Let’s talk about the non-trend trend that the fashion world is currently taken by – “utility dressing.” Borrowing from the great outdoors, it’s all about dressing smarter – embracing the sensible, hardwearing and adaptable.
Flipping through my archive of glossies, though, it’s clear “utility wear” isn’t a new phenomenon.
It has come to mean so many things over the years – synonymous with military colours, war-time restraint, workwear, trench coats, overalls, boiler suits, denim and outdoor apparel. We’ve seen “Warcore” (the dystopian and aggressive military fad), “Normcore” (unisex, and as bland as possible), and more recently "Gorpcore" (dorky alpine clobber – actually stands for Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts) – which all sound vaguely kinky, but actually are just versions of utility wear.
Traditionally, utility wear is also synonymous with the unadorned and unattractive, with practicality and sophistication sitting on divergent axes. But the latest school challenges our long-held perceptions of what it means to be swag, and encourages people to consider buying garments that are function-first, keeping us protected and comfortable.
Looking around the cafes of Fitzroy (a petri dish for emergent styles) I see quite a bit of “bus driver chic” as well as “urban orienteering club.” The trick lies in the styling – the aim being to take inspiration from the NBN technician, without ripping off his total look.
Lifting the lid on some behavioral economics at play goes a long way to explaining why, exactly, we’re drawn to such unsexy but efficient ensembles.
With rising populations the dwellings we live in are becoming smaller, which means our wardrobes are too. This means we need to maintain an essential quantity of garments. No longer do we travel with bursting trunks of occasion-wear; people are travelling lighter, and more often. Consumers crave versatile apparel easily worn 10 different ways, 10 times over, and potentially, without requiring laundery (it’s convenient and saves water). We justify buying expensive items by calculating the cost per wear, and more than ever, we want to buy garments that last, and understand the ethics and sustainability practices of supply chains. We desire clothes that will not handicap our ability to enjoy recreation, work or social activity. Gosh, we want a lot – and a utility wardrobe is the silver bullet.
The more widespread application of nanotechnology has led to the proliferation of tech fabrics over the past decade. From data-collecting yoga pants to energy-harvesting shirts, the possibilities around all-terrain and all-weather apparel continue to expand. Why be windproof when you can also be waterproof, and trap heat? Why be lightweight and breathable when you can also be quick-drying and cooling? Why be ugly when you can be cool?
We’ve seen American outdoor wear specialists North Face and Patagonia edge away from their orthodox outdoorsy cousins over at Snowgum and Kathmandu, migrating to the fashion pages. While North Face still makes high-grade performance gear, it’s also collaborating with brands such as Apple, Supreme and Junya Watanabe. But ultimately its main product is basic, down-filled puff, and its success is due to its democratic designs that transcend age, class, geography and body shape.
Patagonia’s approach is a bit different. It doesn’t engage in collabs, instead sticking to functional heavily-zipped spray jackets, fuzzy fleece and recycled-nylon shorts. In fact, its unwaveringly durable and daggy styles have inspired the collections of other international labels such as Lanvin, Supreme and Rag & Bone. The fervent eco-warriors at Patagonia don’t design to be flattering or cool (which just makes them cooler), and in fact some of the fugliest pieces command a premium on luxury online consignment marketplace The RealReal. Take this pre-loved, multicoloured polarfleece vest, for example. When styled with denim flares and chunky sneaks under a camel trench, suddenly quite revelatory.
To weave some performance-grade mountaineering or heavy-duty workwear into your winter wardrobe, here are some good places to start:
FBI-style bomber jackets, Spencer Tracy-style trench coats and Gore-Tex mackintoshes. You’ll find lots out there with big zips and oversized pockets, reflective tape, drawstrings and pulleys. Turn the cost per wear of that Canada Goose puffer into chump change by going for styles and colours that will be most flexible with your wardrobe.
North Face and Patagonia are obvious choices, but also check out Woolrich (the birthplace of the buffalo-check lumberjack shirt) or even local label Driza-Bone, which just released its first collection of women’s desert-wax anoraks in olive green and navy.
Tops and gilets
Wear base layers in thermal materials like Merino wool or synthetic fabrics. As any seasoned adventurer will tell you, once wet, cotton kills. Then, depending on the climate, pile on windcheaters in tech fabrics or a responsibly-sourced down vest. The Columbia x Opening Ceremony collaboration is fairly unisex and features some excellent retro sweaters in sherpa pile-fleece.
Cargo pants, baby! They’re back. Alongside painters overalls and sturdy denim. For something a little tighter and brighter, these water-repellent stretch-twill stirrup pants by Moncler Grenoble come in a very sassy fire-engine red.
Be sure to seek out good-quality work boots or hiking boots that provide extra support and protection. Wear them dismounting the tractor in a field of cow pats, or out to the flicks over skinny-leg pants. These heritage labels cannot be beaten: Dr Martens, Thorogood, RM Williams, Timberland, Red Wing and Wolverine.