How the Outdoors Influence High Fashion
Dirtbags were wearing Tevas long before Miuccia Prada, but high fashion's fascination with the outdoors is nothing new
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
A golden chain-link water bottle holder, carried by the Beverly Hills princesses in Clueless. Miuccia Prada, taking a bow after a fashion show in Teva sandals. A tent emblazoned with the house’s logo, yours for just $3,500 on Gucci dot com!
For decades, high-fashion designers have dressed their models up in gorpy drag and sent them down runways, wearing items that are sometimes gorgeous (Gucci and The North Face’s retro-floral ski jackets), sometimes silly (Proenza Schouler’s climbing rope-and-carabiner jewelry retailed for three figures) and sometimes gorgeously silly (Jacquemus’ 2021 “La Montagne” collection, which paired tiny, striped spandex shorts for men with a tennis-ball green vest, blue oxford and hiking boots).
For serious climbers or backpackers, the utilitarian, technical clothes that comprise “outdoor fashion” mean they’ll stay dry, warm, and blister-free on their adventures. For other consumers, these clothes telegraph luxury, artistry, and sexiness.
“Fashion has always had an interest in dipping into outdoor gear,” said Jessica Glasscock, an adjunct professor at Parsons School of Design and the author of several books on fashion and culture. “It’s really recognizing certain outdoor endeavors as acts of leisure as much as acts of sports, and therefore sort of seeing it as status activity. Fashion typically is interested in hooking into the status of having the time and wherewithal to adventure.”
The first outdoorsy high-fashion design that comes to mind for Glasscock is the so-called safari suit. The lightweight jacket-and-pants combo 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 1800s and early 1900s. Usually made in lightweight fabric and featuring epaulets and pockets across the front, the getup was sometimes accessorized with a rifle and a pith helmet. Well-to-do Europeans and Americans began to wear 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 is associated with rugged outdoorsmanship, and using that to create something precious….it’s sort of the bread and butter of fashion.”
A generation later, Glasscock said, the safari suit was updated for women. A famous picture of Yves St. Laurent from 1969 shows the French designer flanked by very groovy looking it-girls Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise, all three wearing sexy versions of the khaki suits. Betty pairs her lace-up safari minidress with a silk scarf and belt slung across her tiny hips and piratey leather thigh-high boots. These outfits are not for camping.
“Fashion loves contradictions, and it loves tension, and part of that comes out of taking signifiers of one thing and putting them on unlikely people or in unlikely places,” said Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large for the Washington Post. “And so the idea of taking a fabric that is associated with rugged outdoorsmanship, and using that to create something precious….it’s sort of the bread and butter of fashion.”
Versions of the safari jacket are still popular on the runway and at the mall, although politically-savvy brands have leaned away from the garment’s colonialist roots by calling items “field jackets” and pairing them with jeans instead of pith helmets.
Other iterations of outdoors-influenced fashion are not so clear-cut. One of the most enduring examples of the aesthetic is Prada’s use of nylon—a durable, unsexy fabric, which the outdoor industry often uses for everything from running shorts to chalk bags—to make covetable handbags and backpacks, all outfitted with the house’s telltale triangle logo.
“We’re going to take this concept that’s associated with utility, with usefulness, with practicality, also with this sort of privilege of being able to get out and about in a certain way,” said Glasscock. “But we’re going to make it a product and we’re going to make it more appealing for an audience that might be engaged with that lifestyle, but also wants to speak of themselves as a fashion-label person.”
Are people wearing these items to camp? It’s hard to say, says Givhan. Maybe in Aspen?
Recently, high-fashion houses, including Jil Sander, have made the influence of outdoor recreation even more explicit by partnering with brands like Arc’teryx, said Adrian Verin, a sports and lifestyle expert at Carlin Creative, a France-based trend bureau.
Teaming up makes sense as luxury brands take more inspiration from streetwear, he said. The lines between fancier clothes and outdoors clothes are blurring as fashionable young people pair Patagonia or Arc’teryx with pieces from Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga.
“People who used to wear outdoor clothes or accessories were like some kind of nerds, just kinds of people that don’t really look stylish,” he said (his French accent made this sound less harsh). But “many people now use clothes that you can wear in the city, that can be worn at home, that can be worn in the outdoors. Something really modular.”
Perhaps the partnership that’s attracted the most attention is Gucci’s collaboration with The North Face. The brands’ first collection (introduced in late 2020), was so successful that the two rolled out a second in late 2021. In promotional pictures for the line (prices average in the mid-four figures), a model wearing a pink ski jacket and a corset climbs up loose gravel at the bank of an Icelandic river, white Lillies in one hand, a $3000 black leather Jackie handbag in the other.
Are people wearing these items to camp? It’s hard to say, says Givhan. Maybe in Aspen? “I think that every time I’m on the Metro and I see someone with some sort of an industrial sports sack kind of backpack on and some big metal water bottle,” she said. “I’m just like, where are you going?”
Some people savaged the Gucci and Jil Sander collabs. One online commenter called a huge Gucci mud-brown puffy jacket “the Uncle Buck special,” and some (rightfully) pointed out a knee-length Jil Sander ski jacket was not really that practical for skiing, actually, thanks to its long length.
“You can’t have a backdrop of a mountain and have the subject in the photo not look incredibly chic.”
But the timing for the collaborations makes sense, said Verin. The two high-profile partnerships launched about a year after COVID-19 brought much of the world to a standstill. After all, during a pandemic, health and freedom could be considered the ultimate luxury.
“I think that the new luxury is the capacity to go outside, and to move in an environment that’s safe,” he said. “During the lockdown, many people were dreaming of going into the mountains or going into the great outdoors.”
Abigail Tananbeaum, the founder and creator of the outdoor-gear brand MATEK, which makes cozy base layers and balaclavas for men, women, and children, said the aesthetic telegraphs not only leisure but also ability and expertise.
And, as anyone who has admired the elegant way a lightweight rain jacket folds into a tiny pouch, or marveled at how a hiking boot keeps an icy stream from saturating wool socks knows … outdoors gear is just plain nifty. “That’s why I wanted to make a turtleneck that doesn’t have to stay in my ski gear closet, it can be in my normal closet,” she said. “’I’m definitely inspired by both [fashion and function], but definitely the function of outdoor gear is the most important. I think it’s almost a good influence on fashion, when it’s becoming a little more functional.”
The beauty of nature is automatically grafted onto outdoorsy clothes by association, Tananbeaum said. When one wears a ski jacket, even when simply traveling on the train, they can picture themselves atop a mountain ski lift, poised to race down a hill blanketed in crisp snow and darkly lush fir trees. “You can’t have a backdrop of a mountain and have the subject in the photo not look incredibly chic,” she said. “I don’t even know if I answered your question, I’m sorry! I’m just in Colorado looking at a mountain so I’m a little distracted.”