Westerlind had a good 2020.
The retailer, known for upscale Swedish furniture, wool sweaters and tactical gear from brands like Snow Peak and And Wander, was forced to close its Soho store early in the pandemic, and saw many of its customers flee the city during the spring lockdown.
But the exodus of wealthy New Yorkers to the Catskills and the Berkshires, where many discovered a new love of the outdoors, only helped burnish the retailer’s brand. Suddenly, practical outerwear and hiking gear, once a hard sell for consumers used to trekking through downtown Manhattan, was cool. A new location in Millerton, NY that opened over the summer has done well, as has a recently opened store in Great Barrington, Mass. In December, the Soho location surpassed $600,000 in sales, equivalent to a year of sales from its original Utah store.
“We used to have to convince people to buy outdoor gear for when they go upstate,” said founder and chief executive Andrea Westerlind. “Now instead of buying Manolo Blahniks, they’re buying high-end hiking boots and waterproof jackets.”
Outdoor wear gear or “Gorpcore” — short for “good ol’ raisins and peanuts” trail mix enjoyed by hikers for decades, and adapted for fashion by writer Jason Chen in 2017 — has come to encompass quotidian fashion for a new consumer over the past year.
A confluence of streetwear and normcore, gorpcore incorporates sometimes ironic references to outdoor wear, ranging from hiking boots to hardshell gore-tex vests, often rendered in eye-catching prints or flattering fits. Adherents are mostly – though not exclusively – male.
Instead of buying Manolo Blahniks, they’re buying high-end hiking boots and waterproof jackets.
For outdoor brands, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity. After watching luxury and contemporary labels pilfer elements of the style, most notably fleeces and chunky sneakers, the makers of down coats, gore-tex outerwear and sneakers have begun to cater to the same fashion-forward consumer, collaborating with high-profile designers and introducing new lines that put style on equal footing with substance. The challenge they face is to embrace their new followings without losing core consumers.
“Function has been our primary point since day one,” said George Egan, director of sport style for outdoor brand Salomon North America. “We’re now just really capitalising on a fun opportunity to make the shoes look good.”
A New Kind of Consumer, A New Kind of Competition
Snow Peak, Salomon and Arc’tyrex — all brands known for producing intensive hiking, skiing and cross country gear ranging from protective goggles and helmets to ski pants and base layers — have emerged as gorpcore staples. They’ve also worked to increase collaborations with mainstream companies, competing against contemporary labels entering the market with fleeces, gore-tex shell jackets and hiking boots.
“Most brands will be incorporating it because it’s a big part of everyone’s life,” said Dean Cook, head menswear buyer at Browns. “I can’t believe how many brands did an Autumn/Winter 20 fleece.”
Browns is expanding activewear labels and inventory for the coming seasons, in part due to increased demand last year. The retailer’s stock of outdoor brands like Mammut and Pas Normal continued to sell out throughout the year.
“We couldn’t order enough of it because brands couldn’t make enough of it,” said Cook.
Collaborations over the past year — Arc’tyrex and Palace, New Balance and Snow Peak, Gucci and The North Face — have converted many streetwear consumers to gorpcore devotees. Resale platforms, typically a barometer for the level of hype and cultural credibility brands can command, reflect this growing popularity.
We couldn’t order enough of it because brands couldn’t make enough of it.
Resale prices for these collaborations consistently remain over retail value: The last shoe sold from New Balance’s collaboration with Snow Peak went for a high of $850, 160 percent over retail value.
Searches for Salomon on global fashion shopping platform Lyst increased 634 percent compared to last year, with a 91 percent increase in social mentions year-on-year.
“We have already seen over a thousand trades of Arc’teryx products [in the past twelve months],” said Jesse Einhorn, a senior economist at resale site StockX. “We didn’t see any Arc’tyerx items reselling on our platform the year before.”
Social media accounts dedicated to the trend have also grown. Arkady Abbot, owner of Unownedspaces, a popular account for gorpcore aficionados, said his following has nearly quadrupuled since the pandemic started.
The halo effect has reached activewear players as well: sales of Nike’s outdoor collection ACG on StockX increased fivefold over the past year. The North Face’s Supreme collaboration was the site’s best selling streetwear collaboration of the year, and a VF Corp. earnings call earlier this year demonstrated the company’s optimism in growing its outdoors offering.
“Health and wellness and the desire to get outdoors will be enduring,” said chief executive Steve Rendle.
That also means increased competition.
“New brands entering this space need to have an angle,” said Krista Corrigan, retail analyst at Edited. “The consumer is going to have an influx of options.”
The Next Frontier
Scaling any brand to meet demand comes with risks. Particularly for outdoor wear brands, whose common core missions and philosophies don’t typically lend themselves to either the seasonal fashion cycles or constant newness of streetwear drops.
The Arc’tyrex consumer a decade ago will be different from the one in the coming seasons. The challenge is to appeal to both without losing brand equity, whether through tight distribution networks or specific lines for streetwear consumers.
“We have to say ‘no’ to a lot of people … the gorpcore trend has opened up a lot of opportunity,” said Egan. “There are tasteful ways we can grow, we don’t necessarily need 500 pairs of shoes for our end user.”
While Salomon, Arc’Tyrex and others have capitalised on the streetwear trend through cotton T-shirts and hoodies, usual hero products of the brands don’t translate into the same multiple colour-wave type options streetwear consumers rely on. It’s unlikely consumers will buy eight different gore-tex shell jackets or hiking boots in the coming months.
Contemporary labels that have incorporated the style into their offerings may pose a challenge, but they can’t rival the research and development that goes into technical gear from strictly outdoor wear brands.
Expanding through meaningful, limited release collaborations will continue to be an integral part of each brands’ strategy moving forward.
“We’re still a long ways off from like a hiking boot or a GoreTex sneaker being the best selling sneaker on StockX,” said Einhorn.