The pros and cons of new ‘Birchbox for gym clothes’ programs

Oct 27, 2015 at 9:30 a.m. ET
Image: David Jakle/Images Source/Getty Images

Activewear isn't just for the gym anymore. No, it's having its moment in mainstream fashion, regardless of how "misguided" true fashionistas think the trend is.

Truthfully, activewear is awesome. It's comfortable and stretchy, it wicks sweat and dries quickly — and, these days, it actually looks pretty freakin' amazing.

The activewear trend is so popular, in fact, that according to The NPD Group, it drove total fashion sales across all segments up by 1 percent in 2014  — an amount that equates to $2 billion. The only potential problem with such astronomic growth is that sheer variety can feel stifling. How can you possibly find and choose the best, most flattering and functional pieces when new brands are entering the market almost every day?

Activewear subscription services just might be the solution. While each service is somewhat different, their goals are the same: Deliver new, custom-selected pieces of activewear to your doorstep each month, based on your personal preferences. It definitely takes the guesswork out of purchasing fitness apparel — a boon for those of us who love wearing yoga pants, but hate shopping for them.

Fabletics: Best pricing

Fabletics is possibly the most well-known activewear subscription service around, boosted by Kate Hudson's affiliation as a co-founder. It also stands out from the other services for a few reasons:

  1. Only one brand. All items included with the subscription are Fabletics brand, so you won't receive other brands in your monthly delivery.
  2. No personal stylist. Outfits are suggested based on your preferences, but they aren't custom-selected by a stylist.
  3. You make the selections. You're completely in charge of the order — you can elect to receive a shipment of one of your suggested outfits, or you can purchase items individually. For instance, I purchased the two items above individually because I preferred them to my suggested outfits.
  4. Great discounts. When you subscribe as a VIP member, your first outfit is substantially discounted — starting at just $25. All future orders are at a VIP discount. For instance, the leggings above are priced at $80 standard, but would cost $50 for a VIP member.

Fabletics apparel
Image: Fabletics

Subscription pros

  • Choosing your own apparel. I really enjoyed being in the driver's seat, using the suggested outfits as a guide to make selections, while ultimately choosing my own pieces. I wasn't worried about what I'd receive or whether I'd like the apparel.
  • Expanded sizing. The sizing selection is generous, ranging from XXS to XXL — not to mention, most of their full-length pants also offer inseam variations from short to tall. As someone who's 6 feet tall, I loved being able to select a longer tight. (Just be sure to note the actual inseam length — some of their longer pants have an inseam of only 33 inches, which still isn't long enough for someone like me.)
  • High quality apparel. Since I only paid $40 for my tank and pants, I was a little concerned the quality might be lower than some name brands, but I was very impressed — each item was well made.
  • Extra freebie. I received a free, two-year subscription to Shape Magazine with my VIP subscription. It was a nice "extra" that I didn't expect.
  • Simple pricing. There's no styling fee, shipping is free on orders over $50, and returns are also free, although you do have to print off your return label yourself (other subscription services provide a return envelope and label with your monthly box). Because you select the items to purchase yourself, you know exactly how much you're spending before you receive your items.

Subscription cons

  • Unsubscribing is the worst. I loved my shipment, but I wanted to unsubscribe immediately so I wouldn't forget about my membership and keep receiving (and paying for) shipments. Unfortunately, while I could choose to skip a month of shipments from my online profile, I couldn't actually unsubscribe. I had to call to unsubscribe, and the customer service was terrible. Despite asking multiple, multiple times to unsubscribe, the representative kept trying to get me not to. I insisted on getting the unsubscribe confirmation over the phone, and I'm glad I did — I posted about the experience on Facebook and got horror stories from others in response detailing how, despite unsubscribing, they kept getting charged for their subscription for months.
  • You only receive Fabletics apparel with each shipment. While the brand is high quality and offers a good selection, the fact that you only receive their brand in each shipment is limiting.

More: Cute workout gear you can wear out on the town

SweatStyle vs. Wantable Fitness Edit

These subscription services are quite a bit different from Fabletics, but fairly similar to one another. For instance:

  • Each service offers personal styling. You fill out an extensive online form that includes details like height, weight, sizing, activities, style preferences and pricing preferences. Based on your answers, a personal stylist selects up to five items to send you to test out.
  • Each service provides free shipping and free returns. They also provide you with a pre-labeled return envelope, so all you have to do is put your unwanted items into the envelope and pop it in the mail.
  • Each service offers a mix of high-quality brands. You're not limited to any specific company, and you're likely to discover new brands in the process. Because you're not limited to one brand, you also have access to a wide variety of sizes and styles. The brands included are also high-quality, name brands — you don't have to worry about cheap construction or unraveling seams.
  • You can keep nothing, something or everything. You don't pay until after you've received your products, so you're under no obligation to keep anything. Usually if you select everything, you'll receive a discount off the total purchase price. Otherwise, you're simply billed for the items you choose to keep.
  • Easy online account management. All three of these services make it very easy to skip shipments, pause or cancel membership, all from your Internet browser. In other words, there's no runaround about cancellation from a call service representative.
  • Each service has a $20 styling fee. This fee is applied to any purchases you choose to make, so it's not an additional fee, as long as you buy something from your subscription.

Even though there are a lot of similarities, I actually noticed quite a few differences.

SweatStyle: Best fashion

Image: SweatStyle

Subscription pros

  • Awesome styling. By far, I thought the SweatStyle subscription offered the most fashion-forward, cohesive box. Because I indicated in my profile that I wear activewear for, well, everything, the stylist provided a great mix of athletic pieces that could actually be dressed down or up depending on the occasion. The colors and patterns were also a good mix of basics and "fun" pieces.
  • New, upscale brands. The two pieces I elected to keep were from brands I'd never tried before: Onzie and Vie Active. I probably wouldn't have found these on my own, so I appreciated receiving them in my box. Plus, many of their brands are considered designer and upscale. If you like being on the cutting edge of fitness apparel, SweatStyle has you covered.
  • Discount for keeping everything. If you elect to keep everything in your box, you'll receive a 15 percent discount.

Subscription cons

  • More expensive overall. Even though you can select pricing preferences, the upscale, boutique brands tend to be more expensive, so your overall box is likely to cost more. For instance, one of the tanks they sent me was over $100 — way more than I can afford to pay for a single tank.
  • Sizing not perfect. This wasn't really the service's fault, but one of the items was mistagged as a medium (my size), when it was actually a small. It was a great piece, and one I would have liked to keep, but it just didn't fit.
  • No preview of items prior to shipment. I had no idea what I might receive.

Wantable Fitness Edit: Easiest to use

Wantable Fitness Edit
Image: Wantable

Subscription pros

  • Seamless communication. From start to finish, Wantable's automated communications were by far the best. I knew exactly when my order shipped, when it was delivered and I was automatically notified when I needed to make selections (lest I be charged for everything). The provided return label also had a special barcode on it, so I received an email when my returns were picked up to be sent back to Wantable. I never worried that I might miss the boat or be charged for items I didn't want.
  • Perfect fit. I can be a tough one to fit correctly, and I was really impressed by the stylist's selections. She (or he?) seemed to "get" my body type without having met me, and I felt good in all the pieces they sent.
  • Good mix of brands. Like SweatStyle, I really liked the mix of brands — some I had heard of, some I hadn't. For instance, the two pieces I choose to keep were from Soybu (a brand I've purchased from before) and Mono B (a brand I'd never tried).
  • Reasonable pricing. All the items I received ranged from $35 to $59 — well within my price range. While the total can still add up, I didn't feel like I was killing my budget by keeping a few pieces.
  • Discount for keeping everything. If you elect to keep everything in your box, you'll receive a 20 percent discount.

Subscription cons

  • My edit had a lot of "basics." I could probably open a store selling size medium black yoga pants from my closet, so I don't really need any more. Most of the items I received from Wantable fell in the "basics" category, even if they had some standout features, like mesh inlays or shirring. I just don't need any more black yoga pants, white tanks or black sports bras. The items I kept included a long sleeve gray top and a very fun pair of leopard print capris. In the future, I'd be more specific in my request for fun items, rather than the basics.
  • No preview of items prior to shipment. I had no idea what I might receive.

More: Fresh fitness wear to rev up your workouts

Fytso: Best gym wear

If Wantable and Fabletics were to get married and have a baby, their baby would probably look a lot like Fytso. This service is different because it combines some of the best features of custom styling and personal selection seen in the other subscription companies.

Image: Collage, Laura Williams

Subscription pros

  • No styling fee. Styling is free, regardless of whether you purchase any of the items your stylist suggests.
  • Awesome stylist interaction. Fytso is the only service where you actually personally interact with your stylist. My stylist sent me an email with a preview of the items she had selected for me and with a text message, notifying me she'd sent the email. The text message was especially nice because my email had accidentally landed in spam, so I knew I needed to search for it.
  • Product selection and billing takes place before you receive your shipment. Because your stylist sends you a preview of your order, you can ask her to switch out items or to ditch certain products before they're ever sent. This ensures you'll only receive and pay for what you like.
  • Free shipping and returns. Shipping is free and you'll also receive a pre-labeled return envelope, just in case you need to send anything back.
  • Major athletic brands. You'll be familiar with the brands in your order — I received Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Under Armour with my order.
  • Gym ready. I really loved everything Fytso sent, and it was all "gym ready" apparel — as in, I'd feel comfortable and attractive hitting the gym in everything. This may sound like a no-brainer, but because of the athleisure trend, not all "active" apparel is suitable for high-intensity activity.

Subscription cons

  • Slower shipments. Because of their newfound popularity, there's a lead time of up to four weeks before you receive your first shipment.
  • Fewer new brands. If you really want to branch out, Fytso currently doesn't have the fringe or up-and-coming brands that Wantable and SweatStyle offer.