On the first official day of spring, the weather in Toronto was of a certain grey dampness that makes people want to ditch work for dim sum and an afternoon movie.
Sadly, it was also the type of day that does little to inspire stylish attire.
But April does not have to be the cruelest month. Even if the next few weeks promise a high probability of cooler temperatures and precipitation, there are more and more ways to be fashionably prepared when the elements threaten to rain on your parade.
Boldly patterned umbrellas, rain shells in sunny shades, edgier water-resistant outerwear and infinite variations on the ubiquitous Wellington boot (include funky new lace-ups) have propelled the category from outdoorsy afterthought to functional street chic.
Sally Lohan, a trend expert for WGSN, the online analysis and research service, says the seeds of this rainwear renaissance were sown in 2003, when Christopher Bailey started reinterpreting classic raincoats at Burberry. "By 2004, our street scouts were spotting early adopters sporting fun and funky rainwear, from patterned macs to laced and printed Wellington boots," she says by phone from Los Angeles. "Ever since then, it seems that rainwear options have continued to expand, with more and more choice for consumers."
As Lohan sees it, rainwear is an extension of seasonless dressing, which began as a buzzword among retailers seeking to push apparel year-round but has since been embraced across the industry as a real and versatile category.
A multifunctional, all-year approach is what Vancouver-based designer Dace Moore takes when creating her rainwear. "I like to design rain jackets that don't look like rain jackets and that can be [worn]into different seasons," she writes via e-mail.
Hunter boots - once predominantly cool-weather wear - are equally fluid accessories these days: They can be worn on a drizzly summer Saturday or through the snow and slush in February, especially now that the brand also offers absorbent linings, warm shearling insoles and fleece socks.
Increasingly, moreover, Hunters have come to be appreciated as more than just basic rubber boots. Although the company, which was launched in 1856, produced over a million pairs during the First World War, their greatest watershed moment as a contemporary fashion icon came when Kate Moss was photographed wearing Wellies (named after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington) in the mud fields of the Glastonbury Festival three years ago.
"Obviously, we believed in [the brand] but we didn't know that the market would get it the way it has," says Justine Fowler, who works at the Slavin Agency, which sells Hunter footwear to retailers.
Of course, the original green style, a classic, is still popular, but it's the trendy new designs that are attracting new customers. This spring's collection includes pairs featuring brushed metal hardware, floral prints and metallic finishes. Hunter has also collaborated with Jimmy Choo to create a sleek boot in crocodile-stamped black rubber and launched a limited-edition series (think stirrups and fluorescent hues) just in time for this year's music festivals.
"Because it's an iconic brand, it offers the freedom to play around with form and accents and let others follow," says Fowler, who points out that Hunter has also introduced a rubber flat in hot pink and black as a cute spin on a spectator shoe.
At the same time, the sky is also the limit when it comes to brollies, as Richard Igra, the owner and president of Fulton Umbrellas Canada, can attest. Fulton, maker of the first automatic folding umbrellas in the 1960s, looks to the runways for fresh colours and patterns these days. According to Igra, sales are almost evenly split between black and colourful styles. "We do put a bit more effort into the prints now," he says, referring to the company's four in-house designers.
Unlike umbrellas, which you can only show off when it starts to drizzle, much of the water-repelling clothing marketed as rainwear is just as well suited to fair weather as foul. For spring, for instance, Moore used a waxed fabric from Scotland to create her oversized anorak-inspired raincoat. Although it's water-resistant, its primary virtue is versatility, she says.
"There are so many different ways that you can wear it," she points out. "We wear the rain jackets even when it isn't raining."
Out on the street, there is an air of invincibility that comes with being prepared for any kind of weather. Getting from A to B is also a lot more fun.
"Women want to go out and be active and be prepared but also look good doing it," says Jamie Thomas, trend director with Stylesight, a trend-forecasting service based in New York.
Fowler of the Slavin Agency takes a more whimsical view. "When you walk up to a puddle and you don't have to go around it, you get that kid-like feeling of 'Yeah, I'm going through it!"
Talk about making a splash.