29-Jun, 08:59

10:17, January 16 91 0

2017-01-16 10:17:15
Critical Shopper: Where the Clothes Do Most of the Work

I do not think that I was prepared for the mannequins.

Earlier this month, I did a crawl of recently opened flagship spaces for the two largest athletic-wear companies in the world, beginning with the new Adidas Midtown location and ending at Nike’s SoHo outpost. It was a symphony of stretchable, moisture-wicking fabrics and complicated looking footwear, items designed for maximum visual impact and, one imagines, some function, too.

These two constantly warring titans have different approaches to expressing their bona fides: Nike is brash and attitudinal, Adidas is relaxed and slightly cozy. The stores captured that to a degree but, more intriguing, also highlighted the ways in which athletic performance is sold to those of us who sweat just by watching others work out.

Which brings me back to the mannequins. After some time spent in both stores, I had come to the conclusion that the nature of athletic apparel isn’t particularly athletic. It’s about connotation, not denotation. Wearing the clothes does much of the work — actual fitness is a bonus. Athletic wear was the original athleisure.

But then Nike strikes you with the cold slap of your inadequacy.

On one of the building’s middle floors — there are five total — was an array of lower-half mannequins that were, I would have to guess, based on Odell Beckham Jr., or maybe Adrian Peterson. Mannequins where the muscles on the front of the thigh and the ones in the back were so far apart that they probably couldn’t hear each other speak in a crowded room, and so big that if they did speak, they would undoubtedly get into a fight.

They were encased in compression tights ($90) designed to accentuate every glorious curve, and perhaps remold some of the less glorious ones.

A mannequin is, by definition, a blank template. It isn’t necessarily supposed to tell us about ourselves. But in regarding these wonders of, I assume, fiberglass, I learned a tremendous amount about who I was not.

There were sections of both stores dedicated to those concerned with performance, like enclosed patches of fake turf on which you could boot around a soccer ball. Nike also had a basketball half-court (or almost half) on which employees were attempting (and missing) three-point shots; and at Adidas, I was handed a basketball to dribble as I tried on a pair of low-top D Lillard 2.0s ($105). There were military-grade treadmills at both stores, though I didn’t witness anyone — or aspire to become someone — brave enough to try them out. They felt like exhibits you might see at the U.S.S. Intrepid, tools of a war you’ve heard about but not been called upon to fight in.

For the most part, people were not in either of these stores to sweat. The Adidas flagship is on a meh stretch of Fifth Avenue in Midtown, right where the luxury strip turns midmarket. It was filled with tourists. On bustling Lower Broadway — a better-heeled tourist strip, yes, but also close enough to places where the creative classes might live — the crowd was younger, more diverse, more interestingly dressed. The evening I stopped in, I saw the stylish rapper ASAP Nast buying some Air Jordan XVs ($190).

Nike’s style swings are bolder and brighter. You could identify the floors there by use of color: red and black in the Jordan section, rich teal and purple in soccer cleats, stoic gray and black in leisure wear. Its attempts at casual fashion were more thoughtful, like the deep green water-repellent zip-up windbreaker with angled zipper ($375), like something you might see on a Tim Coppens runway. Adidas, by contrast, offered a shrug-worthy mesh zip-up hoodie made in partnership with Reigning Champ ($225).

Perhaps this is because Adidas takes its athletic mandate slightly more seriously than Nike does. At the store, the fitting room doors were mock lockers. And while Adidas footwear has lately been embraced by the fashion world — I especially liked the slithery Ultra Boost Uncaged ($200) and the cheekily rugged women’s Terrex Skychaser GTX ($140) — most of the options here are dutifully athletic, somehow both overbranded and also anonymous. Nike’s commitment to performance is less advertised. It wants to make you feel powerful first, fit second.

Both places offer a version of customization. At Adidas, classic silhouettes — Gazelle, Stan Smith, Superstar — are available to be reimagined with a range of alternate fabrics. (The finished product takes three to five weeks, a clerk said.) At Nike, you could on-the-spot customize a handful of items with designs by three artists: Grace Miceli, Daniel Zender and Jon Contino. I ordered one of Miceli’s sweet, angelic T-shirts ($50), which was ready for me by the time I was finished browsing. You could also customize a pair of Air Force 1s (with designs by the same artists) and a deubré — a lace tag that slides onto the part of the lace closest to the toe box.

It’s a clever frill — I have a few somewhere in a box I will probably never be able to find — and a steady reminder that even in the most athletic environment, vanity matters. The woman in front of me was having her deubrés customized to read “Bad Bitch.” I hope she ends up walking, not running, slowly enough that everyone can read them.