How outerwear and workwear became fashion must-haves again, led by ’90s favourite The North Face

Collaborations with high-fashion and streetwear labels have helped brands known for rugged, practical clothing to develop more fashion-forward lines

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 November, 2017, 7:18pm

Sooner or later everything comes back into vogue, and that applies to The North Face, the American outerwear specialist that is now enjoying popularity to rival that of its 1990s heyday.

The brand, famed for its tough Gore-Tex jackets, has seen its outerwear and workwear labels broaden their specialist appeal into the mass market.

Outerwear brands such as Columbia Sportswear, Patagonia, and Kathmandu, workwear brands like Carhartt and Woolrich, and smaller independent outerwear labels such as Poler and Topo, are now must-haves for fashion-conscious urban dwellers.

Back in the ’90s, The North Face’s crossover appeal owed much to hip-hop music, with its clothes adopted and name-checked in songs by New York-based artists like Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan and The Notorious B.I.G.

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Today, The North Face and other outerwear and workwear brands have been able to transfer their clothing from the outdoors to the cities with the help of key collaborations with high-fashion, streetwear and conceptual labels.

“We recognise that ‘outdoor’ means much more than just ‘mountains’,” says Tim Sedo, senior brand manager for Asia-Pacific at The North Face’s more fashion-oriented division, Urban Exploration.

“[We] have taken steps to speak more explicitly to our urban-based consumers, who demand the technical benefits found in all The North Face products but also seek a more fashion-forward aesthetic.”

In recent seasons, The North Face has collaborated with the likes of Japanese avant-gardists Sacai, Junya Watanabe and Mastermind, as well as producing over a decade with streetwear label du jour Supreme. The company also has a highly sought-after sub brand in Japan, dubbed Purple Label. This is designed in collaboration with Japanese company Nanamica.

Carharrt has worked with A.P.C. and Vetements, Columbia has linked up with Opening Ceremony and Kith, while Patagonia has created capsule collections with Reformation.

The benefits of collaboration are clear for outerwear brands looking to capture new consumers. Streetwear labels and designers are also able to raise their own visibility as well as work with technical fabrics and offer garments outside their typical offerings.

Honma Masaaki, the founder and creative director of Mastermind, says when The North Face approached his label “we had actually been thinking about a possible collaboration with them, so it was good timing”.

Although outwardly from two very different categories, Masaaki saw parallels between Mastermind and The North Face because “they also concentrate on quality and craftsmanship”, but ultimately he liked the brand because “their origin is outdoor gear”.

“Honma Masaaki was on board from day one and the process was very smooth,” says Sedo of the Mastermind-The North Face collaboration.

Mastermind married its timeless style, graphics and cool with The North Face’s industry-leading protective technology and signature pieces, Sedo adds.

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The success of The North Face and other outerwear and workwear labels, particularly through their collaborations with fashion houses, is also influencing high fashionParkas, backpacks, camouflage and hi-tech fabrics have all been key components of collections from the likes of Valentino, Dries Van Noten, Hermes and dozens of others.

In contrast to the ’90s boom for outerwear, the current appetite for labels like The North Face is here to stay, Sedo believes, and will only grow in the future, especially as the climate becomes more unpredictable.

“As the world’s population grows overwhelming urban, outwear and technical wear brands are best suited and positioned to address the new environmental challenges that urbanites face,” he says.