How Patagonia Became The Men’s Brand Of The Moment
Milan. Photograph by Mr Christian Vierig/Getty Images
The original outdoor label that inadvertently became a fashion fixation.
If you spent any time in downtown New York City this summer just gone, you may have noticed a distinct and novel sound. The gentle rustling of Fair Trade-certified recycled nylon. Specifically, it was the sound of Baggies, Patagonia’s spectacularly popular, performance-optimised shorts, which in recent months seemed legion on the thighs of the city’s rakish men, none of whom were wearing them to rappel down Fifth Avenue.
Patagonia, purveyor of Micro Puff down jackets and funnel-neck pile fleece pullovers, would seem a curious occupant of the closets of fashion-aware men – curious because Patagonia has never concerned itself with fashion. The look of its products is near the bottom of a list of more pressing concerns, which are primarily behaviour and carbon footprint. But that hasn’t stopped them from emerging, alongside more hyped brands such as Palace and Vetements, as a fixation among the streetwear hype-boys. Patagonia pieces have been photographed on the backs of style luminaries such as Mr Harry Styles and Drake. Mr Shia LaBeouf is by now practically a brand ambassador, as is Mr Kanye West. Mr Virgil Abloh was snapped in a Patagonia tee, and then installed as Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director. All of which begs the question: when exactly did Patagonia go from granola to alta moda?
Patagonia was started in 1973 by Mr Yvon Chouinard, a bodhisattva-type who partook in ice climbing, surfing and fly fishing with seemingly equal zeal. It evolved as an outgrowth of the blacksmithing business he ran from his parents’ backyard in Burbank, California in the late 1950s, forging iron pitons not out of love for anvils or entrepreneurship, but as a way of facilitating his climbing trips. Mr Chouinard’s side hustle evolved into Chouinard Equipment, which made ice picks and aluminium chocks, but didn’t bother much with soft goods; clothes for climbers were then mostly an afterthought, some chino cut-offs or bottom-drawer schmattes you didn’t care about wrecking.
London. Photograph by Ms Valentina Frugiuele/Blaublut-Edition.com
Mr Chouinard’s foray into fashion began with a rugby shirt in primary colour stripes that he picked up on a winter climbing trip in Scotland in 1970, heavy enough to keep the hardware slings from digging into his neck, flamboyant enough to catch the attention of fellow climbers who realised they could scale El Capitan and look fab doing it. They ordered a few shirts from Umbro, in England (take heart, hype hoarders: Patagonia began as an Umbro reseller!) and the rest is organic cotton history. Now it’s a billion dollar company with an anti-consumerist ethos. On Black Friday in 2011, Patagonia took out a full page ad in The New York Times, imploring the public “Don’t buy this jacket”. In 2016, they donated all their Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental nonprofits.
Mr Chouinard is a conservationist, and Patagonia commits much of its resources to environmental and labour advocacy, so much so that it can resemble less an apparel company than an activist collective with a robust merch component. Patagonia’s store in SoHo, streetwear’s red zone and home to Palace, BAPE, Off-White and Supreme, looks more like the student union at a liberal arts university, with a message board toward the front plastered with posters railing against dam proliferation and plastic pollution. The brand’s self-imposed “Earth Tax” means it donates one per cent of its sales to nonprofits. And, earlier this year, the company filed a federal lawsuit against President Donald Trump, Interior Secretary Mr Ryan Zinke, the secretary of agriculture, the director of the Bureau of Land Management and the chief of the Forest Service, arguing that the government had overstepped its authority in announcing the reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two national monuments in Utah.
Patagonia’s eco-conscious ethos not only means it’s free of the hairy politics that can make a citizen of the world think twice before pulling on a puffer, but that doing so almost counts as a political statement. Still, warm feelings alone don’t explain its popularity among city slickers. The modern expression of streetwear is something of a paradox. As much as streetwear fanaticism is predicated on the new, it also values pedigree. The mere hint of a whisper of the word “authenticity” sends devotees into priapic spasms. Which is where Patagonia enters the frame. Patagonia is sportswear in the truest sense – not as catchall categorisation for anything that isn’t suiting, but precisely what you would wear if you’re doing sport, the serious kind, like dangling off of K2 or crashing through whitewater rapids on the Ocoee. That association makes it as attractive as Supreme is to kids who have never seen the upside of a vert ramp (not incidentally, Supreme released a line paying homage to Patagonia in 1998).
Seoul. Photograph by Mr Adam Katz Sinding
It’s an association that has earned a fair amount of derision, engendering epithets such as “Patagucci” and “Fratagonia”. In 1991, Mr Chouinard chafed at the idea of “owning a billion-dollar company, with thousands of employees making ‘outdoorlike’ clothing for posers”. Last year, Mr Mark Little, Patagonia’s director of men’s sportswear and surf apparel, told GQ Style, “We can’t control whether or not our brand is deemed cool or uncool, and we really don’t care.”
That much is clear. A Patagonia piece is resolutely not beautiful. Its hallmarks are the garish collision of colour – eggplants and oatmeals and muddy browns; the application of pockets like so many subcutaneous growths; a preponderance of zippers and snaps and pulls, far more than would seem strictly necessary; and fabrics that used to earn you a sniff: recycled hemp and polyester and – gasp – fleece, the province of fast fashion retailers or Teva-clad earth children, sure, but hardly of a high-end brand. Of course, all these codes have now been absorbed by precisely those labels that once looked askance. One of Patagonia’s more pervasive styles, the Synchilla Snap-T fleece, is a fuzzy funnel-neck pullover that makes you look like a rangy Muppet on a bender. Rag & Bone, Helmut Lang, Lanvin and Neighborhood have all proffered interpretations. Mr James Perse, cosy-boy outfitter, has a sub-line of performance gear called Y/osemite. For spring last year, Prada had a collection that could be described as “luxe mountaineering” – taped-seam vests and thick camp socks and riotously printed rain parkas.
London. Photograph by Mr Daniel Bruno Grandl
You can make a convincing argument that the ugly wave in recent fashion – sneakers that seem to have eaten other sneakers and developed gout, layers that swing open to reveal substrata of layered layers, maximalist applications of quilted down that would look more at home at a bio-sustainable composting facility than on the racks of your neighbourhood retailer – all come out of Patagonia’s PowSlayer Gore-Tex jacket. Patagonia clothing is ugly, which is precisely why it’s found new latitude. There is a certain expression at work of aesthetic principles prescribed long before trend forecasting became a credible profession. If a Patagonia down vest doesn’t strictly evince the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi – imperfection as found in nature and pleasing for it – it certainly rubs up against the shale.
Patagonia offers an antidote to the more aggressive strain of this attitude, just kissing the lower lip of survivalist gear such as balaclavas and strappy clout packs, but without the menace of looking like a suicide vest. It’s tactical gear for leisure scenarios, not doomsday. A conspicuous way of looking inconspicuously like you have the resources to up and out to Big Bear, should the whim take you. It’s both for those who have means and feel kind of guilty about it, and those who do and don’t. Outdoor adventure is, for most, aspirational, and like any good enterprise, what Patagonia sells is, in the end, a lifestyle. It happens to be an accessible one.