Are mountain apparel brands benefiting from the outdoor/lifestyle trend?
A gentle mountain breeze blew across the Paris Fashion Week Men’s catwalks for this season’s Spring/Summer 2020 shows. White Mountaineering featured ultra-lightweight windbreakers layered over zipped fleeces and worn with Adidas sneakers, and floral or camo-print shirts matched with high-cut brown leather mountaineering boots. Off-White, the label by celebrity designer Virgil Abloh (also the menswear creative director at Louis Vuitton), presented its men's collection in a flowery meadow, the models clad in colourful cleat-soled sneakers similar to mountain approach boots, and touting water flasks.
In recent seasons, designers have become fond of adopting the codes of outdoor apparel, utilising high-tech fabrics or mimicking typical outdoor products like hardshell jackets and trekking boots.
Urban fashion is now infused with an outdoor vibe, as demonstrated by the fact that Pitti Uomo’s latest edition dedicated a whole section and a catwalk show to outdoor wear. Current retail initiatives are clearly going in the same direction. Next year, French department store Le Printemps will host sport/outdoor retailer Au Vieux Campeur on the fourth floor of its Printemps de l’Homme men’s branch on boulevard Haussmann in Paris. Rumour has it that Parisian shopping complex La Samaritaine, between rue de Rivoli and the Seine’s riverside, will dedicate a whole floor to outdoor apparel and equipment. Yet, are established outdoor apparel brands benefiting from this renewed interest? What strategies are they deploying to capture potentially new consumers, whose stomping grounds are far from the preferred landscape of outdoor brands? FashionNetwork.com investigated some of these issues at the OutDoor by ISPO trade show, held in Munich at the beginning of July.
OutDoor show rides lifestyle wave, and vice versa
The OutDoor by ISPO show’s first edition was held in the Bavarian capital, presenting the collections of over 1,000 apparel, footwear and outdoor sport equipment brands. It attracted over 22,000 visitors, keen to view the latest gear from both niche labels and major industry players, such as Schöffel, Vaude, Picture Organic, Scott, Icebreaker, South Korean brand Black Yak, Keen, Lowa and Tecnica.
ISPO organisers also introduced a section called ‘Borderlands’, whose exhibitors were a selection of lifestyle brands playing the outdoor style card, like Pally Hi, the Element-Griffin Studio collaboration, Billabong and Japanese designer rainwear brand And Wander, founded by two stylists who formerly worked with Issey Miyake.
‘Borderlands’ stood out from the rest of the show for its original setting. It was designed to be a source of inspiration, presenting state-of-the-art technology by Ecco and Dassault Systèmes, colourful collections by Topo Designs, Techunter’s futuristic vision of the outdoor industry's landscape 30 years from now, and a range of products made by Alpine artisans selected by Makers Bible (from backpacks to clothes, from swings to camping equipment). According to ‘Borderlands’ exhibitors, the section chiefly appealed to designers from many of the show’s other exhibitors, rather than to European retailers.
Mountain gear suitable for urban dwellers too
Though the products on show in Munich fell mostly within the classic range of an outdoor apparel event, with styles and colours appropriate for mountaineering customers, several brands seemed to be adopting a strategy of developing lines that can easily fit into an urban environment. For example, German brand Schöffel, founded in 1804, presented the Schöffel Originals collection, reinterpreting several of its classic items with a lifestyle mood. Millet extended its main line, Trilogy, giving it a more urban feel. Mountain Hardware, the Columbia group’s mountaineering brand, introduced a less technical range with the Logowear line, inviting a series of artists to paint their vision of mountaineering and climbing on bio-cotton t-shirts and sweatshirts.
“We wanted to backtrack, to become more accessible, offering mountain enthusiasts a product range that is consistent with our history but isn’t targeted to mountaineers who regularly climb above 3,000m,” the staff at the Mountain Hardware stand told FashionNetwork.com. Japanese brand Goldwin, a giant on its domestic market, exhibited its lifestyle range for the first time at OutDoor.
Mammut introduced an entirely new line, called Delta X, for the winter 2019-20 season. “This line was initially developed in Japan, a market with a history for items that can be worn in an urban context too,” said Raphaël Bouvet, the head of the Swiss brand’s French subsidiary. “[Delta X] was designed for consumes in their 30s who use Mammut in the mountains and work in the city, and it features products that can be worn every day, like our footwear or our coated hardshell jackets,” he added. Among the line’s first clients, retailers like Snow Emotion in Paris and Jean Blanc Sports in the French ski resort of Courchevel.
This kind of approach was adopted much more firmly by the footwear brands exhibiting at OutDoor. Merrell’s 1981 line went for a retro mood, while the MQM Flex 2 GTX shoes are available in bright, acidic colours.
With the Cloud shoe model, Swiss running brand On almost inevitably gave the nod to urban consumers four years ago. “We have developed a new palette, but for us, from the fall/winter season, the focus is on trekking models,” the staff told FashionNetwork.com. These new models, like the Cloud Mid and especially the Cloud Hi for the Spring/Summer 2020, have the potential to appeal to sneaker aficionados, and On is already working on establishing a presence in streetwear stores, a new territory for the brand.
The challenge for sportswear brands is indeed managing to make inroads with urban/streetwear retailers. Very few multibrand fashion retailers visit sportswear shows, and lifestyle collections by outdoor apparel brands are struggling to cross the boundaries of sporting and mountaineering stores. Why? Because the mark-ups normally applied in the sportswear sector used to frighten off fashion retailers.
Outdoor brands seem to have acknowledged this obstacle, and are trying to apply commercial conditions more consistent with the practices of fashion retailers. “Our sales team is presenting Delta X [to fashion shops], but I’m very clear in thinking we should try to work with agents that are genuinely specialised in fashion, in order to reach different types of stores,” said Bouvet of Mammut France.
Outdoor specialist The North Face quick to grasp the benefits of tapping urban consumers
Other leading brands, those that have a city presence through their own stores or a well-established distribution network, are going about it slightly differently. The North Face was one of the first mountain specialists to deploy extensively in city centres, starting about five years ago. A strategy linked to the brand’s American roots, since the differences in style between urban consumers and fans of the great outdoors is less pronounced in the USA than in Europe.
“An increasing number of people is living and working in cities, but we are aware that they also tend to flee the city to explore the world and its mountains,” said Jan Van Leeuwen, boss of The North Face in Europe. “I believe, and market studies confirm it, that this trend won’t stop. It’s one of the reasons why we opened [monobrand stores] in Paris and London,” he added. Nevertheless, at the OutDoor show, The North Face put the accent on tech innovation, like the FutureLight waterproof technology.
“Product-wise, we have always focused on technology and performance. But some trends are driven by urban consumers. For example, they decided our Nuptse jacket is a fashionable urbanwear item, exactly as it is. Surely because what we are as a brand and the values we have are different from those of other sport brands,” added Van Leeuwen. Indeed, The North Face can be frequently spotted on the streets of many world cities, having become an element of the young generation’s urban outfits just like Adidas, Puma, Fila and Champion.
Besides its leading products and a series of affordable essentials, The North Face also has lines, like Black Series and Urban Exploration, that are especially designed for directional urban consumers. Just like Nike bolsters its extensive presence in the lifestyle segment though its sport specialist image, the key for outdoor apparel brands is staying true to their original milieu. “Both the mountain and the city are our territory. We mustn’t go for a fashion approach, trying to keep up with trends. We must preserve our essential identity,” said Van Leeuwen.
Patagonia eschews specific urban line
For Patagonia, loyalty to the brand’s roots is clearly at the heart of the matter. The company founded by climber Yvon Chouinard has been built with respect for the environment and for mankind firmly in mind. It is the essence of its brand narrative. Besides the technical content of its products, this is clearly what enables Patagonia to enjoy such a reputation with clients, now that issues like environmental preservation and responsible consumption are increasingly important.
A large number of consumers, dreaming of the great outdoors and aware of the plague of pollution, are in tune with Patagonia’s values. As a result, brands like Patagonia, The North Face, Arc'Teryx and, with more of a high-end positioning, Canada Goose, are very much sought after by department stores. “There is discernible interest by multibrand fashion retailers, something that has developed in the last two years,” said Frédéric Mouyade, in charge of the French market for Patagonia. “[Fashion and lifestyle retailer] Centre Commercial was one of the first to approach us. Seeing this kind of interest, the question for us was what to offer to a store like this. We stuck to our guns. We aren’t developing a specific line, but we selected a series of ad hoc products. However, we are keen to change consumption habits, so we want to work extensively with this type of retailer,” he added.
According to the figures published by the European Outdoor Group, the industry’s continental association, the market in 2018 was flat, and the new outdoor/lifestyle trend might provide a boost to brands. But leading US outdoor groups, whether via their own monobrand stores or their marketing fire-power, seem to have stolen a march on European players. Some observers even fear that the outdoor/lifestyle trend will eventually bring only very limited benefit to the industry's established operators, in much the same way the surfing sector was disappointed earlier this decade.
Leading generalist sport brands join the fray too
Because, of course, lifestyle specialists have no intention of watching from the sidelines. Fila recently unveiled the Explore capsule collection via a series of pop-up stores in Asia and, very soon, in London too. Sneaker brand Kangaroos launched a Mountain line, and Adidas is also going about it seriously. A long-standing partner of ISPO, the German sport giant had a strong presence at OutDoor, with a large stand dedicated to the Terrex line.
Adidas has clearly decided to endow its outdoor line Terrex with more resources. For many years, it was reserved for specialised distributors, but it is now featured prominently at Adidas’s own stores, bridging the gap between specialist and designer products. Adidas’s commercial might will clearly be felt in the coming seasons, and collaborations with Kith and White Mountaineering are on the cards for summer 2020.
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