In the November/December 2015 issue of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine, fashion writer Luke Leitch discusses the quaintness of the fashion trend he calls “fauxstalgia”: a harkening for anachronism not linked to an individual’s life experiences, but to an idealized version of the past worn as a costume in the present. In Leitch’s opinion, a New Yorker wearing cotton and leather on a rainy day ventures extends beyond self-expression and into detrimental fetish. “In a city that is probably amongst the most technologically-advanced in the world”, says Leitch, “so many guys wear incredibly utilitarian clothes with details… that are about as useful as your appendix.”
If dressing like the Brawny paper towel man is viewing the modern world through rose-tinted glasses, techwear is night vision goggles. Techwear is a glimpse into a future where man controls his destiny: where plant fibers fail, GORE-TEX emerges. In essence, techwear describes clothing that renders traditional silhouettes in technical fabrics designed to imbue clothing with properties other than preventing nudity. An obsession with utility, modularity, and adaptability characterizes the genre. To the strictest tech disciples, a single outfit prepares them for double-digit temperature ranges and any wind or rain imaginable while conjuring an image decidedly more tasteful than “bright orange anorak”. Bad news for lumbersexuals everywhere.
Function? Without doubt. Fashion? That’s up to you. Techwear redefines items unfairly compartmentalized as “not stylish” for nothing more than the content of their character. Tech hallmarks include GORE-TEX shells, polyester fleece, zippers, cargo pockets, and copious pull-tabs, all paired with technical footwear designed for performance at the expense of heritage. That last part is key: while techwear borrows from classical silhouettes (see Arc’teryx Veillance’s Blazer LT), it eschews nostalgia in favor of mutation. A Nike ACG jacket may evoke the lines of a classic MA-1 bomber, but its GORE Windstopper face fabric and reflective detailing signal a fundamental change in the garment’s ability to interact with the world at large.
That’s not to say every garment in the techwear lexicon was created just to push aesthetic boundaries. As brands like ACRONYM and Isaora take intentionally bold strides into the avant garde, others (like Nike and The North Face) find their core purpose – to innovate in the name of performance - leading them towards producing techwear almost by consequence. This blend of function, fashion, and wearable tech not only extends man’s control over his environment: it also looks so damn cool. Every child who grew up on Blade Runner and Judge Dredd holds a special place in their heart for clothing that looks straight off the streets of a smog-choked Tokyo, anno 2035. The future was chrome, until chrome became plastic, until plastic became carbon; now, the future is tech.
Yet, as Flyknit sneakers, modular mid-layers, and athletic clothing permeate our culture at large, it’s hard to shake the feeling that techwear is, ironically enough, not that functional. Well at least within a contemporary societal lens. First, almost on principle, techwear is prohibitively expensive: Arc’teryx Veillance jackets reach well into the 4 digits, and a single Boris Bidjan Saberi waterproof rucksack can command up to $400 at retail. The Arc’teryx Alpha SV hardshell pictured here is designed to withstand hours of winter exposure; but it’s also been styled, and accordingly retails for a mind-boggling $680 USD. It’s almost as if techwear’s practicioners see the hefty price tag as a barrier to entry meant to draw only the most devoted into their vision of a neon-soaked tomorrow.
Next, techwear may simply be a complicated fix to something that really wasn’t broken. Does the urban subway commuter really need GORE Pro in the event of afternoon showers between the office and 34th Street Station? Do the reflective glass microbeads woven into a Stone Island jacket really keep a cyclist more visible at night than simply mounting a light? For the same reason our culture loves the cotton t-shirt, maximized performance may just not be worth the hassle if the alternative is only moderate discomfort. And if every other 18-35 year old in the Manhattan area is dressed in traditional (if not contrived) flannel and leather, the synthetic walking shadow in the 3-layer shell will find their ability to function within society’s comfortable expectations perhaps hindered – no matter how adaptable their clothes are.
On an absolute scale, technical clothing claims top prize; adjusted to fit rational, present day relativities, it’s simply out of reach.
Now imagine the arguments presented above (high cost; superfluous technologies; conspicuous difference) in the latest issue of Motor Trend: rather than praise the Lamborghini Aventador SV, a “brutal” car with a “$493,905 base price [that’s] (on some scale) justifiable”, for its “extremely great” drive within a “thoughtfully stripped down interior”, the magazine’s reviewers would have torn the world-beating SV to shreds for its lack of economy and moderation. In other words, they would have missed the forest for the fact that it wasn’t an ocean.
Techwear, in its current form, is not pedestrian. That’s a very good thing. While it may straddle homage, techwear is also making tangible progress towards evolving the dogmatic fashion fallbacks that make educated observers like Leitch scratch their heads. There’s a grand irony to all this aversion: today’s visionary futurism often turns into tomorrow’s present. In 1987, Lamborghini’s Composites Divisions created the world’s first carbon-bodied supercar, but was told their prototype must be scrapped due to the prohibitively high costs of manufacturing that much carbon. 28 years later, BMW’s i3 – a plucky, all electric carbon-bodied city car starting around the price of a 3-series sedan – debuted to the public.
I’ll see you in the future.