To spot this winter’s biggest fashion trend, you have to look pretty closely – but also not that closely at all. In the seasonal sea of fleece, down-filled puffers and chunky hiking boots are examples of this fad, hiding in plain sight.
The garments are utilitarian by design, engineered with technical materials and advanced construction, promising protection against the elements. They are intended to be durable and functional for outdoor recreation, but are also stylish and urbane and labelled Patagonia or Salomon. While to many people, these are just, well, winter clothes, in today’s fashion lexicon, the style movement is known as gorpcore.
A reference to gorp (good old raisins and peanuts), the hikers’ snack food of choice, gorpcore’s origins can be traced back to the early 1990s, says Jonah Weiner, a writer and co-founder of the fashion newsletter Blackbird Spyplane. It was a moment when stylish kids in New York’s outer boroughs began wearing The North Face, a northern California brand meant for the mountains, in the city.
“These were stylish clothes that performed in a New York winter, which can get pretty rough, but also looked cool on the sidewalk,” Weiner says. What made them a fashion statement was that they were worn outside of their intended context and took on new meaning. This early style remix, Weiner says, laid the groundwork for contemporary labels such as New York’s Sandy Liang and Japan’s Kapital. Their high pile patterned fleeces have become street style staples and smart resale investments. Today’s trendiest gorpcore pieces often exaggerate the relaxed proportions, rugged details and bold colours of outdoor gear.
Original gorp purveyors such as The North Face and Patagonia have benefited from the fashion-conscious consumer’s interest in outdoor apparel. Traditionally, these global outdoor clothing companies have not positioned themselves as fashion brands. They have not produced trend-driven collections or shown at international fashion weeks. A label like Patagonia outright rejects contemporary consumer culture and the fashion industry’s wasteful churn, choosing to operate as apparel producers that design long-lasting garments with intention and integrity.
But despite this resistance to capital-F fashion, these brands are indisputably part of the fashion ecosystem and broader cultural conversation around the intersection of climate crisis, sustainable manufacturing and responsible consumption. “[The rise of gorpcore] has something to do with a real purpose behind clothing that makes things feel like they’re actually important because they’re really for something,” says Colin Meredith, a product development consultant in Vancouver who now works with the Vancouver-based brand Arc’teryx. Meredith has built a dedicated Instagram following of fashion insiders and enthusiasts with posts of his one-off gorp-inflected pieces made from technical fabrics.
This utilitarian style has not only made fashion brands out of specialist outdoor labels such as And Wander, Gramicci and Acronym, but has trickled up to luxury fashion houses. This season, The North Face and Gucci dropped a collaboration of dual-branded hiking boots, backpacks and other gear meant to celebrate the “spirit of exploration.” The Spanish leather house Loewe, overseen by fashion wunderkind Jonathan Anderson, offers a capsule collection called Eye/Loewe/Nature of upcycled or repurposed pieces including flannel shirts and military jackets. Following Patagonia’s lead, a portion of its sales goes toward environmental causes.
“There’s also a bit of this appearance of participation,” retail analyst Lisa Hutcheson says. “If you’ve got this gear, you’re living this lifestyle, and you can reflect it in what you’re wearing.”
During the pandemic, hikes and sanity walks have been a major respite from homebound isolation. Being outside is a salve – and people are dressing for it. “Gyms are closed down, and people are trying, for our mental health and our overall wellness, to get out into nature,” Hutcheson says. “With the shutdown, if [people] get outside, just being in that apparel helps you get into that headspace.”
Unlike fashion trends meant to communicate wealth or status, gorpcore is informed by an ethos rooted in contemporary concerns for the planet’s health and our own wellbeing. Like many trends that start on the streets, gorpcore signals a set of values and lets the person in the puffer you pass know you might be speaking the same fashion language. It’s practical to wear a Patagonia synchilla fleece for a weekend hike. But on a grocery run, its mountain logo is a dutiful pledge of allegiance to the gorp gods.