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Could Outdoor Styling Be the New Athleisure?

Few trends have taken the retail world by storm quite like athleisure. Nearly a decade into the obsession with active-inspired garments reinvented for everyday wear, the movement’s popularity is still growing.

And now, outdoor brands have recognized a potential opening to bring their products to more consumers, utilizing the same formula.

At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, brands debuted their forthcoming spring collections. When it came to apparel, familiar silhouettes like leggings and tailored, fitted pullovers dominated the space.

Updated with new colors, enhanced performance materials and utilitarian details, the looks nonetheless displayed an attention to modern, contemporary design aesthetics not often associated with outdoor gear.

The stylization of outdoor may not represent a true deviation from the category’s intended purpose, however. Instead, the mainstreaming of adventure-ready styles signals an increased openness to connecting with the natural world.

“There’s certainly a cultural shift or trend that’s been happening over the course of the past few years, and even more apparent today, around just the everyday person wanting to experience more,” said Jason Israel, creative director of performance for The North Face.

Consumers’ newfound desire to get out—whether on a technical hike, or just a walk around the neighborhood—is a direct reaction against the constant connectedness of modern society, he said. “Being plugged in and so busy and inundated by your phone, your inbox, the office, social media. People are wanting to step away and take a breath,” he added.

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Therein lies the need for versatility, Israel explained. City dwellers might not have the same opportunities to connect with nature as their suburban or rural counterparts, but everyone seeks the comfort of getting back to nature, even in small ways.

“Life is just becoming more and more digitized, not just in the way we work and complete tasks but also in the way we communicate and have relationships,” agreed Cotton Inc.’s senior trend forecaster, Jenna Caccavo.

She explained that as technology’s vice grip tightens, “there will be more and more of a need to escape, and create tangible connections with nature and people.”

The outdoor aesthetic, Caccavo said, is just the way that this mentality is being reflected in styling and fashion.

The trend is manifesting is in casualized, wearable styles that easily transition “from street to mountain,” said Ashlee Peterson, PR coordinator for Mountain Hardwear.

“With athleisure being such a big thing, it’s super easy to pull influence from outdoor,” she said of the consumer’s evolving interest in these new, hybridized styles.

“We started out as a brand for climbers, but we as a brand reflected recently and said, what are our values? We’re definitely technical, but we do see a lot of value in making things really versatile and cross-functional.”

For the Bay Area-based company, that means bringing in modern shapes and silhouettes, along with color palettes more aligned with contemporary fashion apparel.

“There is an element of needing to keep up with trends, and with consumer needs and wants,” Peterson said. “So we’re doing things like unconventional cuts in women’s pants. Rather than slim, ankle-fitting styles, we’re playing with wide cuts.”

Peterson said using the same technical fabrics the brand is known for lends functionality to these more trend-forward pieces.

Mountain Hardwear is also working on a line of shirts featuring graphics designed by a handful of chosen artists, all printed on organic cotton. The whimsical, eye-catching prints set the line apart from the brand’s more function-focused gear.

The North Face’s Israel agreed the space is going through a somewhat inevitable metamorphosis, where consumers have come to expect more than performance-driven design.

“When people hear hiker they often think of wide-brimmed hats, zip-off pant shorts, khaki colors and looser, unflattering fits—but the reality is, the space has totally changed,” Israel said. For the modern consumer, style is always a factor, he added. “You can have the most advanced product in the world, but if people don’t enjoy the way they look wearing it, they won’t wear it.”

That realization has allowed Israel and his design team new freedom to experiment, and it’s a challenge they’ve embraced.

“It allows us to infuse a new perspective and approach, to cater to people’s needs and use applications. There starts to be an interesting line between technical and versatile; functionality versus style,” he said.

When asked about the largest growth demographics for the space, Israel said women are making up a large contingent of the brand’s latest converts.

“A lot of the research tends to skew more heavily on the women’s side, which is fantastic,” he added, noting that outdoor brands have historically been positioned as more male-focused. “It feels refreshing and relevant in today’s society to really make sure that we’re addressing the needs of all,” Israel said.

One of spring 2020’s standout styles is the women’s Arque jacket, which is built with the brand’s signature Futurelight material. Made from nanospun, 100 percent recycled nylon and polyester, the jacket’s lightweight waterproof shell keeps wearers safe from the elements.

But the Arque is also representative of Israel’s team’s evolving design aesthetic.

“From a silhouette perspective, it feels modern, relevant, youthful and sophisticated,” he said of the jacket’s slightly cropped, asymmetrical hem. “It was built with covert functionality, to suit their needs when they’re outside pushing it. But they can also wear it in their everyday life.”

The brand is also bringing back a revamped version of its signature Denali fleece—specifically, the 1995 iteration. Capitalizing on ‘90s nostalgia has been a fail-safe move for fashion brands of late, and now The North Face is trying its hand at the trend.

“We look at the trends or styles that are deeply rooted in the brand’s DNA, and start building around them so that they feel modern and fresh,” Israel said.

When asked whether outdoor brands are likely to deviate from performance-ready materials in favor of other fabrics, Cotton Inc.’s Caccavo said they are unlikely to stray far.

“I don’t think that true outdoor apparel brands will abandon performance fabrics, as I don’t necessarily think that that is something that true performance and active brands did when athleisure really took off,” she said.

Instead, Caccavo said, outdoor brands will likely add select styles to their line that are lighter on functional features. Outdoor styling is coming into vogue now, she said, but brands will not risk “abandoning their core customers to appease a perhaps fleeting customer.”

She also sees an opportunity for mass market and fast fashion to capitalize on the trend. Those brands “will almost solely be designing and offering garments that visually meet the trend, but do not actually have function and performance,” Caccavo said.

She pointed to the utility trend that promises to sweep apparel this fall as an area where fashion and function could collide. Pieces like cargo and camo pants, jackets and vests could be ripe for outdoor-ready interpretations, along with accessories and bags. Small details like snaps and closures add flare to those silhouettes.

Peterson agreed that outdoor is ready to incorporate contemporary styling elements into its repertoire, instead of reinventing the same products using more advanced materials.

“We can be a little more playful—or as we like to say at Mountain Hardwear, ‘seriously playful.’ We make things that go to Everest but they don’t have to be boring or bland. It can be fun, it can be lifestyle, it can be urban,” Peterson said.

“An outdoor product used to look, sound and feel like an outdoor product. But we can start to blur those lines now,” Israel said, adding that The North Face is actively working to subvert the historical context and vision for outdoor products. “We can start to be more expressive with our silhouettes. We can start to mash up and combine these technologies and innovations, but do it in softer, more approachable ways.”

The result is already gripping the hearts and wallets of new consumers, who are buying pieces with the intent of wearing them throughout their daily lives.

“And all of the sudden, there starts to be this acceptance and relevancy for outdoor products in places that aren’t just on the top of the mountain,” Israel said.