The inside track on outdoor gear

From the US to Japan, brands making clothing for open-air pursuits have provided one of the fashion industry’s rare feel-good stories over the past year. While the pandemic helped push them along, their success had already been coming for some time.
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Exploring your own backyard has never been more popular or cool. Spend 15 minutes browsing online and hundreds of outdoor clothing brands show up. In a moment of collective anxiety, with the world going in and out of lockdowns, hiking has become a mainstream pursuit. 

Since the global pandemic arrived, uploads of outdoor walks to exercise-tracking app Strava in the US saw a threefold increase, reversing the decades-long creep towards more sedentary lifestyles spent largely indoors. In the UK, 36% of British adults reported spending more time outside, according to the government’s The People and Nature Survey. Smaller outdoor equipment companies like Reyr Gear and Backcountry struggled to produce enough stock, and even industry heavyweights were surprised by the surge in demand. 

But the outdoors-slash-fashion crossover was already well underway. ‘Gorpcore’ – a term invented by The Cut in 2017 to describe the style focused around wearing utilitarian, functional, outdoors-inspired gear – has found crossover success in both mainstream and luxury fashion. To broaden their appeal, even heritage brands have been recontextualising their salt-of-the-earth image with high-fashion collaborations. More under the radar are Japanese companies like Snow Peak, And Wander and Nanamica, plus Nike’s Gyakusou range and The North Face’s Purple Label, which are gaining international acclaim with athletic-meets-aesthetic approaches.

The outdoor apparel market is on track to grow by 4.1% year on year until 2025, with the size of the industry reaching more than $17 billion according to Research and Markets, and it shows no sign of slowing down. What’s more, in 2021 consumer calls for sustainability will grow increasingly louder, which plays into the continued success of outdoors brands. After all, the big outdoor gear companies like to proclaim their stewardship of the wild places their products enable us to visit.

Even heritage outdoors brands have been recontextualising their salt-of-the-earth image with high-fashion collaborations.
Initiatives diversifying the great outdoors

More people than ever are exploring the natural world, but under-representation of people of colour in nature is still a problem. In the US, 94.6% of annual visitors to national parks identified themselves as white, compared to 5.7% as Latino and less than 2% as black, in a study where respondents could identify within more than one group, according to the Society of American Foresters. In the UK, 16% of white people regularly participate in hiking, mountain walking and mountaineering, compared to just 2.6% of black people and less than 4% of Asian people, according to Sport England.

But there’s exciting grassroots activity looking to redress the balance. Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors are both boosting representation and participation in the US, where national parks have a long history of segregation – something that didn’t change until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Last year, Pacific Northwest-based Mo Jackson crowdfunded BIPOC Camping Kits to provide free gear to those who wanted it, no questions asked, citing expensive equipment as one of the main barriers to entry for people in BIPOC communities. Mo has had hundreds of requests since launching and, helped by the outdoors brand Next Adventure, is providing people with kits worth up to $250.

Also working to combat the underrepresentation of BIPOC in nature, Flock Together set flight in summer 2020. Co-founder Ollie Olanipekun says the reception has been ‘totally overwhelming’. What began as monthly birdwatching walks in London is now spreading its wings to Manchester, New York, Toronto and South Africa, with an editorial platform and academy for six- to 16-year-olds. 

‘I’m putting in my flag in the ground here – I’m not sure how fast the old, white, middle-aged stereotype would have changed without Flock,’ says Ollie. ‘Institutions like the RSPB have yet to catch up with new interests, but collaborations like The North Face x Gucci, which we feature in, are doing a great job in changing that image. I want people to start using their imagination when they look at birdwatching and outdoor activity.’

It will take a step change to leave behind a history of exclusion in the industry – and legacy brands will play a key role in this. In October 2020, The North Face set up a $7 million fund to help diversify the outdoor market, launching an international fellowship programme in partnership with actor, screenwriter and producer Lena Waithe and climber Jimmy Chin that will create a group of experts across culture, entertainment, academia and the outdoors to guide the brand on how to spend that money. Meanwhile, its range with Gucci has been described by online style magazine Highsnobiety as ‘a paradigm-shifting mega collab on the scale of Supreme x Louis Vuitton’.

‘I’m not sure how fast the old, white, middle-aged stereotype would have changed without Flock Together. I want people to start using their imagination when they look at birdwatching and outdoor activity.’
Three brand perspectives

1. Clément Mésange

‘We’ve seen a spike in interest in many outdoor activities in recent years, and that was before keeping yourself active outdoors to help your mental health became the centre of people’s minds coming out of such a rough year. Celebrity culture has also definitely taken the outdoor gear trend on board over the past couple of seasons. Look at the number of high-profile collaborations between superbrands and outerwear brands, too.’ 

— Clément Mésange, Patagonia’s director of merchandising and planning for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

2. Olly Smith 

‘South2 West8 is a Japanese brand whose clothing is largely based on a style of fly fishing. It sounds pretty niche, but its centre-seam pants have become a real brand staple at our store. They’re in the collection every season with some adaptations, mainly in the materials. They’re versatile so can be worn casually, but they can also be worn within technical outdoor settings, which is something customers are increasingly looking for.’ 

— Olly Smith, brand manager at Nepenthes London, the UK outpost for Japanese clothing company South2 West8.  

3. Helgi Oskarsson 

‘If you go back to the seventies, few people were going out jogging. Now people do it all over the place. I think the same moment is happening with the outdoor business. More people are going out and taking a walk with their closest. Covid has helped people slow down and re-evaluate some of the things in their lives, including a closer relationship with nature. This industry – whether it’s skiing, running or cycling – is only set to grow.’ 

— Helgi Oskarsson, CEO at 66°North, which started out making protective clothing for Icelandic fishermen in 1926 but has expanded to sportswear, outdoor and leisure. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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