Girl products are highly technical, highly performance-based products that, like the women’s line up, girls can wear everywhere.

athleta2The brand has hyped the Canadian store launches with Instagram, a platform where it is very active in reaching its style-focused target. To build further affinity with Canadian women and girls, Athleta is sponsoring the Toronto Six women’s pro hockey team, the only Canadian squad to compete in the Premier Hockey Federation. It’s a natural fit with the brand’s tagline, “The Power of She”, based on the notion of empowering women and girls. Says Andrew, “We can share our platform, give them a voice, give them more visibility and more energy to build their team and this league and support women’s hockey in Canada.”

For the team’s home opener, Athleta bought out all the seats in York University’s Canlan Arena and gave them to women and girls who support women’s hockey.

Adds Andrew, “They’ve got really interesting stories to tell and I think we can help them do that. They can help us talk about our product and we can help them talk about their team and what they’re trying to achieve. We’re excited to work with them.”