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Why Fashion Brands Need to Look Beyond Big Cities for Inspiration

For decades, the West and East Coasts of the United States have been sources of inspiration for designers.

New York has comfortably settled into its role as the de facto purveyor of cool with its punk and hip-hop subcultures and trend-setting street style, while California’s laid-back attitude and a heavy hand of Hollywood glamour spark such fashion contradictions like premium denim and designer sneakers.

The fashion senses of both regions resonate with the aspirational lifestyles of Gen X, perhaps the last generation to measure success by their possessions.

But as millennials and Gen Z show how they value experiences over traditional markers of success and adulthood like home ownership, marriage and children, it might be high time for fashion to look to other regions of the country for inspiration.

New tendencies like nomadic lifestyles, wellness, spirituality and even psychedelia are all drivers in millennials’ quest to connect with the “Great Outdoors” and new cultures. “Consumers have been craving for the hippy life—for meditation, adventure travel and global exploration,” said Dhruva Tripathi, CEO of F-Trend, a fashion trend forecasting company in New Delhi, India.

The effects of these wide-sweeping, generational trends, and how they’re reshaping traditional notions of leisure, homes and careers, make for popular fodder for analysts and the slew of start-ups like Airbnb, WeWork and Uber that have served as catalysts for the new sharing economy.

This desire for freedom also culminates in the fashion millennials and Gen Z choose to wear, represented in a series of crisscrossing trends, including: utility, wider silhouettes, workwear, outdoor, unisex fashion, natural dyes, tie-dye, sustainable fabrications and performance fabrics for lifestyle.

Christopher Raeburn
Christopher Raeburn runway show WILL OLIVER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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One region in particular sums up this aesthetic and lifestyle. The Pacific Northwest serves as the utopia-like setting to some of the most game-changing companies in the world like Amazon and Nike and their young, innovative employees. There, the natural beauty of Washington’s rainforests, Oregon’s windswept shorelines and snow-capped Mt. Hood coexist with a level of intelligence and imagination that rivals Silicon Valley.

And as a result, the fashion to come out from that corner of the U.S. is a hybrid of outdoor adventurer and hoodie-wearing CEO.

“Casual sportswear is such a big dimension of the men’s wear business,” said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director for The Doneger Group, a New York City-based fashion forecasting and strategies firm. With the importance of suiting diminishing even among high-level executives in the creative and technology fields, she said designers “understand that there is an opportunity to capitalize on a look that’s progressive and innovative and that will capture a wider range of consumers.”

The Pacific Northwest look, Morrison described, is grounded with garments like plaid shirts, utility vests and pants, puffer vests, polar fleece tops and CPO shirt jackets. The trend is elevated from the basic hipster uniform through the addition of functional details pulled from the hiking and mountaineering spaces like cargo pockets, carabiner closures and power cords.

street style
Fleece meets tie-dye REX/Shutterstock

For men, the look consists of relaxed, loose fits, nature-inspired patterns and “active rustic” colors like orange and gray, Tripathi said. Materials, he added, skew toward traditional suede, faux leather, organic cotton and linen, while denim favors classic blue and earth colors like rust, brown and olive. The trend is softer for women, Morrison noted, with fabric blends that include Tencel and garments like jackets and tops accented with puffed sleeves.

The popularity of Dad jeans, Tripathi added, is connected to this new, nomadic outdoor life. “We see this trend as an extension to the comfort and utility trend,” he said.

The spike in ecru denim is another indicator of the au natural look catching on in the mainstream, but Morrison said fabric development is where the real opportunities lie ahead for denim brands. Workwear details and Sherpa linings add a rugged element to basic denims, but she urged brands to develop denim fabrics with outdoor performance qualities like moisture-wicking, temperature regulating and durability.

Copenhagen street style
Copenhagen street style REX/Shutterstock

Performance denim is part of Denim Dudes’s forecast for 2020, which highlighted the importance of utility details like D-rings, top-stitching and oversized cargo pants. Denim Dudes also sees tie-dye and references to camping and outdoor gear remaining strong for spring, while items like knit indigo base layers and indigo fur take shape for fall/winter.

Off the grid

The outdoor trend may also be an example of how fashion and politics mix, especially as the aesthetic steps away from the Northwest corridor and becomes more rural in feeling.

F-Trend aligns the rise of outdoor fashion with the ascent of President Trump, particularly his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan seen on red baseball caps across America. Good or bad, the polarizing tagline has shone a spotlight on the various ways that consumers define American culture.

“The interpretation of nationalism is getting shaped and defined differently,” Tripathi said.

It doesn’t hurt to have influential cultural and fashion figures like Kanye West—who frequently wore the hat in 2018, and again during a January 2019 visit to the Oval Office—sporting your slogan. To some extent, West personifies the trend with his business and fashion moves, including the $42.99 insulated Dickies zip-up jacket, white T-shirt and Yeezy combat boots he wore to the 2019 Met Gala.

Kanye West
Kanye West in Dickies at the 2019 Costume Institute Benefit Broadimage/Shutterstock

A year after hosting an album listening party at a Wyoming ranch in 2018—commemorated with a collection of hoodies and tees adorned with images of mountains—West purchased his own $14 million 4,000-acre ranch outside of Cody, Wyo. At Fast Company’s Innovation Festival in New York earlier this month, West laid out plans to move Yeezy’s headquarters from Calabasas, Calif. to the rural compound, where he also plans to produce sustainable footwear components.

West’s interest in rural fashion has also landed him hot water. In 2018, Jordan Outdoor Enterprises, the owner of Realtree camouflage license, filed a copyright infringement suit against Yeezy Apparel, claiming its protected pattern appears on a several Yeezy garments from various seasons, including a bomber jacket, long-sleeve shirt, sweatpants and thigh-high boots.

The print, which is available for licensing for everything from formal attire and sunglasses, to pet products and home, has spawned a crop of successful collections in the streetwear space, including the trend-setting 2017 collaboration between Supreme and Hanes. The co-branded collection offered up men’s tagless T-shirts and boxer briefs in Realtree’s Woodbine print. FairPlay, Stussy and Nike each jumped on the Realtree bandwagon with their own iterations of the nature-inspired print.

In fashion, Tripathi said this political influence and heightened sense of nationalism translates to camouflage, traditional prints, an earthy color palette and Native American styling. Western fashion is beginning to flex its muscle here, too, with sartorial influences coming from ranchers and cowboys. Key details include leather and patch pockets on the front and back of garments, he added.

The runway has been home to Western fashion influences for several seasons, notably with Raf Simon’s debut Fall 2017 collection for Calvin Klein. Simon’s minimalist interpretation of Western wear—i.e. colorful cotton or satin button-down shirts, trousers and cowboy boots with metal toe caps—continued for several collections as Canadian tuxedos and jean jackets with Americana-inspired photo-real prints. Similarly, Supreme captured a cowboy spirit with its Spring/Summer 2017 work jacket with a print of a rancher riding his horse.

Calvin Klein Denim
F/W 2017 Calvin Klein Rodin Banica/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

The maestro of American fashion, Ralph Lauren, recently hit this nail on the head in the styling and marketing for its 2018 collaboration with British skate label, Palace. The men’s collection, which consisted of buffalo plaid zip-up jackets, corduroy sets, deconstructed flannel shirts and horse-print trousers, launched with a campaign set in the rural West, complete with horses leaping over Palace-branded drag racing cars. This season, Lee and skate brand Alife aimed to recreate that magic with their own take on co-branded cowboy streetwear.

On a more mainstream level, the ranch hand-inspired trend opens up opportunities for heritage denim brands to revisit archival designs. In March, Wrangler launched the Icons Collection, which included reissued styles like the men’s 11MWZ jean, a jean that was designed to fit over a cowboy boot, and the men’s 27MW western shirt and 27WW women’s western shirt.

New York street style also took a turn toward western styling this year with suede fringe jackets, authentic denim and cowboy boots trending. Levi’s, All Saints, Reformation, Zara and more have churned out iterations of suede or faux-suede fringe jackets for women. The cowboy boot, too, has been given a modern makeover with minimalist two-tone designs by Ganni and Vetements, slouchy versions by Tamara Mellon and a logo-covered take by Off-White.

street style
New York street style ANDREW MORALES/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, this spring Levi’s Made & Crafted line sourced design inspiration from the Southwest, blending denim with handcrafted artisan details like beading, embroidery and leather rope belts. The brand touted two-tone 501 skinny jeans that mimicked the look of cowboy chaps and a denim corset top with unfinished hems. Last week, Kim Kardashian West stepped out in a sleek interpretation by Burberry—a puffed-sleeve denim corset top and skinny jeans worn under blue leather chaps.

Kim Kardashian West
Kim Kardashian West in Burberry Broadimage/Shutterstock

What’s next?

Where the next big trend will be born is anyone’s guess, but utility, outdoor and workwear all remain part of the forecast for seasons to come. Soft utility was present on the Spring 2020 runway, with labels like Tibi and Alberta Ferretti showcasing workwear-inspired denim, cargo joggers, jumpsuits and relaxed iterations of safari jackets.

At Kingpins Amsterdam in October, Amy Leverton and Samuel Trotman of Denim Dudes, shared how a new generation of “eco warriors” like Greta Thunberg is rousing the world’s attention about environmental neglect and leading brands to look at how they can be inspired by nature while helping to sustain it. They described how natural dyes and earthy color palettes will ground loose and languid  travel-friendly silhouettes for Spring/Summer 2021.

And perhaps, the inspiration will become more global as designers reimagine traditional weaves, dye techniques and patterns from all parts of the world. Leverton added that these motifs offer a chance for brands to shine a spotlight on where they manufacture.

“If you’re making in Pakistan, why not embrace the craft from there?” she said.