TIGHTS: There's Something New in the Running : Running Tights Make Fast Trek to the Top With Fitness Buffs

Times Staff Writer

You can see them jogging any morning on San Vicente Boulevard's grassy strip: young, lean, physically fit paragons of yuppiness. From the waist up, there's nothing new to notice. From the waist down, they're the next best thing to nude.

They're wearing running tights--the hottest new item in sports apparel--an item commercially available for less than a year, but now selling by leaps and bounds.

Running tights--also known as muscle tights because they highlight the muscles of the rump and thighs, and as Carl Lewis tights because the four-time gold medalist wore them at the Olympics--are not to be confused with the semisheer tights of the "Flashdance" years. Those were worn mainly by women and usually under leotards or skirts.

The new, yup-dated versions are more Flash Gordon than "Flashdance." They are of shiny, stretchy Lycra Spandex--a lightweight, figure-hugging fabric primarily used for women's swimwear until it was reshaped into skin-fitting tights that reveal every ripple from waistline through calf.

The tights are being worn by both sexes, with nothing over them to cover the lower torso, fore or aft.

In other words, they are extraordinarily revealing--a fact that didn't seem to matter when the garments were originally conceived for world-class athletes like Lewis, for whom function takes precedence over form.

"When we came out with the tights about four years ago, nobody knew what they were," says Greg Hind, founder and president of Hind-Wells, who claims to have originated the idea.

"We knew that runners start cold and develop body heat as they race. Then they want to tear their clothes off because they're too hot. We borrowed Lycra Spandex from the swimwear industry and brought it into track.

"We made a close, tight-fitting garment that fits like a stocking, gives some support, moves with the muscles and looks exceptionally sleek. Best of all, the fabric has 'wicking' power."

What that means, Hind explains, is that perspiration is carried from the body through the fabric to the outer surface, where it quickly evaporates. The fabric doesn't absorb the moisture, so neither the skin nor the garment gets clammy.

Athletes took to the tights immediately, Hind says.

But the TV exposure that the garments received during the Olympics, Hind says, has caused amateur athletes and "the general populace" to pick up on the look.

"People are getting into shape just so they can wear this look. If they look good in tights, it's proof of their dedication to exercise," he says.

Rick Chanin of Champs sporting-goods shops says that the Hind-Wells tights are his best sellers, but that Nike and New Balance are coming up strong. Most brands are about $30 a pair, he says.

"Competitive athletes have worn the tights since they became available," Chanin says. "But now there's acceptance by even the most conservative amateurs. It's somewhat surprising," he admits, that even the ordinarily uptight type of male doesn't mind wearing tights.

Kathy Long Holland, fitness product manager at Nike in Beaverton, Ore., says that her firm introduced muscle tights to the public in October of 1984.

"They were conceived as running tights for our Nike athletes before they were commercially available," she says, adding that "they were purely for function, and about 125 athletes were outfitted in them for the Olympics."

Now, however, Nike positions the product simply as "athletic tights to wear whenever you want movement, support, warmth and a sleek look with no fabric flapping around your ankles."

Around Oregon, she says, a lot of bicyclists wear them now. They're also worn for cross-country skiing, over thermal underwear. "They have so much more movement than stretch ski pants, and you can layer clothes under or over them."

Nike designs the tights in bold-color panels, she adds, to strongly accentuate the muscles of the thighs and calves as the person moves.

Holland's biggest surprise came when Midwestern sporting-goods store owners started reporting to her that "real large guys, who aren't even athletic" had started buying the tights.

"I think they want to look athletic and show off their bodies," Holland conjectures. "The revealing quality of the tights is why lots of people are buying them, I'm sure."

Kathy Smith, a fitness expert and amateur runner, says that she'd wear running tights even if she didn't represent Tickets, one of the many dance- and aerobics-wear firms that have also begun producing the product.

"The tights feel good, and they look great," Smith said. "In fact, I'm beginning to see them on the street. It's the new European look of skintight bottoms and big tops that's getting popular here."

Gilda Marx agrees. As vice president and designer of Flexatard bodywear, she makes two versions of running tights (with stirrups and without) and says that she's beginning to see the look on the street and doesn't think it's narcissistic at all.

"There's a real earthiness about showing off what you've worked so hard to achieve. I've seen quite a few fat people wearing them, because there's a different mentality about bodies and fat these days. A person who's fat is working it off and isn't embarrassed about it." Her tights are sold through dance-wear stores.

Anita Jacobs, a New York designer and manufacturer of bicycling apparel for women, says that the running-tights phenomenon is all part of the "authentic activewear craze." It's become a "grass-roots movement among the young, upscale population," she asserts, and it's beginning to trickle into their non-athletic life.

"I went to a disco the other night, and I saw a girl in running tights with a big sweater and boots. She looked wonderful."

Jacobs, who also makes special stretch suits that can be worn in all the triathlon events, says that these authentic athletic clothes are "not as basic" as many people think. "They are exceptionally fashion-forward in their appearance because of the shiny fabric and the colors that we make them in."

Meanwhile, out on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica on a recent cold, damp morning, UCLA student Laura Brown seemed oblivious to all of the above. She wears Nike running tights for early-morning jogs, she said, because her running mate Steve Butsko told her how warm and comfortable they are.

Butsko, a "retired UCLA high jumper," said that he'd found out about the tights on a team trip, when he had to work out in freezing weather and snow.

"I borrowed my teammate's tights one day, and they were great," Butsko said.

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