A dozen $150 Gucci warm-up suits were snapped up within a week, just like the $100 hiking boots and $400-plus health and racquet club memberships thousands of Washingtonians are clamoring for.
The warm-up suit probably will never get warm, the hiking boots may only feel the crunch of concrete and half of the club members will exercise their social moves, not muscles.
But it doesn't matter to owners of the scores of new companies, sporting goods stores, medical services and sleek racquet clubs that are benefiting from the multibillion-dollar fitness fad of the last few years. Even the recession and high price of gasoline are hardly slowing the race by Americans to buy athletic gadgets such as racquetball racquets and weight lifting exercise machines, and jogging outfits that rarely see sweat. One manufacturer is selling shirts with built-in sweat rings for those who only want the appearance of prowess.
In fact, the $15 billion sporting goods industry is soaring in large part because of those who don't exercise but generally spend more money to look like they do, sporting goods retailers said.
Sweating has become chic. For example, only six years ago consumers spent $16 million on jogging suits. This year they're expected to spend $188 million. To make the athletic look complete consumers last year bought 50 million pairs of athletic shoes costing $810 million.
The $15 billion figure only covers basic equipment, clothing and vehicles and excludes $14 per hour tennis and $10 per hour racquetball court fees, facilities construction, other fees or the multitude of exercise books. A comparable sales figure for the Washington area was unavailable.
Some local examples of the sports craze:
Moving Comfort Inc. an Arlington company started by runner Ellen Wessel, began manufacturing women's running clothes three years ago. Sales jumped from $73,000 to $813,000 in two years.
A new Bethesda racquet and health club plans to include a restaurant serving alcoholic beverages to accommodate members who frequent the club more for social activities than sweating.
A sports-medicine clinic is opening this month equipped with five doctors who will treat only athletic-related injuries.
A $7 million luxury full-service racquet club is scheduled to open in September at Tysons Corner for "people who have more money than time," said the club's vice president.
"The minute you see a market growing you're bound to see a specialty store such as golf shops, tackle shops, gun shops," said Elmer Boasco, a spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association. "This is what happened. There are all these shoe chains."
A Washington Post survey showed that participation by Washingtonians in jogging or running is increasing while activity in most others is declining somewhat. The cost of gasoline and the economy in general are blamed for the decline in some sports, according to sports equipment experts.
Despite the poll results, most of the sporting goods and related industries are still making impressive gains in sales and profits.
For example, the Post survey showed that hiking and camping are down substantially. That is mostly because of the high cost of gasoline, many hiking and camping retailers said. But stores such as Eddie Bauer and Appalachian Outfitters have seen no slump in sales, even with a recession.
One reason is that people want to look like hikers and buy the $30 hiking shorts, back packs and $150 down parkas and vests, said Laura Dalley an administrative assistant at Eddie Bauer.
"So much of the clothing that used to be just 'on the farm' has become sort of outdoor chic," Dalley said. "Women wear flannel shirts with silk skirts."
The economy is also affecting the shape of American' recreational activities, sporting experts said. High gasoline prices have caused the sharp drop in fishing, boating, skiing, hunting, hiking and camping and many persons who participated in those sports in the past have either stopped, are improvising or doing them closer to home.
For example, to save the cost of camping equipment some would-be outdoorsmen have started car camping, Dalley said. While a beginning camper could spend from $469 to $827 at Eddie Bauer for a tent, back pack, sleeping bag, store, pots, food, boots, socks and miscellaneous items, a car camper only needs a car.
"They don't have to buy a stove, they don't have to carry a freezer," said John Davis, manager of the store. Some cost-conscious campers will camp nearby and when it comes to meals they "will slip into a McDonalds and slip back in the woods."
While the economy has hurt some activities -- "How would you like to own some Winnebago stock for instance," Boasco said -- it has helped others, such as jogging and running.
"I wonder how many people are jogging rather than spending $250 for a set of golf clubs," Boasco added.
"It's a cheap exercise," said Joe Wittig, manager of the Athletic Shoe Box. "The only initial investment is the shoes. Running aren't really concerned about the money they spend."
Customers often spend $200 to $300 at one time on running shirts, shorts, suits and shoes, Wittig said. But the average customer spends about $40. A customer can buy shoes ranging from $23 to $50, socks to control odors and absorb shocks, running shoes for those with handicaps and $33 watches that have a stop watch and an alarm.
Golf sales are increasing too, said Kenneth Pair, manager of Bob Grissett's Golf Shoppe, one of the largest in the country, which moved to Alexandria this year.
The health and racquet club business is moving into the full-service, luxury phase. In addition to the $7 million Tysons Corner club, the $3 million Bethesda Racquet and Health Club opened in March and has filled all but 100 of its 1,500 membership slots, said Nick Moga, general manager of the club. The Washington area has more than a dozen health and racquet membership clubs, Moga said.
The Bethesda and Tysons Corner clubs are so diversified that if one sport should die out, such as racquetball, the club can still make money, Moga said.
"We're going to be the country club of the '80s," said William Shultz, vice president of The Sporting Club in Tysons Corner.
How long the sports obsession will last is anyone's guess. "We are recreation conscious but we're also fadists -- hoola hoops, Mickey Mouse ears," Boasco said. "I wonder how many skateboards are parked in garages." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, The national bill for chic and well-equipped athletes is now about $15 billion.