What is Outdoorswear?

And Why Did It Take Over 2020?

Key Takeaways

  1. Outdoorswear has become the dominant trend of 2020. Once the realm of hardcore hikers and “techwear” devotees, this year has seen the elevation of utilitarian gear from niche to norm.
  2. While mankind’s very first garments could be considered “outdoors clothing,” the modern outdoors industry began in the early 20th century.
  3. Outdoorswear now has a proper place in fashion: one created by the convergence of fashion macro-trends and its own deeply-seated qualities.

With the whole world homebound, one might expect fashion to reflect this new reality: more sweatpants, more slippers, more Bella x Jacquemus webcam shoots. Instead, the industry is gripped by the call of the wild. 

Outdoorswear has become the dominant trend of 2020. Once the realm of hardcore hikers and “techwear” devotees, this year has seen the elevation of utilitarian gear from niche to norm. A string of superstar collabs played a part: Arc’teryx x OFF-WHITE, The North Face x MM6, L.L. Bean x Todd Snyder, and Salomon x Palace certainly showed new audiences the fashion of function. This September, the trend went nuclear with the announcement of The North Face x Gucci—a groundshaking tie-up on the scale of Supreme x LV.

To the couture-centric observer, these co-signs have catapulted unfashionable functionwear into the fashion world: less of an evolution than a hijacking, the latest affront against taste from today’s irony-driven fashion industry. But to credit (or blame) this year’s streetwear collabs for the rise of outdoors gear is to miss the forest for the trees.

The story of 2020’s outdoors trend is more than the story of a moment. It’s one of decades-long evolutions, perhaps even the course of fashion itself. How did outdoorswear become the trend of the year? Simply put, by being ahead of its time.

Gucci x The North Face (teaser)


DOWN TO EARTH
Outdoorswear’s breakout year can be traced to the genre’s origins on one hand and fashion history on the other. While mankind’s very first garments could be considered “outdoors clothing,” the modern outdoors industry began in the early 20th century. Brands of this era—Eddie Bauer, Helly Hansen, Barbour—pushed clothing design with the introduction of waxed cotton jackets and goose down insulation. These innovations replaced the rubberized canvas and heavy wools of earlier eras, making outdoors activity (commonly skiing or hunting) safer and more comfortable. They also led to garments that looked nothing like the norms of the day and certainly wouldn’t be worn outside of their intended use.

At a time when dailywear was defined by rigid fabrics and rigid conventions, a small segment of the clothing world put function first, tradition be damned. This genetic foundation defined what would come to be known as the outdoors industry. New technologies—GORE-TEX in the ‘70s, fleece in the ‘80s - would filter in. New brands—The North Face, Patagonia—would spring up. With both came new types of garments and new boundary-pushing shapes. But above them all, the focus on function remained.

At the same time, fashion itself was getting more overtly functional. Relaxing social customs (and the comfort provided by new fabrics) meant that moves away from the stiff and starchy were accepted as fast as norms could change.

This macro-trend against formality has taken many forms: sportswear, business casual, athleisure, you name it. With each decade, new types of garments and new boundary-pushing shapes became acceptable to wear out and about in all parts of life. Comfort was always important (see: “summer-weight” suits). But now, it could be a priority. 

GORE-TEX Product Testing


OUTSIDE INFLUENCE

For the longest time, outdoorswear’s unrepentant focus on function meant it ran tangentially to popular fashion. But as fashion deformalized - first with denim, then with sportswear—the genre’s functional ethos became more accepted in culture. Track pants and Reeboks had gone from gym-only to casualwear. Why couldn’t a Patagonia Snap-T come off the trail?

By the late ‘80s, what was once tangential had now fully intercepted. Once-niche brands like Marmot, Oakley, The North Face, and Berghaus became part of mainstream streetwear. In one light, their Polartec fleeces and GORE-TEX jackets could be considered hardcore outdoors gear. In another, what are sherpas and three-layers but more extreme versions of sportswear staples like hoodies and windbreakers?

The sportswear brands took notice. Nike’s All Conditions Gear (ACG) line debuted in 1989. Adidas, who had been lightly involved in the outdoors since the ‘70s, beefed up its offering. By the late ‘90s, even luxury brands like Prada were making GORE jackets. In that same mix: the first generation of outdoors-influenced technical fashion lines—names like ACRONYM and Vexed Generation, who remixed design cues and materials from outdoorswear into clothing designed for the city. 

While its influence has waxed and waned (see: the #menswear era), from the late ‘90s onwards, outdoors gear has officially been part of the fashion conversation. So what is it about 2020 that’s made this once-niche subculture into the trend of the year?

Dior Ski Capsule, 2021


THE TRAIL AHEAD
Outdoorswear’s breakout year has many causes. Some point to a uniquely-2010’s urge to “re-nature.” Others, to the actions of specific influencers (famously, Frank Ocean wearing Mammut and Arc’teryx to Paris Fashion Week). Since March of this year, there have even been some who posit that COVID lockdowns have led to a culture-wide overcompensation, where the millions stuck in #WFH purgatory now spend hours browsing @unownedspaces to fantasize about the world beyond their balconies.

There is an element of truth in all of these. However, the real reason the outdoors has cemented itself in fashion this year is a little more rooted.

Fashion didn’t intercept outdoorswear and stop getting more overtly functional. While a saturation of fleece and nylon in the mid-2000’s may have pushed couturiers back towards tailoring, off the runways, culture was swapping out skinny jeans for leggings and never looking back.

So when it came time for 90s-era outdoorswear to hit its period of vintage cool starting around 2010, it didn’t just find the streetwear fanatics and mountain town misfits who originally popularized it: it found an entire society used to showing off that their clothing does more than look good. In that society, it found a firmer footing than ever before.

2020 may be the year that outdoorswear became unmissable. But it’s anything but an overnight success. Outdoorswear now has a proper place in fashion: one created by the convergence of fashion macro-trends and its own deeply-seated qualities. Prada’s “Escape” collection and the launch of Dior Ski point towards what lies ahead. Don’t like it? Go take a hike.