A Brief History of the North Face Denali Fleece
Like a cicada, the North Face Denali fleece hibernates for stretches, only to emerge one season with such force that you can't remember a time it wasn't around
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Jacob Buchanan immediately gravitates toward the fleece when he notices it in Hope Restored, a thrift store in Searcy, Arkansas. It’s a pale-yellow shade Buchanan has never seen, and it’s made by the North Face—a recognizable, valued brand. Score.
Finding and reselling clothes is partially how Buchanan supports himself. In addition to teaching high school English, he runs an online store through the app Depop. He’s trying to cut down on his purchasing (his inventory is starting to spill into his daughter’s nursery) but ends up buying the North Face Denali fleece for $1 anyway, because he knows he’ll be able to sell it for much more than that.
Through the years, people have worn the versatile Denali as an outdoors jacket, as streetwear, and as a fashion statement. But one thing is undeniable: few items of clothing have stuck around in popular culture as long as this 32-year-old fleece.
Decades before the fleece was a golden goose for vintage merchants, it was a technical midlayer, an early iteration of which was worn by Todd Skinner and Paul Piana on the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Salathé Wall. On June 15, 1988, after 30 days on the wall, Skinner and Piana made history by topping out on the 3,000-foot face. Shortly after, the Denali gained traction among more casual climbers, too. Tim Bantle, general manager of the North Face’s lifestyle division, says the Denali’s ascension dovetailed with the rise of recreational mountaineering and another global trend: the deregulation of the airline industry in the early eighties. Suddenly, travel and exploration were affordable for weekend warriors as well as professional athletes. In the fall of 1988, the North Face developed its Expedition System: a suite of gear and apparel tested on the actual peak of Denali but honed for Mount Everest and the Himalayas. The collection included shells, down jackets, tents, booties, backpacks, and, of course, the Denali fleece.
Conrad Anker, a North Face–sponsored mountaineer since 1983, was one of the first to actually wear the fleece on Denali in 1989, though he says the first “big” expedition he took the jacket on was to Ama Dablam, Nepal, in December 1990. He liked the jacket for its technical chops, and because it served as an excellent makeshift pillow when turned inside out. The abrasion patches at the shoulders made the piece durable, and the professor patches at the elbows gave him coverage when climbing in chimneys. Plus, the pockets kept his food warm. These combined qualities made the fleece Anker’s go-to midlayer at the time, though now it seems heavy in comparison to other lighter and comparably warm insulated jackets.
Over the years, Anker says his yellow fleece accumulated a “worthy patina” of grime from manning the camp stoves on expeditions to Antarctica in 1992, Asia’s Khan Tengri in 1993 and Aksu in 1995, and South America’s Torre Egger in 1995, as well as on multiple climbs of El Capitan in Yosemite.
By 1989, just a year after the fleece’s launch, Anker noticed a growing number of climbers donning the Denali. However, something else tipped him off to the North Face’s growing popularity as a brand: “When it showed up in music videos, then all of a sudden it was like, Well, OK, it’s gone mainstream,” Anker says.
Bantle compares investigating why this jacket permeated popular culture in the eighties with trying to figure out what caused people to wear Air Jordans when Michael Jordan played for the Chicago Bulls. “It’s a cultural phenomenon that you recognize as a trend, but you can’t draw a one to one relationship between them. It captures people’s imagination and becomes embedded in culture in ways we can’t truly understand,” Bantle wrote in an email.
Since its release in the late eighties, the jacket has entered and left the public sphere in waves. Like a cicada, the North Face Denali fleece hibernates for stretches, only to emerge one season with such force that you can’t remember a time it wasn’t around.
Through the nineties, Bantle says that consumers—not just in mountain towns but also hubs like Chicago and New York—embraced the Expedition System as protection against brutal winters. In the late aughts, the fleece was a staple among high school and college students, the focal point in an outfit of leggings and Uggs. In 2010, when I was in the seventh grade, I petitioned my parents to take me to Dick’s Sporting Goods so I could invest in my own Denali fleece. My yearning for the jacket had nothing to do with its technical qualities or connection to athletes and everything to do with the fact that all of the cool middle school girls were wearing it.
Although he doesn’t know the exact number of North Face fleeces in circulation, Bantle says it’s a top performer for the brand. In addition to the Denali, Bantle oversees other products from the North Face that have been in circulation for decades, including the Himalayan parka, and the Nuptse and Mountain Lite jackets. He says that if the brand were audited over a 20-year period, the Denali would be its top-selling fleece. This, along with the fact that the North Face is one of the largest outdoor brands in the world, makes Bantle “willing to bet that the Denali is the best-selling fleece of all time.”
The midlayer’s enduring prevalence is due to a confluence of factors, some obvious and others hazy.
One reason is the brand’s reputation for producing long-lasting, high-quality gear. This is built on the fandom of countless consumers, like Lei Takanashi is a New York–based writer and collector of vintage North Face gear. Takanashi’s hobby is fueled by his penchant for fashion and streetwear, not a desire to get outfitted for outdoor activities. “I mean, I like to go hiking,” he says with a chuckle. His introduction to the brand was facilitated by the North Face’s collaboration with streetwear brand Supreme in 2007, and via Instagram, where he admired New York graffiti artists and rappers wearing the vintage gear. As his interest deepened, Takanashi was struck not just by the aesthetics of the garments but by the quality, too: Even on 30-year-old jackets, the zippers still work perfectly. The Gore-Tex continues to repel rain, though it might need a little DWR treatment.
Relaunches, like the recent revival of the 1995 Denali, also maintain the brand’s high caliber of quality while creating new buzz around a product. At several points throughout the fleece’s existence, the North Face worked with Supreme to produce the jacket in bright colors for limited-edition runs. Most recently, the 1995 version was relaunched in September 2019.
“There might be small details here and there that they aren’t going to get with a retro release, but most of the time, they do it pretty damn well,” Takanashi says.
The North Face doesn’t always pull it off though. Last year the brand re-released the 1994 Mountain Light jacket. Despite his interest in the brand’s vintage garments, Takanashi wasn’t compelled to purchase it due to the fact that the revamped version’s fabric didn’t replicate the unique sheen of the original.
The Denali fleece in particular isn’t a hot commodity in the hardcore collecting community, Takanashi says, mostly because it’s always been available. But that doesn’t mean its aesthetic isn’t appealing to a wider audience. The jacket’s color-blocked design is functional in origin—high contrast and visibility are essential in the mountains—but also offers a pared-down cool when worn on the street.
The reemergence of the Denali fleece has coincided with another trend: the ascendance of gorpcore. Coined by Jason Chen in The Cut in 2017, gorpcore refers to the cross-pollination of utilitarian outerwear and high fashion. Marc Richardson, a fashion writer and photographer, sees the trend as a modern, antiestablishment reaction to the fashion industry, similar to how normcore’s blandness was a response to the trend of overwrought, label-obsessed clothes in the early 2010s. According to Richardson, gorpcore similarly represents eschewing the latest fashion collection for a combination of functional pieces. “I’m gonna put together this North Face fleece and those Patagonia shorts and those chunky New Balance sneakers in a way that’s stylish,” Richardson explains.
The vintage aesthetic of the Denali fleece also contributes to its enduring allure. It appeals to modern consumers who are wary of fast fashion. While the most recent revamp of the Denali doesn’t technically qualify as vintage (it’s still a brand-new fleece), the style is still retro. Plus, some versions of the Denali are made with recycled polyester, bonus points for an eco-conscious audience.
But there’s also something ineffable about its lasting popularity. Bantle calls items like the Denali “perfect articles”—clothing that crosses a threshold of relevance and is continuously rediscovered and recontextualized by new generations. Over time, as this process is repeated, the products become iconic. Bantle compares the Denali fleece to the Levi’s 501 jean, the Dr. Martens boot, the Vans Old Skool shoe, and the Birkenstock sandal.
With each rediscovery in a new context, the Denali moves further away from its origin on the Salathé Wall. While it’s still hanging on the racks at gear shops, it can also be found in the vintage section of Urban Outfitters or sold for $1 at a thrift store in Arkansas. I asked Bantle if oversaturation was a concern. He told me that the North Face is mindful of production frequency. Ultimately, though, Bantle sees an Urban Outfitters customer’s interest in the Denali as a pathway to the next generation.
Anker, who defines himself as an optimist, is also hopeful about the prospect of the fleece being adopted by new groups, even if it’s not for its originally intended purpose. That’s because, for the mountaineer, people’s affinity for the fleece is about more than the Denali’s trendiness or technical specs. It’s about identifying with what the garment symbolizes: adventure and exploration. “For someone who’s, like, 22 and checking it out for the first time, that’s pretty special,” Anker says.
He’s not the only one who thinks that. I saw Jacob Buchanan’s Depop yesterday. He sold the pale-yellow $1 Denali fleece for $70.