With the great outdoors increasingly becoming a place of respite away from fast-paced consumer behaviors, a burgeoning techwear industry caters to anyone from athletes to minimalist millennials. Instigated by Slam Jam’s angle on outdoor lifestyles, this visual essay brings together image bank Organiclab.zip and radical encyclopaedia General_Index—as we look into the phenomenon’s motives, perks and shortcomings.
In the age of lockdowns, forest fires, and rising sea levels, the great outdoors have become both a cause of anxiety and a place of respite away from the fast-paced consumer lifestyles that have contributed to its downfall. For city dwellers, a hike in a national park or a dip in the ocean can cleanse the mind of the detritus left over from sped-up news cycles and oversaturated social media streams—and can help alleviate guilt, too.
The sublime power of Mother Nature has always drawn explorers, yet we no longer need to travel vast distances to experience its pull. Recent studies have shown that video games can light up the same parts of the brain that IRL adventures do, delivering both the hormonal pleasure and therapeutic effects of exploration without ever leaving home. Clothing can function similarly, enabling urbanites to pretend they are real-world adventurers by dressing the part. We see this in the popularization of outdoor shoe brands like Merrel and Hoka One One, and ever-present North Face puffers and Patagonia fleece sweaters. For many, posing as an outdoorsman is appealing, both as an escape from the mundanity of daily life and for providing comfort in knowing that you might have the tools to prepare yourself for worsening political or environmental conditions. It’s part of the reason why Salomon sneakers have been trending and emergency go-bags are a thing. Dressing in clothes made for braving the elements can make you feel like you’re closer to nature, or at least prepared to handle its wrath.
Of course, not all consumers of outdoor gear are LARPing as urban survivalists. Technical wear is a logical choice for both athletes and those who prefer function over form—and besides, who is to say that a trip to the Swiss Alps is closer to nature than enduring the fumes of forest fires in LA? Regardless, legacy outdoor brands know that consumers, particularly wealthy ones, are willing to pay for clothes that work, and have come to pride themselves on their ability to appeal to a crossover of customers. The result is a burgeoning outdoor industry that caters to both minimalist millennials and avid adventurers with a common interest in quality and the great outdoors. But along with increased awareness of climate change and faulty supply chains come new questions of our impact on the planet through not only the production of clothing, but also where and how we travel, and who has access to it all.
In the age of greenwashing, one company consistently stands out for creating a true, mission-driven operation that centers sustainability throughout its supply chain. Google “Patagonia” and you will find endless articles highlighting the brand’s earnest origin story as the brainchild of a misfit rock climber who chose to tune in and drop out in the 1960s. Mythologies aside, Patagonia is a rarity amongst apparel companies in that it isn’t behest to shareholders who expect constant growth (it’s a B-corporation), and that its founder, Yvon Chouinard, is more interested in recycling and innovating sustainably produced fabrics than he is in selling clothes. But along with Patagonia’s inarguably philanthropic endeavors (since 1985 Patagonia has pledged one percent of sales to “the preservation and restoration of the environment”) comes the reality that clothing production, no matter the method, ultimately creates more waste on our planet. What’s more, Patagonia may preach buying used, or buying less altogether, but such eco-friendly policies sometimes have unintended effects. The most infamous example of sustainability marketing gone wrong was in 2011, when Patagonia ran a full-page ad on Black Friday in the New York Times featuring a photo of a popular fleece sweater and copy that read: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The intention, according to the company, was to encourage readers not to engage in the planet-destroying excess of seasonal shopping—but the message was so provocative that the brand did thirty percent more in sales than it had on Black Friday the previous year.
Thanks to their environmentally aware consumers, outdoor apparel manufacturers have centered sustainable production practices for long before their high fashion counterparts, but they have historically faced more scrutiny, too. Innovation, particularly when it comes to high-performance materials that provide insulation, wicking, and waterproofing, sometimes brings negative side effects. In a 2016 study conducted by Greenpeace, it was found that the majority of outdoor gear contains per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), including perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a suspected human and animal carcinogen that has been found in drinking water throughout the United States. In response, brands like GORE-TEX pledged to eliminate PFCs from their textiles by 2023, with other companies following suit. Yet it’s possible that these businesses are being held up to unfair standards. Not only are outdoor wear manufacturers responsible for bringing environmentally friendly innovations to market (like spinning recycled plastic into yarn), but they also tend to produce less SKUs than their fast fashion counterparts while utilizing the same fabrics for longer. This allows manufacturers like Patagonia to eliminate waste and perfect their production processes, ensuring sustainable practices from the farms they use to source material all the way to the factory floor. However, it also leaves them open to more scrutiny: the longer a fabric is in use, the more likely it is that consumer watchdogs will find an issue with it.
All of this highlights the complicated relationship between issues of sustainability and consumption. Thanks to increasingly popular green marketing practices, consumers are often led to believe, for example, that buying biodegradable shoes is a better choice for the planet than investing in a pair of waterproof boots. But when so much of our clothing is made in response to trends and designed to fall apart after only a few washes, those waterproof boots might not be so detrimental to the environment, as long as you plan to keep them.
On the Arc'teryx website, a Fall 2020 lookbook captioned “BUILT for what’s to come” appears next to a photo of a climber scaling a snow-covered mountain in a bright yellow jacket, a hood protecting them from the detritus cascading off of a massive pick jammed into a wall of ice. Such imagery has dual functions: it ensures urban consumers of the quality and durability of Arc'teryx’s products, while at the same time evoking the sublime to create desire for rugged adventures. This is not to say that Arc’teryx ads encourage start-up bros to book trips to Mount Everest (though they might), but rather that such branding contributes to an understanding of the great outdoors as a place to be both experienced and conquered, as long as you have the right tools (or clothing) to do it.
In a recent essay for Rhizome, Samuel Marion looks at how quickly conservation of the environment can come to mean conservation of the status quo, particularly when it comes to the branding strategies of outdoor apparel manufacturers. “Where ‘conservation’ becomes a star is in the discussion of land, especially that deemed suitable for recreation—i.e., places where you can hike, ride your mountain bike, go kayaking, backcountry skiing, etc.,” he states. In such cases, the discussion is no longer one concerned about the environment as it pertains to the future habitation of the earth, but rather “a move towards a myopic, locational environmentalism for the preservation of a lifestyle or hobby.”
Of course, there’s nothing sinister about utilizing camping and hiking as tools to feel at one with the Earth, but the commodification of these experiences can create barriers to the accessibility of the great outdoors, particularly on the basis of class, gender, and race. Not only is the cost of outdoor apparel inhibiting for those without a disposable income, but the ways in which outdoor public spaces are regulated can also affect who is safe to traverse them. In a 2018 essay for Outside, South Carolina-born Latria Graham writes about her family’s relationship to nature and the stereotypes and obstacles to access that Black people face in the outdoors. Graham cites the history of outdoor recreation in America, from segregated pools to national parks created as an escape from the urban sprawl and designed to be “clean and white.” “[Sixteen] percent of African Americans said they hadn’t visited a national park because they thought the parks were unsafe,” she writes. “Why is this number so high?...Partly because of the Park Service’s history of discrimination. [For example:] Shenandoah National Park [near Washington, DC,] was guilty of ...hanging wooden signs at certain spots that identified Picnic Grounds for Negroes. Signs on some bathrooms said they were for white women only,” as late as the 1940s.
In America, Black-owned outerwear brands are few and far between (notable retailers include American Slim Pickins Outfitters and Intrinsic Provisions), and many apparel manufacturers, small luxury brands in particular, fail to offer diversity in their marketing. This is not to say that all outdoor wear is only created with white consumers in mind. Japanese companies like And Wander have spearheaded the growth of an international, streetwear-like subculture bolstered by publications like Highsnobiety, Hypebeast and GO OUT, a Japanese fashion magazine for the urban outdoors. Other platforms like Patreon database organiclab.zip (born from a mood-board-like Instagram account of the same name with over 105k followers) further narratives of diversity, bringing functional, brightly colored “GORPCORE” looks (named after the colloquial term for trail mix: “Good Ol' Raisins and Peanuts”) to a wider audience of nature-loving fashion fanatics.
Both a community-building platform and an expertly (and anonymously) curated image bank for referencing high-tech apparel, @organiclab.zip emphasizes both form and function, centering technical images of outerwear alongside aspirational shots of the great outdoors. On their Instagram, a photo carousel of lenticular, halo-like clouds hovering over various mountain ranges is juxtaposed with a post of ROA sneakers, revealing an emerging dichotomy inherent within the outdoor apparel industry, promoted by rare and luxury labels. Infamous for the volume and rate of their IG Stories, which can number as much as eighty full-frame entries per day, the platform’s social media output reflects the depth of inquiry and range of references that have allowed organiclab.zip to branch out from its role as a visual research archive and establish itself as a consultancy agency on the side. To gain a true sense of the platform’s encyclopaedic scope, however, one must subscribe to its Patreon membership. Given full access to the searchable database, it becomes clear that the project’s vision goes beyond functional fashion and outdoor recreation, as we find connections drawn to everything from visual art and architecture to lifestyle politics and urban design. It’s precisely this broader framework that has helped the platform build such a large and diverse audience: as outdoor wear becomes more appealing to a wider consumer base of would-be adventurers, it has also found new audiences, including tech bros who favor high-performance apparel and hype-beasts/GRAILED users who find pleasure in collecting and reselling high-quality jackets—in other words, those who aren’t necessarily interested in the great outdoors at all.
Dressing like you stepped out of Blade Runner might make you feel like you’re ready for the unknown, whether it’s a Mad Max-like future replete with total environmental collapse and roving militias, or a slightly tamer, Snow Crash-esque dystopia where one has to choose between living in Facebook Valley or Amazonland. But if these are the reasons why so many lust over high-priced techwear, shouldn’t we also consider the possibility of a different kind of future? One where small, self-sustaining parcels of land are governed by community networks with close ties to the environment, where clothing that protects us from the elements is produced with what was left from the past, or created from what is most abundant in our imagined, utopian future?
Outdoor apparel manufacturers often think in this way, at least when it comes to promoting recycling and sustainably produced clothes that last. But the reality is that most of us aren’t the Subaru-driving kind of consumers who purchase clothes to keep for the next twenty to thirty years. Instead, we wait for collaborations and clothing drops with hype, so that we might look cool now and be able to sell our overpriced purchases later. Buying something with resale value makes us feel at the very least like we aren’t contributing to the fast fashion/disposable clothing cycle, but is it any better? The more we buy, sell, ship, and return, the more damage we are doing to the Earth, regardless of the mode of production, quality, fabric, or cost. Put simply: if you’re into fashion, you’re not doing shit for the great outdoors.
When I think about urban explorers, the kind who wear Veilance and shop at Snow Peak before every camping trip, I can’t help but be reminded of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. In it, a man dressed in a dark petticoat and knee-high boots stands proudly on a craggy cliff overlooking a foggy vista, one foot stepping up on a rock as though he has just conquered the highest peak. It’s a romantic painting that evokes the sublime, the all-mighty power of nature, and just how small and insignificant the proud man looks in the midst of it all.