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The people at Patagonia get downright testy when talk of their rugged, boldly colored outdoor clothing turns to fashion. But the reality is that authentic fishing and hiking clothes _ not the designer remakes _ are doubling as city sportswear and making the pages of fashion magazines.

"We're pretty nervous about the fashion label," says Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for the Ventura, Calif.-based manufacturer of gear for skiing, mountain climbing, sailing and fishing.

"We spend a lot of time and energy making clothes for a small group of people whose lives depend on their clothing. If we ever start marketing to yuppies, we'll lose our core customers."

Still, Patagonia comes out year after year with some of the snappiest colors and styles around. Its parkas, vests and storm pants _ in vivid blues, bright oranges, lush greens, vibrant fuchsias and rich reds _ not only stand out sharply on snowy-white slopes or granite-gray cliffs but also make heads turn on the sidewalks of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York when athlete wannabes sport them to ward off the chill.

That bodes well for other companies as well, such as Willis & Geiger, Timberland, North Face, L.L. Bean, Lands' End, and even Banana Republic and the Gap.

"The whole rugged look at the moment is quite important," says Madison Riley, a consultant with Kurt Salmon Associates, an Atlanta-based retail consulting company. Riley estimates the sports apparel market at $25-billion and growing. Of that, he said, probably only 25 percent or so actually gets used for sports.

As the recession-hampered holiday season amply demonstrated, the austere early 1990s are shaping up as a time for practicality, quality and value. To find their way into careful shoppers' closets, clothes must be prepared to serve several purposes.

"The direction definitely is clothes versatile enough to be used for sports or just to look the part," says Roseanne Morrison, fashion editor of the Tobe Report, a New York newsletter for the apparel and retail trades.

The idea of rough-and-ready apparel crossing over into the fashion mainstream is scarcely new. It happened with surf wear, high-top basketball shoes and flight jackets. But the look, particularly in outer wear, appears to be coming on stronger of late.

It's not that the clothes are inexpensive. A top-of-the-line Nitro jacket from Patagonia costs $340; a layered ensemble, from underwear to outer wear, can easily run $600. Waterproof leather coats from Timberland, best known for its boots, can run $1,000.

But the clothes do last and last, and they perform. Eddie Bauer, a division of the Spiegel catalog company known for its weekend and leisure wear, boasts of its parkas and jackets being handed down through generations.

Even if the wearer has no intention of kayaking the Colorado River or scaling the rosy-hued rocks at Joshua Tree National Monument in California, it's fun to look the part.

"For a lot of people trapped in the urban environment who can't really get to the woods or the mountains, wearing the clothes is a kick," says Cameron Tuttle, executive editor of Sportswear International and In Fashion magazines in New York.

Leonard A. Lauder, president and chief executive of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, calls the durable duds from Patagonia and Timberland "classless clothes (that) are the new status symbol."

At most of the rugged-wear companies, function comes first. Patagonia, for one, maintains that the best design is one with the fewest bells and whistles. Notes Sweeney: "People on expedition don't want three extra ounces that come with zippers."

To maintain its integrity with athletes, Patagonia has chosen to sell only through its own stores and glossy travelogue-cata-

logs and through specialty outdoor merchants. For fall, the company is dramatically scaling back its line after an overly ambitious growth plan in 1991 collided with the sluggish economy, nearly sending the company into a tailspin. Annual sales at Patagonia mushroomed to $107-million in 1991 from $3-million in 1981.

Timberland sales have reached $225-million from $84-million in 1986, largely on the strength of the company's success in Europe. "Timberland has become a look in Italy in particular," says Elise Klysa, a spokeswoman for the Hampton, N.H., company, which, unlike many of its peers, is publicly held.

For most of its 90 years, Willis & Geiger made private-label clothes for Abercrombie & Fitch and L.L. Bean, but in the 1980s the company began selling under its own name, as word spread that it was the source of those sturdy garments.

Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Dwight David Eisenhower and President Bush are among the notables who have worn safari jackets and camera and fly-fishing vests from Willis & Geiger. It also supplied flight clothing for Charles Lindbergh's historic trans-Atlantic solo flight, outfitted Adm. Richard Byrd's expeditions to Antarctica and made flight jackets for the U.S. military in World War II.