Gone are the days of hiking, cycling or trekking around outdoors without a sense of style. The outdoor industry is undoubtedly having a moment, and brands across the spectrum are shifting gears to deliver fashionable performance apparel for the trail and beyond.
Twenty percent of consumers are spending more time outdoors since the onset of COVID-19, including those new to the outdoors, according to a U.S. survey conducted earlier this year by public relations firm CGPR. And in a separate report by McKinsey & Co., researchers said 90 percent of those new to the outdoors plan to continue the activity once the virus subsides.
McKinsey noted that outdoor activities such as hiking are up 15 percent, and park visits — inclusive of national parks and official public gardens — were up 68 percent in mid-June, according to data from U.S. Google Community Mobility Report.
The takeaway is that new consumers are getting outside, and the market is loving it: As established and emerging fashion brands introduce performance lines and outerwear into their collections, outdoor brands are taking design a step further to cater to this sparkling new, style-savvy shopper.
Chris Hufnagel, global brand president at Merrell, an outdoor footwear and apparel company, told WWD that participation in “outdoor activities has increased in 2020 as people have discovered (or rediscovered) what Merrell calls ‘the simple power of being outside.’ Many outdoor brands are seeing success due to consumers seeking outdoor experiences to help them gain a sense of normalcy and joy during an extraordinary year.”
“Outdoor footwear and apparel are continuing to trend in the fashion space. We’re expanding our offerings to reach the next generation of everyday outdoor consumers,” the brand said.
Perhaps the recent changes in style is a direct reflection of a value shift — and these days, shoppers are dressing more “outdoorable.” Erik Burbank, chief brand officer at Keen, told WWD, “The trend toward outdoor as a fashion influence has been building for years, as consumers look to capture the authenticity, functionality, and performance of ‘outdoor’ in their look.”
“Designers have started recognizing this, which has led to collaborations between iconic brands, such as the one we recently did with the Jerry Garcia family, where we created limited editions of our classic Newport sandal and Uneek sneakers in designs inspired by Jerry’s art and values. This co-mingling between brands has been a trend for a number of years. Consumers identify with what we call ‘the great outside’ because they aspire for a healthier, more active and authentic outside lifestyle.”
Burbank, too, acknowledged that outdoor participation has drastically accelerated since the onset of COVID-19. “We’re seeing an entirely new group of consumers that are either rediscovering the simple joy of hiking, or trying it for the first time — and we don’t mean climbing Everest or going for two- and three-day hikes in the backcountry. Consumers are walking in their neighborhoods, hiking to their local tourist destinations, or visiting a local park as part of a day trip.”
What shoppers really want is to be able to enjoy the moment and celebrate life outside, Burbank explained. “It’s a simple and effective way to unwind, and recharge both physically and emotionally. People are discovering hiking and time outside to be a powerful antidote to the unforgiving news cycle.”
FROM THE TRAIL TO THE RUNWAY
Even high fashion has looked toward outdoor for trends, with couture houses such as Gucci, and more recently, Valentino, nodding to the aesthetic of Keen’s original Uneek sandal in their recent collections. The brand decidedly received this as a supremely high compliment.
Burbank told WWD, “[It’s] pretty cool that the outdoor space we’ve been dedicated to is continuing to grow in relevance. More people are appreciating the outdoors, which we hope will lead to securing more support and protection for our playgrounds and planet.”
“We are humbled to be in the company of iconic brands such as Gucci and Valentino. It was very cool to see! [There’s no] question that the pace of ’trail to the runway’ is going to be front-and-center for a long time to come,” he added.
And as more and more shoppers head outdoors, heritage brands such as Wrangler responded with a performance-focused line called ATG (that’s All Terrain Gear), designed for casual daily wear and “outdoor adventures” — and its approach to the category is wholly unique.
Danny Brisby, director of Design, Outdoor and Workwear Categories at Wrangler, told WWD, “Wrangler is a brand that was born in the dirt, with both work and play being a strong spirit of the brand. This strong history of creating apparel that stands up to extreme outdoor sports like bull riding and rodeo created a perfect foundation to expand into a casual outdoor line.”
“Wrangler designers took what they already know about creating long-lasting garments and conducted multiple rounds of testing and research to address other key pain points of normal outdoor gear. The venture into creating functional, versatile, authentic outdoor apparel has taken us from cotton jeans into performance fabrics with high-stretch, wick, UPF and water-resistant properties.” Brisby added that sustainability is also a major focus and driving force of how the brand creates its products, and that Wrangler is “making choices based on the impacts our products have on the environment and the people who produce them.”
The brand said it was only natural to expand into women’s, too, after its men’s line was so immediately successful. “We have been tracking trends in outdoor functional product for quite some time now. The account and consumer response to the launch of the men’s ATG line in fall 20 was so phenomenal that it made perfect sense to expand into a women’s line as well for spring 2021. Our focus has always been making the outdoors accessible to everyone and expanding our line to offer women functional apparel from a trusted brand was an easy decision.”
Wrangler said shoppers’ newfound appreciation for the outdoors ignited the idea for ATG — and the circumstances that arose from COVID-19 simply created more momentum. “The ATG line offers casual, performance-based apparel that has become increasingly popular over the years as a crossover option between every day and outdoor adventures. Due to this trend and seeing a resurgence of engagement in outdoor activities, we were already designing and developing this product before COVID-19,” he explained.
“We observed many categories like equipment, cycles, footwear and apparel experience increased sales before and after the pandemic. We are confident that as the world returns to normal, these upticks in sales will continue to grow as it appears that consumers have a newfound appreciation of outdoor experiences due to this global crisis. We expect to see much more engagement and interest in exploring the world outdoors.”
And our friends up north seem to agree. Fashion brand Hilary MacMillan, a sustainable women’s apparel company based in Canada, said it’s expanding its outerwear business and experimenting with fashionable, functional pieces for shoppers spending more time outdoors who don’t want to compromise style.
“We are definitely growing our outerwear business, it is a strong category for us,” MacMillan, founder and designer of her brand, told WWD. “Each season we dedicate our efforts to design interesting outerwear pieces for a women’s wardrobe. A great example of this is our fall 2020 winter trench, aka the Reversible Trench.”
The Reversible Trench, a vegan leather and faux-fur reversible trenchcoat, was inspired by the pandemic and designed as a sustainable solution for enduring warmth and style. The brand’s Faux Leather Puffer is another standout in the collection. “COVID-19 has seen so many of us spending more time outside and our outerwear is the cornerstone to our style expression in these expanded outdoor spaces. We also wanted to build variety and enhanced functionality into our collection, which is increasingly important to our consumer. So, creating outerwear which provides style, variety and warmth is most certainly a growth point in our coming seasons.”
MacMillan added that COVID-19 positively influenced its operations, even though the brand was already focused on using sustainable materials, cruelty-free fabrics and rooted in eco-friendly practices. “To minimize our global impact, we produce in small order runs, reducing as much waste as possible and keeping as much manufacturing as we can within Canada. We have also reevaluated our studio production capacity and processes to reduce unnecessary logistics waste. We still acknowledge that we, and the industry as a whole, can do better.”
The designer told WWD that COVID-19 has been “a type of reckoning” within the fashion industry. “We have an opportunity to further reduce waste as we rewire and disrupt the traditional fashion schedule. We see a very positive push to open opportunities for smaller brands from lower production minimums and improved access to fabric technology. It’s a very exciting time and our main goal is to become more and more sustainable through improved tracing and further understanding of our garments from fiber to end of life.”
FROM FOREST TO FASHION
Outdoor is rooted in fashion and sustainability. Fabric solutions such as Gore-Tex’s waterproof breathable product technologies have been a staple in fashion for many years, while PrimaLoft has supplied high-quality insulations (some of which are biodegradable) for sustainable brand Everlane and luxury companies such as Goldwin and Herno. Or consider Vibram’s sustainable Italian-made footwear and branded rubber soles that are key to the outdoor category, and are used by more than 1,000 footwear manufacturers worldwide.
And technology is perhaps the most effective mediator between fashion, outdoor and sustainability, as fashion and outdoor brands can look to nature itself as a guide for conveying origin, transparency and traceability to the end-consumer.
Fiber firm Birla Cellulose offers a technology that allows consumers to see the forests from where its wood is sourced, providing a “complete end-to-end visibility of forest to fashion.” Its blockchain-enabled traceability platform, GreenTrack, was introduced in early 2019, and now, in partnership with Sappi Ltd., the largest supplier of dissolving pulp, the technology has expanded its capabilities to map 100 percent of its forest sources.
Birla Cellulose said the collaboration is “one more step toward our commitment for building a fully transparent supply chain and creating visibility to the sustainably managed forests, that are among the most important aspect of responsibly produced viscose.” Its platform tracks orders, shipments (of actual material flow), live tracking of material and several value-added features, such auto-generation of transaction certificates, the easing of quality management efforts and business analytics, the brand said.
Since its inception, GreenTrack has been used to trace and track material flow in the fashion value chain and is being used by more than 20 leading global brands, retailers and their respective supply chain partners globally, the brand said, adding that its platform handles thousands of ‘live’ transactions and has a potential to reach millions of shoppers worldwide. And, end-consumers can be active participants in the process by inquiring about traceability through QR codes on their garment tags.
“Expanding the capability of the GreenTrack platform and our collaboration with Sappi to provide the visibility of sustainably managed forests from where the wood was sourced, would help the sustainability-focused consumers, brands and retailers to make a more informed buying decision,” said Mukul Agrawal, chief sustainability officer at Birla Cellulose.
“This initiative simplifies the verification of sustainability of complete supply chain, from forest to retail, validation of which otherwise would be a cumbersome process involving compilation of many certifications and manual tracking of the material in a long complex value chain.”
Agrawal added, “Traceable and transparent supply chains are integral stepping stones to providing brand owners and consumers with the confidence that their products originate from sustainable and renewable sources of wood, free from deforestation, where biodiversity is promoted — and customary, traditional or civil rights of people are upheld.”
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