How Casual Became Functional & Functional Became Casual
The phrase “Wardrobe Casualization” is having a moment, yet when you scratch the surface even just a tiny bit it becomes clear that today’s hottest cultural trend has actually been taking shape for decades. The outdoor market is a perfect example: Remember when brands started pitching a new concept for performance outdoor product that would seamlessly crossover from “trails to cocktails?” That was around 15-20 years ago. And even earlier, back in the 1990s, functional fabrics had already begun to shrug off their conventional identity as being tough, rugged, and hard-core to try on new features like comfort, softness and drape. Versatility was in, extreme was out; First we welcomed “Mountain Lifestyle” and from there it was a slippery slope to “Active Lifestyle,” and “Athleisure,” with performance textiles driving this evolution every step of the way.
What makes Wardrobe Casualization seem fresh in 2022, is that it’s universal. While the outdoor market may have had a head start, other industries have caught up, further blurring the lines of how we dress to a new level with an ability to cross over to all aspects of street, sport, work and everyday life.
The pandemic accelerated this latest transformation of wardrobe casualization with the advent of Work From Home (WFH), and the changing nature of work in general. Commuter wear? Career wear? No longer relevant. However, fabrications that put these and other niche sectors on the map, materials with engineered comfort and functionality, are more important than ever.
Another key to unlocking today’s casual lifestyle phenomenon is e-commerce. As online sales boomed exponentially during Covid, brands increasingly relied on fabrics to differentiate their product lines. Marketers seized on the fact that when selling clothing that you can’t touch or try on, the best way to engage your digital audience is via discourse on the unique performance and compelling aesthetic features of the textile.
The era of wardrobe casualization, where functional is casual and casual is functional, has arrived, tailored to fit our blurred world of 2022.
Both Sides Now: A Design Perspective
Adrienne Mercante’s career as a creative apparel designer has focused on men’s hybrid apparel, with performance infused in traditional men’s wear silhouettes, and more recently, with a true outdoor focus, as head apparel designer at California brand Nathan Sports. Having experienced both sides of the performance x lifestyle equation gives Mercante perspective on today’s trends.
Working for Outlier during the brand’s formative years laid the foundation for Mercante’s design approach. At Outlier, when faced with the problem of what to wear to ride your bike to work for a meeting and still look professional, the team turned to fabric featured at Outdoor Retailer. Outlier utilized these performance materials discovered at the show for apparel designed and developed for commuting. “We were sourcing for what was intended for one thing, and using it for another, in a new way,” recalls Mercante. “The basis of that idea was one garment that can do many things.”
Other factors elevated this concept. “The pandemic was a perfect storm,” explains Mercante, who cites examples such as people not wanting to dress up for work from home; rising prices; pushback on fast fashion from some sectors; and a growing emphasis on sustainability. “Now there’s more talk about properties that offer versatility and comfort to promote value, and differentiate product from others.”
Mercante came aboard Nathan Sports in 2021 soon after the company’s initial apparel launch. Spring ’22 is her first season at the helm, refreshing the line and incorporating a tiered approach for women’s and men’s product collections. According to Mercante, customers are adopting the top tier; fabrics feature 4-way stretch, ultra-lightweight fabric with wicking and quick dry properties. The Frontrunner short, with an extra coverage liner and lots of pockets, along with the Dash T-shirt are popular. “It’s the softest run shirt,” says Mercante of the 125gsm nylon/poly/spandex “tri-dri” fabric top. “It performs as a tech tee, but doesn’t feel like one.”
From Outdoor to Outside: New Attitude
For many who have attended Outdoor Retailer for decades, the Summer ’22 trade show held in Denver signaled the new direction of the marketplace. The changeover from outdoor to outside was complete. What not to wear in the past while hiking, climbing, backpacking, i.e., lifestyle cotton t-shirts, yoga pants, and jeans, is now the uniform adopted by today’s “outsiders.”
The move back to Utah, where OR will take up residence in January 2023, and include a new consumer Expo, reflects this trend. According to statistics from the June show, nearly 30 percent of the booths on the show floor were new exhibitors. The old-guard big businesses who led the charge for the show to exit Utah for political reasons around public lands, and once held court on the convention floor, are now giving way on the show floor to young companies with a contemporary take on outdoor recreation.
Meanwhile, retail sales of core outdoor products, apparel, footwear equipment and accessories, totaled $28.B in the 12 months leading up to March 2022, a growth spurt of $6.8B in two years, The NPD Group reports. The market research firm offered this takeaway during its morning Outdoor Retailer seminar in Denver: The outdoor industry is a retail bright spot, however focus leans toward backyard lifestyle, with lifestyle goods surging while equipment sales are declining.
A new podcast produced by Polartec explores this trend with a keen eye on the role of performance fabrics in today’s dress code, looking at big picture cultural shifts as well as the nitty gritty of material development. Called LAYERS: The Rise of Dressing Down, with host Colin True, podcast episodes include interviews with industry veterans and outside observers along with True’s personal experiences, to tell the story of how outdoor became big mainstream business and segued from an exclusive enclave to an arena open to all.
Central to the storytelling is the underlying theme of the integration of technical fabrics into everyday life that helped make comfort a performance feature, with Polartec, and the company’s original PolarFleece product, contributing to the movement.
Episode 2 of LAYERS, titled Aloha, Athleisure, pinpoints the ’90s and the attraction of aspirational outdoor sports, like surfing, that churned up the next “wave” of outdoor industry history. This casual beach look and vibe coincided with the popularity of Casual Friday work attire, elevating a new style that became known as “outdoor chic.”
The ’90s were a particularly ripe time for functional fabric development. Longtime Polartec exec and avid outdoorist Karen Beattie talks about how the company’s technical PolarFleece product solved issues. “It was great insulating, stayed warm when wet and replaced that scratchy wool sweater. And it introduced a modern, more comfort-related story on performance.” Polartec went on to introduce eight new fabrics on that platform.
In another episode, Polartec sales rep Tyler Maheu and True talk baselayer, while wearing tees made with Polartec PowerDry, pointing out the multi-functional aspect of performance tech as critical. “In the last four or five years brands and designers have gotten smarter about developing product that has multi-function properties versus earlier years in outdoor when everything was very specific, individual-driven purpose apparel made to look like what you did – hiking pants for hikers, running shorts for runners. With today’s apparel it functions with all the performance you would expect, and is designed to be versatile, so the result is you have less stuff that does more and lasts longer,” Maheu explains. “That’s a statement on how far the industry has come.”
Redefining What Works for Workwear
Cindy McNaull, business development director, Invista, recalls meeting with mill partner Sapphire Finishing Company at the global workwear trade fair A+A in November 2019 where an idea was launched for a new collection. The topic on the table was about an engineered solution for nylon cotton stretch focused on workwear apparel. “We had recognized this trend of casual wear influencing workwear in the early days of 2019. Then COVID hit, and we used the time to fine-tune the idea.”
The Cordura Sapphire Capsule Collection previewed at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2022. The brand’s NYCO fabric, a blend of cotton and Invista’s T420 nylon 6,6 features throughout, with concept garments based on timeless designs updated for today’s wardrobe reboot, brought to life in Smart Casual, Workwear, Tactical and Streetwear inspired styles for men and women.
What’s directional about this new range from Cordura and brand partner Sapphire, based in Pakistan, is how durable functionality is no longer limited in scope for one or two specialized apparel sectors but now realized across categories and silhouettes in garments for men and women for “anytime” wear.
McNaull highlights the “Smart Casual’’ line within the collection as featuring sophisticated comfort with crossover capability for today. “It’s workwear meets street,” McNaull states, adding, “We’re redefining what ‘work’ is these days. Do we work from home, and/or an office, and do we commute? It’s now a hybrid and we need to offer garments that organically, seamlessly represent that.”
Also upcoming from the brand is a soft launch for a new Cordura x Tencel non-denim sport/workwear offering in partnership with Artistic Milliners’ new division called Art Mill.
McNaull identifies today’s shift from traditional outdoor to lifestyle as being driven by comfort, accelerated by the pandemic, and people carving out a dress code more focused on streetwear. There are numerous ways to achieve this, says McNaull, adding, “Ingredient technologies and durable textiles are fundamental to this new wardrobe.”
Dovetail Workwear, garments and gear for women, by women, has leveled up the category in recent years in concept and direction. The Portland, OR-based brand has a progressive attitude but respects workwear’s heritage as well. “Function is a leader in how we design around this nexus of outdoor, work, and street,” says co-founder Sara DeLuca. “We are definitely taking a hard look at who is wearing our pants for work, and their life outside of work, and how we can bridge that gap with a single garment.”
The new Britt X style pant does just that with an ultralight, ultra-breathable, water and stain resistant ripstop, available in two colors. “The Britt is highly- constructed for work, but has the comfort of play,” DeLuca explains. “We knew that the workwear world needed more lightweight options, and we started building something that would function great for backpacking, hiking, and the outdoor worker, with premium detail, and pops of style. The pants feel technical but are versatile to take to any part of your life.”
DeLuca shares that last year when she attended a national meeting of women in construction, “every woman commented on the Britt pant, saying, they need more lightweight options. It’s exciting when a product resonates with many different demographics and meets a universal need,” adds DeLuca.
Next up from Dovetail is the Ready, Set, Cargo pant, set to launch this summer, made from a military grade fabric that is lightweight yet durable, and is comfortable worn in the heat. It is predominantly cotton – 73 percent organic cotton with 25 percent Cordura nylon and two percent spandex. “We’ve thought of doing a cargo for a long time. Lots of women we work with are running airports in Alaska, or teaching wildlife survival courses that would benefit from this style. The Ready, Set, Cargo has deep and functional pockets with a slim look with elastic on the bottom to tuck so pants can tuck into your boot. You can as easily wear the pant when you’re going out on 6th Avenue in Manhattan, as you could teaching your wildlife survival course.” Extensive wear testing, with a range of women, was well received.
“In the workwear space it’s taken people a little bit to understand this look. Some traditional accounts ask, ‘what is this?’ But that’s Dovetail; We like creating things that truly fill a need; Something the market hasn’t seen before,” remarks DeLuca.
How and where we “go” to work, what we choose to wear, and how we define ourselves is changing. Says DeLuca, “In our blurred world, feeling comfortable wearing products that are super-functional for you is what’s important now.”