A gold chain link water bottle holder worn by the Princesses of Beverly Hills in Clueless. Miuccia Prada bows after a fashion show in Teva sandals. A tent adorned with the House logo, yours for only $3,500 at Gucci dot com!
For decades, high-fashion designers have dressed their models in spooky garb and sent them down the runways, sometimes gorgeous (Gucci and The North Face’s ski jackets with retro flowers), sometimes silly (Proenza Schouler’s climbing rope and carabiner jewelry, which retails for three characters) and at times hilariously goofy (Jacquemus’ 2021 “La Montagne” collection, which paired tiny striped spandex shorts for men with a tennis ball green vest, blue oxfords and hiking boots).
For the serious climber or backpacker, the purposeful, technical clothing that defines ‘outdoor fashion’ means staying dry, warm and blister-free on your adventures. To other consumers, these garments convey luxury, craftsmanship, and sex appeal.
“Fashion has always had an interest in immersing yourself in outdoor gear,” said Jessica Glasscock, associate professor at Parsons School of Design and author of several books on fashion and culture. “It’s about recognizing certain outdoor activities as both leisure activities and sporting activities and therefore considering them status activities. Fashion is usually interested in tapping into status, having time and money for adventure.”
The first outdoor high fashion design that comes to Glasscock’s mind is the so-called safari suit. The lightweight jacket and trousers combination that became popular in the mid-20th century was based on European military uniforms worn by colonizing British and German troops in warm climates in the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Usually made of lightweight fabric and fitted with epaulettes and front pockets, the attire was sometimes fitted with a rifle and a pith helmet. Wealthy Europeans and Americans began wearing the suits on “safari” trips to African countries, and the outfit became synonymous with famous gentlemen adventurers, including Ernest Hemingway.
“The idea of taking a fabric that has a rugged, outdoor vibe and making something precious out of it… that’s sort of the be-all and end-all of fashion.”
A generation later, Glasscock said, the women’s safari suit was updated. A famous picture by Yves St. Laurent from 1969 shows the French designer flanked by the very hip it girls Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise, all three in sexy versions of the khaki suits. Betty pairs her lace-up safari mini dress with a silk scarf and belt slung around her slender hips and thigh-high pirate leather boots. These outfits are not suitable for camping.
“Fashion loves contradictions, and it loves tension, and part of that comes from taking signifiers of a thing and putting them on unlikely people or in unlikely places,” said Robin Givhan, senior critic for The Washington Post. “And so the idea of taking a fabric that’s associated with rugged outdoor manners and making something precious out of it… that’s sort of the be-all and end-all of fashion.”
Versions of the safari jacket are still popular on the runway and in malls, although politically savvy brands have moved away from the garment’s colonial roots, naming items “field jackets” and pairing them with jeans instead of pith helmets.
Other iterations of outdoor-influenced fashion aren’t as clear cut. One of the most enduring examples of the aesthetic is Prada’s use of nylon — a durable, unsexy fabric that the outdoor industry often uses for everything from running shorts to chalk bags — to create covetable handbags and backpacks, all with the house’s telltale triangle are equipped logo.
“We’re going to take that concept that’s associated with utility, usefulness and practicality, also with this privilege of being able to get around in a certain way,” Glasscock said. “But we’re going to make it a product and make it more appealing to an audience that might be into that lifestyle but also want to talk about themselves as a fashion label persona.”
Do people wear these items when camping? Difficult to say, says Givhan. Maybe in Aspens?
Recently, high-fashion houses, including Jil Sander, have made the impact of outdoor recreation even more evident through partnerships with brands like Arc’teryx, said Adrian Verin, sports and lifestyle expert at Carlin Creative, a France-based trends agency.
A collaboration makes sense as luxury brands are taking more inspiration from streetwear, he said. The lines between offbeat clothing and outdoor wear blur when fashionable young people pair Patagonia or Arc’teryx with pieces by Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga.
“People who used to wear outdoor clothing or accessories were kind of like nerds, just people who don’t really look stylish,” he said (his French accent made that sound less harsh). But “a lot of people are now using clothes that you can wear in the city, that you can wear at home, that you can wear outdoors. Something really modular.”
The partnership that has perhaps garnered the most attention is Gucci’s collaboration with The North Face. The brands first collection (launched in late 2020) was so successful that the pair released a second in late 2021. In promotional images for the line (prices in the mid-four-figure range), a model wears a pink ski jacket and corset climbing loose gravel on the banks of an Icelandic river, white lilies in one hand, a $3,000 black leather Jackie handbag in the other.
Do people wear these items when camping? Difficult to say, says Givhan. Maybe in Aspens? “I think every time I’m on the metro, I see someone carrying some kind of industrial gym bag and a big metal water bottle,” she said. “I’m just wondering, where are you going?”
Some people have trashed the Gucci and Jil Sander collabs. One online commenter dubbed a giant mud-brown puffy Gucci jacket “the Uncle Buck special,” and some pointed out (correctly) that a knee-length Jil Sander ski jacket wasn’t really practical for skiing, given its long length.
“You can’t have a mountain in the background and the subject in the photo doesn’t look incredibly chic.”
But the timing for the collaborations makes sense, Verin said. The two high-profile partnerships, launched about a year after COVID-19, brought much of the world to a halt. After all, health and freedom could be seen as the ultimate luxury during a pandemic.
“I think the new luxury is the ability to go outside and move around in a safe environment,” he said. “During the lockdown, many people dreamed of going to the mountains or to nature.”
Abigail Tananbeaum, the founder and creator of outdoor gear brand MATEK, which makes cozy base layers and balaclavas for men, women and kids, said the aesthetic telegraphs express not just leisure, but also skill and expertise.
And anyone who’s admired the elegant way a lightweight raincoat folds into a tiny pocket, or marveled at the way a hiking boot holds an icy stream of soaked wool socks, knows… outdoor gear is just plain sophisticated. “So I wanted to make a turtleneck that didn’t need to stay in my ski closet, but in my regular closet,” she said. “‘I’m definitely inspired by both [fashion and function], but definitely the most important thing is the function of the outdoor gear. I think it almost has a good influence on fashion when it becomes a bit more functional.”
The beauty of nature is automatically transferred to outdoor clothing through association, Tananbeaum said. Wearing a ski jacket, even a simple train ride can make you imagine yourself on a mountain ski lift, ready to hurtle down a hill covered in crunchy snow and dark, lush fir trees. “You can’t have a mountain in the background and the subject in the photo can’t look incredibly fancy,” she said. “I don’t even know if I answered your question, I’m sorry! I’m in Colorado looking at a mountain right now, so I’m a bit distracted.”