Huey Lewis said it best: it’s hip to be square.
As high-end outdoors gear has a moment, it’s easy to forget that cool tech apparel isn’t all just Frank in Arc’teryx and Mammut. There’s an entire world of techwear out there – and in fact, some of the coolest garments on the planet come from places that never meant to make them.
Outdoors brands that don't orbit the typical style radar might even be called “anti-fashion,” but in a fashion moment where “ugly chic” is considered tame, names like Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean have rejoined the conversation in a big way.
Looking to up your street style with outfits never meant for pavement? Here are all the anti-fashion outdoors brands making unexpected heat.
While it might be known as dad wear today, Seattle-based Eddie Bauer boasts a long and impressive history of outdoors innovation. Eddie Bauer (the man) quite literally invented the down jacket in 1936. He’s also credited with outfitting the first American expedition to K2 (1953) and the first American climber to summit Mount Everest (1963).
But focuses changed. In 1968, Bauer (the man) left Bauer (the brand). Slowly but surely, Eddie Bauer turned its attention from the wilderness to the lawn. Eddie Bauer camping shirts. Eddie Bauer Ford vans. A controlling interest by cereal maker General Mills. Under the steady guidance of Count Chocula, the storied brand – once known for its extreme adventure gear – became famous for its jeans.
And yet, it’s precisely this blend of sincere devotion turned into try-hard commercialism that makes EB the ultimate anti-fashion cool kid. What other brand has made such guileless strides?
The Met recently celebrated the “success in certain passionate failures.” Balenciaga has made irony a creative direction. In the midst of it all, Kanye West is spotted rocking vintage Eddie Bauer. It’s hard to get more camp than America’s beloved mountaineering-to-minivans brand.
Marmot is a funny brand. It’s worn by elite athletes. It’s worn by doddering hikers. It’s worn by no one in between. And, oh, by the way – it’s named after the “whistle pig.”
Founded by two University of California students, who made prototypes in their dorm, Marmot came to life in 1974. Though slightly younger than rivals The North Face (1968) and Patagonia (1973), Marmot is distinct among ’70s US outdoors brands, known for its radical performance focus. It's the oldest GORE-TEX customer in the outdoor market and its ultralight tents and sleeping bags are considered some of the world’s best.
The hardcore backpackers who idolized it then are old mountain townies now. While the brand has stayed true to its intense, outdoor roots, the anti-fashion peaks with the old-school gear. Retro Marmot jackets – like the kind Opening Ceremony reimagined last winter – combine that era's gaudiest colorblocking with technologies like GORE-TEX. OG fleeces (just look at this thing) take it to a whole other level. And then there’s the infamous “Biggie.”
These days, Marmot is breaking out of its anti-fashion mold. Collabs with names like Opening Ceremony and Tokyo’s Vainl Archive have given the brand a high-end edge. The recent City Tech collection even nods to a Veilance-style future: one of sleek Schoeller parkas and $700 techwear.
Will it stick? Who’s to say. With a strong retro catalog, the future looks bright.
To quote Michael Bluth: “I don’t know what I expected.”
Mountain Hardwear is a Calfornia-based maker of performance outdoor gear. They make (wait for it) things to use on a mountain. They don’t make much else.
For those in the know, Mountain Hardwear is as much a great gearmaker as it is a values statement. Jackets like the ultralight, ultrawarm Ghost Whisperer are indeed cheaper than their Arc’teryx cousins. But they’re also more – what’s the word? – mountainous.
A Mountain Hardwear Cloud Bank is every bit as GORE-sealed and puffy-stuffed as the best transition pieces from Norrøna. One gets the impression that MH didn’t spend time chasing the “subway commute” crowd. Those people won’t be on the mountain. So who cares?
Of all the anti-fashion brands, Mountain Hardwear is perhaps the most refined. The brand’s Exposure/2 collection, for instance, even toes the line between performance and style. But unlike some of its ultra-sleek competitors, MH seems to stop short of tweaking for trends.
If that leads to bonkers color-blocked GORE Pro jackets, all the better.
From one of the rainiest cities in America comes Columbia. Founded in 1938, the brand holds the title of “oldest Portland-based sportswear provider.” They’re also, as of this September, officially in the sneaker market.
But let’s get something clear. Past all the KITH collabs, past last season’s OC tie-up, waaay past the Japan-only Black Label, Columbia is as uncool as a Portland fall. Maybe that’s just how they like it.
Columbia’s entire story to date is one of anti-fashion. Their cuts are boxy. Their fabrics are bold. Their clothing is everywhere – from Dick’s to Meijer to UBIQ. Every lever that could be pulled to make a brand cool (cut, price, distribution), Columbia seems to have ignored. And for their efforts, the brand has grown to become one of the biggest outdoor names in the US.
If normcore had an outdoor brand, it’d be Columbia.
A name is not a destiny. But if your name is Leon Leonwood Bean, and you’re born in the forests of Maine, well, you might just have to make outdoors gear.
L.L. Bean is an American outfitter famous for its simple, rugged designs. The company was founded in 1912 by L.L. himself, and began by selling a single product: the world-famous “duck boot," known then as the Maine Hunting Shoe.
Bean’s boots were as anti-fashion as it gets. A paneled leather upper. A bulbous rubber toe. On the back, a stout heel. But they worked. By Bean, did they work.
The success of the waterproof Bean Boot jumpstarted the company, and before long, L.L. Bean produced a full range of outdoor clothing. Over a century later, the brand makes everything from hardcore hiking shells to children's backpacks. The Bean Boot (now a prepster symbol) remains as popular as ever, with waitlists longer than most sneaker drops. Bean’s original duck boot’s stubborn design even inspired the YEEZY 950.
Today, L.L. Bean is best known for its woodsy, perhaps even sincere take on outdoor wear. Cuts are generous. Prices are cheap. Outside of a hunt-safe blaze orange, colors appear restrained. The function is there in spades, but even cutting-edge tech like Primaloft’s aerogel insulation goes for a fraction of the competition – in sizes up to XXL-Tall, no less. In short: it’s far from the haute outdoors trend going on in Tokyo and Seoul. And yet, that’s the charm.
A name is not a destiny, but Leon Leonwood Bean built his Maine Hunting Shoes to help turn-of-the-century outdoorsmen stay outdoors longer. 107 years later, L.L. Bean is on the same track.
Europeans will groan. Americans will shrug. In the world of outdoors brands, it’s hard to get less provocative than Jack Wolfskin. Founded in 1981, Jack Wolfskin is a German outdoors company known for its affordable, dependable tech gear.
Like GOYA and Toyota, Wolfskin belongs to that rare caste of brands that exist to make essential goods well and cheaply. Fashion? Well, it shouldn’t look dreadful. It’s just not the concern. What’s more important is a €70 fleece that stands up to the elements.
In a pleasantly Teutonic way, Jack Wolfskin is focused. There's heat to be found (the brand’s 365 Collection is particularly strong), but even standouts like the Getaway Jacket nod to this deeper ethos.
When Frank Ocean gets spotted in hardcore climbing gear, perhaps the way to make jaws drop is to not aim for that at all.
REI is the most outdoorsy an outdoors store can get and still have a roof. Founded in Seattle, Washington, Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) is a big-box retailer known for its cavernous stores, customer-owned structure, and devotion to the wild.
Famously, the company closes all its 154 stores every Black Friday to encourage would-be shoppers to “Opt Outside.” Instead of buying another Patagonia jacket – against that brand’s own Black Friday wishes, one might add – REI wants its customers to spend the day away from mall parking lots and out in nature. Especially since many of them will be wearing its gear.
In addition to stocking most big outdoors lines, REI also sells a line of decidedly anti-fashion “store brand” garments under the name REI Co-Op. Co-Op apparel is stupid cheap (rain pants for $90, GORE for $160) but it’s also designed for the rigors of the outdoors. The one thing it’s not designed for? Well, any sort of fashion.
That said, for fast fashion prices, the sheer performance of the outdoor store’s “store brand” is unbeatable. If you’re going camping tomorrow (say, at a muddy music festival), REI Co-Op is your choice today.
Two Englanders launch a brand from Newcastle. They name it in German. It travels the world. So goes the story of Berghaus, Britain’s own bastion of the backcountry.
Berghaus came to life in 1972, producing specialist gear out of a specialist outdoors store. It has since grown to become one of Europe’s most well-known gearmakers, in no small part due to its high quality and affordable prices.
To translate: Berghaus is everywhere. Take the story of REI Co-op, the positioning of Columbia, and put it on the continent keenest to travel. If there’s a tourist with a camera between you and your destination, they’re probably wearing Berghaus.
For the ultimate normcore look, the brand's unisex, oversized new-for-2019 Dean Street collection doubles down on this promise with loud colors and some seriously gossamer detailing.