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The North Face goes Gucci

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many "traditional" outdoorists are up in arms about The North Face's latest collaboration with Gucci

Two weeks ago, The North Face debuted a new collaboration with Gucci and reactions were…mixed. In this weeks issue of “outdoorsy people are less openminded than they think”, I want to dive a bit into the history of the TNF, the outdoors, and fashion.

Jared Leto for TNF + Gucci (via Sidetracked Mag)

“Well, looks like all my north face stuff is getting donated”

“Please God No!!! I’ve been a customer for decades. Bought my first Gore Tex NF jacket in the early 90’s and it was so unknown I remember someone reading the logo and saying that it was stupid. That wasn’t but this is!”

“This is a joke right? 40 years of TNF loyalty and looks like I need to move on.”

“Doug Tompkins is rolling in his grave”

So what’s the history of TNF outside of the classic “outdoor industry”?

For many, TNF conjures up thoughts of summits, dirtbag climbers, Yosemite, and hardcore mountaineering. A pinnacle brand for true adventurers. However, the knee-jerk reactions above ignore of the history of TNF collaborations, as well as the relationship between fashion and the outdoors — particularly in the last decade. Particularly ironic is the last comment — Doug Tompkins sold his stake in The North Face 2 years after their first store opened (1966), and used the money to start the fashion line Espirit with his wife.

The North Face has a long history of collaborations and influence in fashion and street style. In 90’s New York, TNF was an iconic streetwear brand. Not only were the jackets (particularly the Nuptse, they now sell a 1996 retro version) perfect for NYC weather, but the bright colors and puffy styles stood out from other options. TNF became a staple of NYC graffiti artists who found them perfect for late-night excursions. They were extremely popular with rap artists and both upper and lower-class city residents who wore the brand for both style and utility. I mean, TNF even makes an appearance in Wu-Tang and LL Cool J music videos.

From a 1996 NY Mag Piece “”

Ok, that was the 90’s. What about recently?

TNF has collaborated with Supreme since 2007 (Supreme was bought by TNF’s parent company in 2020). Their Japanese-exclusive Purple Label was expanded to USA availability in 2019. The Hypebeast archives for North Face gear and collabs goes on and on and on. And frankly, this feature on the Gucci collab is cooler and more in depth than the diversity efforts of many outdoor brands. I love the industry, but the outdoors hasn’t exactly been known for super creative campaigns. It might not be for everyone, but give me something different or weird every once in a while. Which is why I loved this, this, and this.

The Purple line

What about other outdoor brands?

The North Face isn’t alone in this fashion/outdoors intersection. Collaborations are becoming more common, as higher-end brands seek to attract new markets, and they also seek to attach themselves to the (slightly more) sustainable and technology-forward textiles often pioneered by outdoor companies.

Salomon has found success in the sneakerhead/fashion realm after collaborating with Paris-based Broken Arm since 2015. Various styles of their Speedcross and Snowcross lines have been seen on runways and in fashion shoots over the last few years.

Salomon’s S/Lab Snowcross
Image may contain Clothing Footwear Apparel Shoe and Sneaker
Boris Bidjan Saberi x Salomon Bamba

Marmot’s Mammoth Parka (the “Biggie”) has inspired such cult popularity, vintage editions can sell for up to $2,000 online. At one point, the jacket sold in at Paragon Sports in NYC from 2009 to 2013 was pulled from the shelves because of a string of robberies related to the jackets. Supreme’s version of the Biggie has seen seen on celebs like Kanye West and Travis Scott.

Complex at Marmot Mammoth Parka Biggie Day in Times Square

Off White featured Arcteryx (on the Hadid sisters, no less) prominently during Paris Fashion week, and their popularity is growing in the streetwear scene. While their Veilance line definitely targets a more fashionable, city-based consumer, they’re not actively seeking the streetwear market (unlike TNF). The Off White “collab” wasn’t actually a formal collaboration. Here’s Dan Green, VP of Design at Arcteryx:

“Part of our success is that we’re not trying to be trendy. Being in the streetwear world can be really scary if you have your sights set on being a 100-year-old brand because it’s a roller coaster of “you’re hot, you’re not.” So we just stay the course and do what we want to do.”

Wait, wearing outdoor clothing in cities isn’t fashion.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man. - The Dude -  quickmeme

Well, technically, it’s gorpcore, which is an evolution of normcore, a fashion trend beginning in the 2010’s that popularized more basic and utilitarian styles as fashion-worthy. “Gorpcore” was coined by writer Jason Chen in an article in the The Cut in 2017.

I think it’s an important distinction to make that not all these outdoor brands are actively trying to make “streetwear”. While companies like TNF and Salomon are building intentional collaborations and unique colorways for these consumers, others like Mammut, Arcteryx, and Patagonia are largely being adopted in this culture because of their longstanding commitment to unassuming, high tech, high quality apparel (and popular trends).

What is Gorpcore? | Grailed
Frank Ocean at Paris Fashion week FW19, wearing a Mammut Jacket and Arcteryx beanie.
One of the Ks

Well, I just wish these TNF stayed focused on their core consumer. Me.

Yeah, but that’s kinda not the point, and also counter-productive to an inclusive industry. There’s a prevailing saying that “the outdoors are for everyone”, but many folks are quick to ridicule the beginner skier, climber, someone hiking in the “wrong” clothing, people visiting from the wrong place, or in this case, a brand making clothes targeted at a different type of consumer. I wrote about this a few years ago (in a bit of a rant). There’s an entirely different, important, complicated, discussion to be had about the (entire) apparel industry and sustainability, but I felt like most of these negative reactions were due to things being different, and not the start of an ethics/sustainability conversation. I might dive more into the sustainability angle in a future post.

Maybe I’m making mountain out of a molehill. There were plenty of reasonable people who looked at this TNF + Gucci collaboration and said “Wow, that’ll never be for me, but I love the uniqueness and creativity. Cool collab.”

I do think that some of these more exclusionary, NIMBY-ish attitudes are something that the industry needs to reckoned with, particularly as the landscape of outdoor consumers and enthusiasts continues to change. For many of these outdoor brands, a consumer base outside of what many would consider the “core” outdoor market is extremely important. Via 2019 OIA Outdoor Participation Report:

  • Less that 20% of the total population recreated outside at least once per week
  • Americans went on one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008
  • Over between 2016-19, overall outings have dropped by 4.5 percent, continuing a historical downward trend

Not everyone needs to be a "hiker" to purchase TNF gear, and not everything these companies make needs to be tailored to what "you" think their audience should be.

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I'm Kyle Frost. Join 65,000 readers enjoying Here & There, my weekly outdoor/travel newsletter with nuance, questions, and complexity.