Style

How outdoor gear became one of the defining fashion trends of 2020

The pandemic helped, but the wheels were already in motion.

MM6 Maison Margiela The North Face

Ahead of the reveal of its collaboration with The North Face, Gucci painted its art wall on the side of a building in Milan to look like a giant red puffer coat.

The 577-square-foot canvas has frequently rotated artwork since its debut in 2018, including Gucci-clad models in idyllic scenery and the phrase “Common sense is not all that common,” courtesy of the artist Coco Capitan. The down-filled bulk of a puffer coat may seem like a diversion from the usual notions of art and luxury, but in 2020, gorp has risen to the forefront of fashion.

Outdoor gear has become one of the defining trends of the year. In the 9 months and counting of COVID-19 shuttling us indoors and away from most socializing as we know it, outdoor activities have become a much-needed and socially distant salve. Hiking, climbing, and camping have provided the fresh air we needed and the opportunity to connect with nature when most ties to society have been severed.

[G]orp was everywhere in 2020.

If you’re going to explore, you’re going to need the right gear — even if you overdo it. Consumer culture drives us to dress the part well beyond our needs, leading us to buy, say, a brand new pair of boots for a modest hike when an old pair of sneakers would likely suffice. Such purposes may be superfluous, but they make us feel more invested and may eventually lead to a deeper commitment to outdoor activities. But even if the pandemic hadn’t opened our eyes wider to nature, we’d likely still be here talking about how gorp was everywhere in 2020.

Until recently, outdoor giants like Patagonia and The North Face have been hesitant to market their gear for anything but its intended purpose. The North Face’s bright mountaineering gear has been a streetwear staple since the '90s, when teenagers clad in the Nuptse were on New York Magazine’s famous “Prep School Gangsters” cover and Steep Tech coats appeared prominently in Method Man’s debut music video. In a photo from Supreme’s original Lafayette Street store in 1996, an all-black Nuptse is front-and-center on one of the crew members.

The North Face has collaborated with Supreme since 2007, but the only place you could find their products was in the latter brand’s stores. In a long-overdue break from the pack, The North Face has finally embraced its streetwear consumer in recent years and begun collaborating with the likes of Brain Dead and Mastermind. Japanese partners including Junya Watanabe and Sacai marked an initial dip into luxury, and the Berkeley-born retailer has expanded its scope this year by working with Gucci and MM6 Maison Margiela.

For its revival of the Nuptse jacket in 2018, TNF tapped hip-hop producer Pi'erre Bourne for the campaign instead of a high-profile figure from the outdoor community. And when the brand brought back the Extreme collection earlier this year, it was photographed not on a snowy mountain but on the streets of New York City.

The North Face

The Cut first coined the term “gorpcore” in 2017 as the gear you’d find at REI started becoming more commonplace in the city. Writer Jason Chen saw it as a progression from normcore, trading in stonewash jeans and white athletic socks for fleece jackets and nylon windbreakers. And while it can be seen as outdoor cosplay — photographer and writer Mordechai Rubinstein said outdoor apparel transported him to nature even though he’d “cry” if dropped upstate — the elements don’t pass over areas simply because they’ve been urbanized.

Rain, sleet, snow, and wind are a reality in city life, and urban dwellers need clothing to keep them warm and dry. How many millennials are really going to opt for a trench coat over a nylon parka that could hold up to the rigors of Everest? Function is the primary purpose of gorp, but it often happens to look cool as hell, too.

Function is the primary purpose of gorp, but it often happens to look cool as hell, too.

In the wider fashion landscape, we’ve seen a new embrace for heritage brands known for quality foremost. Birkenstocks, Doc Marten, Barbour, Woolrich, and Pendleton — all of which save Doc Marten have been around for more than a century — have found new relevance thanks in part to key collaborations with more “stylish” partners. As it becomes increasingly clear that we need to buy less in order to be more sustainable, investing in long-lasting pieces is one of the best ways to combat overconsumption.

On top of offering top-notch quality, many outdoor brands are industry leaders for more ethical practices. Patagonia operates like an environmental advocacy group that just happens to have great merch. The company sued the Trump administration to protect the Bears Ears National Monument and devotes one percent of its sales to support activists. It’s also regularly spoken out against the gross consumerism that defines Black Friday, including its famous full-page “Don’t buy this jacket” ad in The New York Times. No wonder Noah, one of the most ambitious newer brands in its progressivism, looks to Patagonia as a role model.

Nike

A 2015 study from Nielsen found that 73 percent of millennials were willing to spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable or socially conscious brand, and a further 81 percent expect transparency and sustainability from the brands they buy from. Key initiatives from other outdoor brands include The North Face’s Explore Fund, which seeks to make outdoor activities more accessible to all, and Columbia’s full-page ad in The Washington Post denouncing the 2019 government shutdown.

More than anything, outdoor brands are natural champions for environmentalism. Before branching out into clothing, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard made rock climbing hardware under the name Chouinard Equipment. After noticing the damage caused by the hammering of pitons into rock, he introduced aluminum chocks that could be wedged by hand to minimize disturbance.

As Anne Kelly, senior director of policy and the Business for Innovative and Energy Policy network at Ceres, told the Christian Science Monitor, “All companies have a vested interest in solving climate change, but for [outdoor outfitters] it’s more immediate. They’re our outdoor first responders.”

Gucci

Of course, we can’t pretend that consumers don’t also want clothes that are hot. Surveying the releases from 2020, there’s never been such an abundance of cool gear. Brain Dead made authentic climbing apparel with The North Face that appealed to streetwear’s love for bold colors and logomania. Before that, it partnered with Ashima Shirasai, one of the world’s best young climbers, on strikingly fun wall shoes that raised money to make the sport more diverse.

New Balance, which surprised sneakerheads by becoming the most stimulating brand of the year, looked to hiking for two of its best releases of the year. Its collaboration with Salehe Bembury, who recently left his footwear post at Versace, was inspired by the rich colors of Arizona’s Antelope Canyons. Out of New Balance’s Tokyo Design Studio also came the most innovative shoe of the year. The Niobium Concept 1, first released in collaboration with Snow Peak, is a three-in-one waterproof hiking sneaker that can transform into a mule and a slipper.

Snow Peak

Modular design was a hit, too, for The North Face and Supreme, which released zip-off cargo pants as part of their dazzling watercolor collection. The once dorky pants-and-shorts hybrid was also made cool by Stüssy and Gramicci, the latter of which’s climbing pants have been popular with skaters since the '90s.

Nike’s All Conditions Gear line, which was revived in 2014 by Acronym designer Hugh Errolson, continued its consistent output under James Arizumi. Since taking over from Errolson, Arizumi has refocused ACG on the wilderness instead of the city. For two consecutive seasons, ACG’s most advanced sneaker boots, the Air Terra Antarktik and Mountain Fly Gore-Tex, quickly sold out and enjoyed the hype of more high-profile sneaker collaborations.

Aside from MM6 Maison Margiela’s circle-driven collaboration with The North Face and Gucci’s more opulent, '70s-inspired designs that followed, other high fashion labels have gotten involved in gorp as well. Eye Loewe Nature, the Spanish sub-line launched by Jonathan Anderson last year, has continued to make luxurious outdoor gear that leans on aesthetic and quality over status symbol logos. And Prada Linnea Rossa, relaunched in 2018, offers the most technologically advanced gear in the luxury space, building off its sporty output from the '90s.

The North Face

As 2021 is about to begin, don’t expect gorp to go anywhere. Jil Sander’s announced collaboration with Arc’teryx is already one of the most anticipated collections of the new year. And for most consumers, Gucci’s The North Face collection won’t hit stores until January.

At the end of 2019, Virgil Abloh imagined what luxury goods would look like in the future for Louis Vuitton’s 2054 capsule. The 14 pieces of waterproof apparel can be seen as LV’s answer to Prada Linnea Rossa, and puffer coats inspired eye-catching backpacks and a bandouliere that doubles as a sleeping bag. For all the criticism leveled against Abloh, no one has a better grasp on fashion’s pulse. And in his eye, we’re going to be gorped up for the foreseeable future.