Outdoors gear is made for out there. As trends take wilderness apparel from the summits to the streets, Highsnobiety is recasting a seminal part of the outdoors for its new home. Trail Mix is a wear-test series by Highsnobiety. Instead of climbing mountains, we put gear through tests that ring closer to home. Will camp shorts work for lounging around? Is a trail runner too much for a jog in the park? Each month, we’ll take on a new category, testing five pieces in the wilds of New York City to answer questions just like these.
This time, we’re piling on fleeces.
If it’s retro outdoors gear, it’s gotta be fleece. (Well, not actually.)
Though sepia-toned sherpas may dot our imagination, polyester fleece — the breathable, weather-resistant insulator we all know from that one Shia fit — is a full decade younger than GORE-TEX. When Malden Mills (now Polartec) debuted the original high-nap fleece in 1981, the cell phone was already eight years old. So why do we see the fleece as a piece of living history?
Maybe because it’s just that perfect. Breathable, weather-resistant, and even machine-washable, the classic Polartec pile fleece is a performance garment without all the pomp. Take a big sheet of fleece fabric. Add some sort of simple fastener like a zipper or snap buttons. And that’s it. No fancy coatings or Space Age membranes; only cozy brushed poly and some way to keep it on your body.
For such a simple garment, however, fleeces now have a complicated place in the outdoors. The distinctive fleece texture is made by rubbing and cutting the polyester yarns that poly fleece is made of. This abrasion leaves ragged edges that shed microplastics throughout the garments' use, and, long story short, a single fleece can put up to 250,000 fibers into the water supply during a single laundering. Solutions exist: from special wash bags to fiber-trapping balls, there are ways to reduce your fleece’s footprint.
And, once you’re mindful, fleeces are some of the most wonderful crossover pieces in the great outdoors. All that simplicity translates to a canvas for creativity, with gear brands and fashion lines alike remixing the venerable garment. With the fall chill now in the air, here’s our picks for the coziest fleeces around.
The Affordable Time Capsule
Portland’s outdoors O.G. has been churning out affordable fleeces since fleece was invented. Now, with the distance of time, those original iconic designs have found a second life as the Columbia Icons collection.
This season’s highlight is the Powder Keg Fleece ($80), a ’90s revival whose trademark drawstrings make it one of the more noticeable fleece pieces around — the Ski School print pack doesn’t hurt, either. During testing, we loved the Keg’s roomy cut and surprisingly athletic feel. Its 250g/m2 fleece puts it squarely in the middle of the fleece family tree (for those not at altitude, that’s a feature, not a bug).
Style-wise, the Powder Keg got our pick for its just plain unique take on the standard pullover snap fleece. No subtlety allowed here: it wears exactly how you’d imagine. Pair it with wide-leg pants like Dickies’ 874 or statement shorts like some bright purple Baggies for a fit that just straight explodes. As long as you bring the energy with the rest of the fit, the Powder Keg will go off.
Real Glampers Only
L.A.-based Reese Cooper channels natural inspiration through a cutting, cosmopolitan lens. The result: garments like the Sherpa Fleece ($830), a boxy jacket that’s as backcountry as it is Berghain.
While other fleeces make a statement with prints, the Cropped Sherpa expands what one can say. Metallic fasteners and a shooting-inspired shoulder patch elevate the jacket’s teddy-bear-texture with a hint of intrigue. The cropped silhouette and Rick-alike drawstrings do the rest. You wouldn’t want to take this heavy bomber outside city limits, but in case the bondage details didn’t make it clear, Reese’s fleeces are more eye candy than trail mix.
And eye candy they are. Of all the fleeces tested, this was the obvious winner for style. Walking around in it just felt cool. It performed well enough for what it was asked to do, but man oh man, did it sing as a statement piece. I paired it with black chinos, a black turtleneck, and black Hoka Bondis, going all neutral monochrome to give the Cropped Sherpa the spotlight it deserves. In the right context, it absolutely shines.
The Living Legend
The North Face’s Denali jacket is named after the highest mountain in North America. One could say it’s a top fleece. Perhaps even peak. Whatever you call it, this hallmark, nylon-reinforced zip-up is a towering presence in the outdoors.
The ’95 Retro Denali Jacket ($199) takes the now-decades-old fleece back to its roots, restoring key details like underarm zips and oversized pullers. More importantly: those roots are showing colors. The ’95 Retro Denali revives the jacket’s iconic original colorways, reclaiming what had become a suburban staple for the streets that made it famous. Polartec’s 360g/m2 classic fleece puts the Denali on the heftier side of things. Layered with a hoodie, this could be your set-up for New York winters. (Our friends in Toronto should seek another peak.)
Aesthetically, there’s little to be written that hasn't already been said. The Denali is the contrast-yoked fleece that started it all. And in TNF Lemon, it’s as ’90s as a rollerblading Carlton Banks. We loved the ’95 Retro’s bulky feel and arrow-straight silhouette, especially in Japanese-inspired “heavy duty” fits. Pair it with Salomon sneakers and a Nanga down vest for mountainous urban style.
For Bodega Runs and Above-Ground Trains
Because of its unique look and simple execution, fleece has spread far and wide in a way unlike any other outdoors tech. For an example of the paths it's blazing, look no further than Kappa’s Authentic Hike Dave ($140).
Here, the irreverent sportswear mark has remixed the details of the iconic outdoors fleece into a sleek, mixed media hoodie. The Denali’s nylon yoke drips down to form a kangaroo pouch. That big-pull chest zip? Now a translucent logo pocket. With a fabric weight between the Powder Keg and the Retro ’95, Kappa’s flipped-sideways fleece is warmer than your hoodie, but wouldn’t cut it in a snowstorm. Its highly underrated niche: the cozy szn errand-runner.
Style-wise, the Kappa wore easy and fit my wardrobe well. It is, after all, a black hoodie. Where I found myself reaching for it most was anytime I had to go “far enough” with a fall chill out. I didn’t have to think. It styled easy, matched whatever #WFH garbage I had on, and kept the cold at least six feet away. With its midweight, high-pile fleece, shorts and hoodie season can extend as long as you’ve got the guts (or are 10 blocks from home, whichever comes first).
The Fashion Snuggie
and wander is the Bigfoot of the outdoors-fashion crossover. The photos are everywhere. Your friend had a run-in. But just think: have you ever actually seen one in the wild?
One of the most coveted brands in all the outdoors, and wander is the brainchild of Keita Ikeuchi & Mihoko Mori, two Issey Miyake alums who left the famed couturier to “establish a bridge between fashion and outdoor wear.” Instead of pleated tents, they made game-changing gorp gear: collection after collection of tasteful utility clothes, garments whose ambitious prints, emblematic details, and rarity outside of Japan have made them the darling of archive Insta.
The High-Loft Wearable Blanket ($245) is one of the brand’s more bridge-establishing pieces. Made in Japan from Polartec High Loft, it wouldn’t be wrong to call this a poncho with button snaps. Just style it how you would any other drape (inspo: John Mayer’s Instagram) and let the texture do the talking. On sheer novelty alone, this shearling-alike cape was a blast to wear. But it’s not exactly practical. Exhibit A: taking it anywhere near the subway felt deeply, ineffably wrong.
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