The Rise of Retro | How Outdoor Clothing Got Cool And Conquered Fashion
What's behind the retro trend? We speak to three people working in the outdoors industry
You’ve seen them, haven’t you? Hanging about on city street corners, propping up bars in local hipster joints, and staring off into the distance on your Instagram feeds; all moody and poetic like. Yes, there they all are; the movers, the shakers, the twenty-something trendsetters. Wearing waterproof jackets your Dad wore in the 90s, wearing fleeces your Grandad wore in the 70s, wearing footwear that couldn’t be more 1985 if it was beamed in directly from an episode of Stranger Things. And these people, they’re wearing this stuff not on the trails, or in the woods, or in fields but on the high street seemingly as a fashion statement. The outdoors, it feels, has never been so “cool.”
“The world in 2019 is a scary, anxiety-inducing, place that, like an abusive partner, has driven us back into the arms of an old flame”
Over the last few years, we’ve seen a pop culture shift to the old school. In 2018, for example, 4.2 million vinyl albums were sold in the UK. This, by the way, was 100,000 more vinyl albums than were sold in 2017 (as a point of comparison, CD sales fell by 23% in the same period). Throw in the strength of sales in the real, go on touch it, made-of-actual-paper book market and the current love-in for nostalgic, old school, football shirts which often retail for triple figure sums and it makes sense that the outdoors would have its own “look back, to go forward” moment.
But what’s behind the rise of the retro? Why are we suddenly so keen to turn away from the modern? From the sci-fi futuristic? Why are we finding so much comfort in the familiar aesthetics of yesteryear? It’s a game of supply and demand, always has always will, and so it’s clear that most brands are just reflecting our own desires back at us.
My own theory, formulated in a pub one Friday after one too many beers , is that the world in 2019 is a scary, anxiety-inducing, place that, like an abusive partner, has driven us back into the arms of an old flame.
With all the talk of an impending environmental catastrophe at the moment, piled on top of political uncertainty and a rise in extremism, the desire to hide under the duvet of history for a bit of nostalgic escapism seems like a logical response. Is there something else going on though? I caught up with some experts in a bid to find out.
“We like coats in Manchester, probably because it’s always pissing it down”
Neil Summers is the co-editor and co-founder of Proper, a quarterly menswear magazine, website, and creative agency. Based in Manchester, Proper, which started out as a niche fanzine over a decade ago, boasts the seemingly lazy yet effortlessly cool tagline “Words and pictures about shoes and coats.”
“We wanted to do a magazine that we wanted to read,” Neil tells me over the phone, “And that’s still the case now. We won’t just put something in there for the sake of it. It has to be good. We just did a thing with Haglofs and we did it because their stuff not only looks good, but works well.”
Within minutes of talking to Neil, it becomes clear that despite what Proper mag’s so-laidback-it’s-almost-horizontal vibe would suggest, he’s actually someone with a deep-rooted enthusiasm for the subject; one that predates current trends and which stems from the geography and climate of Manchester itself.
“If they start acting cool, they’ll lose that thing that makes them cool”
“We’re lucky here, as we’re surrounded by the Peaks, and we’ve seen people wearing nice Berghaus jackets, nice outdoor jackets, round the city for years,” Neil says before adding wryly, “We like coats in Manchester, probably because it’s always pissing it down.”
When the conversation takes a turn to the retro aesthetic of new outdoor jackets, Neil (“I’m enjoying this”) gets on a roll telling me “There’s a cyclical thing with jackets and fashion, and I think we’re seeing that at the moment. The 80s was a great time for design and we’re seeing brands realise that. They’re going back to the drawing board, and getting inspired by what they’ve done before.”
As is so often the way when a couple of jacket nerds get talking about jackets, we soon start discussing our favourite brands of the moment. When I raise the fact that one outdoor brand, in particular, seem completely unaware of how cool their jackets are Neil says “I think that’s good though because, in a way, you don’t want them to realise that and start pandering to the market. They’re doing their thing and it works. If they start acting cool, they’ll lose that thing that makes them cool.
“You don’t need to climb to Everest Base Camp to have a life-affirming moment outside”
It’s the kind of analogy you might have used at secondary school when internally working out why you fancied one of the biggest geeks in your year, but it’s also one that’s hard to disagree with here. Sometimes a brand not knowing their cool, is the very thing that makes them cool.
“I think more and more people have cottoned on to the fact that walking in the outdoors is a great way to clear your head,” Neil says as our conversation nears its endpoint, “There’s that mental health side of things. You don’t need to climb to Everest Base Camp to have a life-affirming moment outside. Here in Britain, we sometimes take for granted the fact that, even in the cities, you’re never more than an hour away from some really nice countryside.”
“Dean Street, Newcastle. Where it started,” says the brand’s website description, “Mountains were never the same again. The streets neither. Inspired by the Berghaus archive, we’re bringing you some of our most iconic pieces, re-mixed for today. Original then, original now.”
“We felt the time was right to resurrect some of our iconic pieces and remind people of where we’ve come from”
James Hodgson is Head of Design at Berghaus. I was keen to speak with him to find out more about the Dean Street collection, and also to get his thoughts on the retro outdoor scene in a wider sense.
“We are currently going through a period of reinvention at the brand [Berghaus] with loads of exciting plans and big changes on the horizon,” James says, “We’re redefining our brand purpose and rediscovering our DNA which we’ll then evolve going forwards. With all this rediscovery work taking place, we felt the time was right to resurrect some of our iconic pieces and remind people of where we’ve come from. With big trends around nostalgia, we really wanted to make these iconic pieces accessible again.”
“The nice thing about a collection like this is the breadth of its appeal,” James says when the conversation shifts towards the general popularity of retro gear in relation to Dean Street, “For some it evokes great feelings of nostalgia and days gone, be that memories of the outdoors, rave scenes of the 90s, the Manchester ‘Britpop’ era or terrace culture.
“That being said, this project is primarily for the new consumers who might be discovering Berghaus’ iconic designs for the first time. These garments still have a timeless appeal as they offer an ideal mix of genuine weather protection and comfort, with a bolder distincter style. They’re perhaps a touch more fun than the often quite serious modern outdoor gear.”
“They’re perhaps a touch more fun than the often quite serious modern outdoor gear”
When my line of questioning has James weighing up whether the old school outdoor clothing trend is just a fashion thing or something that will actually lead to an increase in outside activities, his answer is optimistic and ‘glass-half full’.
“I do hope that the wider popularity of outdoor clothing will increase the amount of time people spend in nature. Our primary purpose is to inspire and equip everyone to get outside, as the benefits to physical and mental health are well proven, “ he says, “This moment is actually quite similar to the original 90s boom where people wanted functional and stylish clothing for general everyday outside use, it’s just that this time around there’s less time spent queueing in car parks for raves.”
“It’s always been cool, but certainly more people have caught on to that than ever before,” he replies, when I ask him whether this is the ‘coolest’ the outdoors has ever been, “The overall wellness trend, increasing popularity of extreme sports like climbing and mountain biking, and positive attention from the luxury fashion brands have all contributed to that.
“My hope is that Dean Steet can encourage or inspire some more people to embrace the outdoors and continue this positive momentum. I think the true outdoors is seen by some groups as inaccessible or elitist, and we are working on ways to encourage everyone to get out there and enjoy it in their way.”
“I think popular culture has had quite a big part to play in the shift”
When I put this exact same ‘cool’ question to Will Renwick, office colleague and editor of Outdoors Magic, his answer underlines to me just how much and how quickly the scene has changed in terms of its ‘coolness’ rating. His response to the question also shines a spotlight on the undoubted effect that social media’s pull has had on everything.
“It was only six years ago when I first started out as an outdoors writer, but still, back then hiking and camping definitely didn’t seem like a cool thing to be into. It was a bit beardy and not even in a hipster way,” he tells me, “I think popular culture has had quite a big part to play in the shift. ‘Into The Wild’ [the film starring Emile Hirsch] tapped into something for a lot of people, then we had ‘Wild’ [starring Reese Witherspoon] and more recently ‘Free Solo’, which must be the most successful outdoor-focused film ever made.
“Then, of course, there’s Instagram. Epic landscape shots and an ‘adventure’ theme do well on the app and that’s clearly got to have influenced a few people to head out into the hills.”
As someone who undoubtedly got into the outdoors for the love of being outside, rather than because it was the ‘thing’ to do; the ‘thing’ to look like you were into, I was curious to know what Will thought was behind the industry’s regular indulgence of the old-school, retro, aesthetics and why he thought the general public craved a slice of it.
“When it comes to the enthusiasm for retro outdoor stuff, I think the classic image of a rambler has something to do with that,” he says, “We tend to think of someone with red-laced boots, big woolly socks, a brightly coloured anorak and a polyester fleece. A few years ago that wasn’t seen as a good look, but now it’s cool. I guess trends often start out in a kind of ironic way. I don’t know – I’m a hiking journalist, not a fashion writer!”
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