HONG KONG (Reuters) - GPS sport watches, compression leggings and hydration packs are the new must-haves for wealthy Chinese, pumping up the multi-billion dollar sportswear industry at a time when China's elite are reining in spending on more traditional luxury brands.
Extreme sports apparel and expensive active wear is in vogue thanks in part to government promotion of sport ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and the purchase of the Ironman brand by China's richest tycoon last year.
The market is also forecast to grow with the government's decision to relax its one-child policy after 36 years, and companies like U.S.-listed Under Armour and Canada's Lululemon Athletica Inc are lining up to cash in.
"It is huge - that wellness and healthy lifestyle opportunity in the whole of China," said Colin Grant, chief executive of the Hong Kong-headquartered Pure Group, an operator of gyms, yoga, retail and nutrition businesses across Asia.
"Luxury has its challenges but active wear is a bright spot in the industry. Some people wear it to weddings in China."
China will host its first ever Ironman events this year after billionaire property developer Wang Jianlin bought World Triathlon Corp for $650 million. The deal is set to capitalize on a growing fitness craze which saw 134 marathon and road-running races held across the country last year, up 160 percent from 2014, according to the Chinese Athletic Association.
As part of its promotion of sport and healthier living generally, the government says that by 2025, more than 900,000 stadiums and gyms will have been built across the country.
For Under Armour and Lululemon Athletica, two of the Western brands already active in China, the country offers an opportunity to grow outside the mature markets of the United States and Europe.
No. 2 U.S. sportswear maker Under Armour expects China sales to leap 25 percent a year until 2018, while Vancouver-based yogawear giant Lululemon says its first Hong Kong store is on track to make $8 million in sales this year.
But they face a strong field of Chinese rivals such as ANTA, Xtep and 361 Degrees whose share prices soared between 34 percent and 56 percent last year.
That compares with traditional luxury titans like Italy's Prada - a maker of fancy handbags - which sank 45 percent on the Hong Kong exchange last year as Beijing's clampdown on corruption and China's slowest economic growth in 25 years forced China's elite to change their spending habits.
Some of the money once spent on French wine and Italian leather now appears to be flowing into high-end heart-rate monitors and running shoes.
China's sportswear market will surpass the luxury goods market by 2020, according to Euromonitor, with double-digit growth each year to 280.8 billion yuan ($43.10 billion) compared with luxury's single digit growth to 192.4 billion yuan in the same period. Europe's sportswear market, by comparison, would be worth $64 billion by 2020, it says.
And China's market is only just starting to flex its muscles. The sports sector contributes 0.67 percent of China's total gross domestic product, compared with 2.2 percent in the European Union and 3.5 percent in the United States, according to Oriental Patron Research.
In Hong Kong, a typical GPS sports watch costs up to HK$2000 ($257) with top brands charging closer to HK$4000, while a pair of compression tights averages about HK$900.
"I spend mostly on sports shoes and sports watches," said Gu Xiaojiang, 36, a keen marathon runner who works in the finance industry in Shanghai.
"From an expenses point of view, not including transport fees ... I spend a few thousand yuan a year. But if I start biking, then I suspect I'll start spending a lot."
Those who want to look sporty without actually working up a sweat are increasingly buying "athleisure", a mix of athletic and casual clothing that has grown popular even in formal settings like offices in the United States.
As Chinese customers become more affluent they are becoming more demanding when purchasing, said Shakeel Nawaz, director at Escapade Sports which sells sportswear and nutrition products mainly to the Hong Kong market. "The mainland customers we get are very, very focused. They know exactly what they want in our stores. It hasn’t gotten to the watershed moment when it becomes a mainstream thing, but they are catching up," he said.
Reporting by Donny Kwok and Farah Master in Hong Kong; additional reporting by Engen Tham in Shanghai; Editing by Stephen Coates