Does The North Face Really Need Gucci?

The pairing that needn’t be

By Ray Zhang

Collaborations might still be the way forward, especially in these pandemic-stricken times. But is the Gucci X The North Face (TNF) pairing the stunning collaboration to end the stunned year? Gucci may need to expand its product categories, but I do not see TNF needing to align itself with more designer names. Are they planning to be the next Moncler? These are difficult times for fashion brands, so I won’t hazard a guess. But it seems odd to me that TNF thinks that by associating itself with Gucci, it shall improve its standing among fashion folk. To me, TNF has already been on the right path, doing what they do, pairing with whoever they have hitherto partnered with, but perhaps they didn’t think they’re doing enough. Or perhaps, all their previous collabs have not been sufficiently retro-cool? And that the Gucci tribe is too large—and influential—to ignore?

Have I missed something? Perhaps. Western media has stressed how Gucci and TNF can bring out the best of their respective brands. All I could see is Gucci bringing the best of Gucci. At least visually and chromatically. The collab appears to me a little lopsided. Even if I can see The North Face half-logo (or hybrid logo) and recognize some of the puffers, the collection is still more Gucci than The North Face. I can understand that there are those whose wardrobes are now so Gucci-fied that they would seriously need cold-climate wear, or climbing gear, or alpine togs that bear semblance to the Gucci aesthetics of topsy-turvy aberration, to survive the winter. But will only a Gucci puffer coat do, even if it’s, as the now-out ads, shot in the alps, suggest, warm enough for shorts (a black model even wore a white bikini)? You see, Gucci really wants to go everywhere—into the woods, and up the mountains.

Like every designer doing sneakers to remain on the street-wear roadway, I think Gucci’s Alessandro Michele just wants to try his hand at “Gorpcore”, to borrow a term from The Cut, so as to be able to say, he, too, has jumped onto the outdoor-performance-wear bandwagon. “Gorp” is the acronym for “good ol’ raisins and peanuts,” also known in the US as the “trail mix” (or, in Australia, scroggin), which hikers pack to bring along with them as a lightweight and healthy, protein-packed snack. (Here, they often appear in abundance, rather inexplicably, during Chinese New Year!) The operative words are “trail” and “hike”, and neither sounds particularly urban, or date nights at the movies. Perhaps that’s the point. Like athletic wear, people don’t adopt a particular category of clothing so as to wear them for participating in the activity the category suggests.

That trend report in The Cut appeared in 2017. But as far back as 2013 (if my memory serves me right), I have already observed in Tokyo the emergence of what the Americans called Gorpcore, for which the Japanese, masters of looks and creators of tribes, had no real name. Until, a group of girls—as it’s often the case—became regular and noticeable enough in their get-up, as they traipse into the woods, to be collectively known as yama gyaru (or “mountain girls”). I am not sure if these lasses wore their outdoor wear as a fashion statement or for practical reasons as they embrace shinrin-yoku forest therapy, but for certain, I know the Tokyo boys have been adopting hiking clothes and turning them into fashionable urban wear at least a decade before the Americans enthusiastically wear puffers and hiking boots with their Calvin Klein whatever.

The popularity of outdoor performance wear among Tokyoites went back much earlier, and it has something to do with The North Face’s trajectory in the Land of the Rising Sun. In 1978, at the height of TNF’s popularity among climbers and alpinist in the US, the Japanese conglomerate Goldwin, considered the “most important” among producers of technical outerwear, signed a deal with the former to exclusively distribute TNF in the country that would gain the status of the world’s third largest economy. TNF’s subsequent growth in sales and stature in Japan alone is nothing short of staggering. I won’t go into the figures, but one could be worth noting: In Tokyo, on a stretch less than a kilometre, along Meiji-Dori, off Harajuku (towards Shibuya), there is not one, but four TNF stores. These are The North Face (two of them), The North Face Alter, as well as my personal favourite The North Face Standard (all four floors!). This isn’t counting Goldwin’s own store and Arc’teryx on the same street, and TNF Kids, Columbia, and Helly Hansen just behind. And just a little further back, Chums. (There’s also Patagonia, but the store is over at Ura-Harajuku.) Or, the numerous other multi-brand stores that also carry outdoor wear, such as the Japanese version of Kelty. In case you don’t sense the scale, it is massive. This is like Gorpcore’s gravitational centre.

Goldwin’s massive standing is not only among consumers of TNF; it is with Japanese designers as well. One of them deserves singling out: Eiichiro Homma, a veteran designer at Goldwin for a long time. In 2003, the company decided to back probably their most outstanding employee with his own line, also one that has technical performance wear as its core. Nanamica was born, and in no time, The North Face Purple label. Now, these are not to be confused with TNF itself. Mr Homma himself has clarified that TNF Purple Label (the brand is so linked to him that sometimes the label also reads The North Face made possible by Nanamica) is to “adapt for city wear without compromising the core values of the original,” as he told Hypebeast back in the year the Purple Label was born. Despite all the charming quirks and unusual details that Mr Homma has given to both the Purple Label and his own Nanamica, there is, to me, innovation, and, more importantly, an authenticity about the two names under his charge than Gucci could never emulate.

There is also real difference between going to, say, the Tokyo mountaineering/outdoor gear retailer L Breath (or our own Outdoor Life) and buying the real deal and making them look fashionable and going to Gucci, and buying what’s designed to be fashion and wearing them wholesale, head to toe. Once in Tokyo, at Oshman’s—less of a fashion-potential treasure trove than L Breath, I saw a young chap in a Patagonia parka, Danton shirt, Levi’s, Timberland boots, Mystery Ranch tote, and all manner of danglies from Chums that, as I recall now, look like he could have been in the new Gucci campaign, minus the Guccis, and look better. Another time, in Sapporo, at Montbell’s Akarenga Terrace store, I caught sight of a guy with a buzz cut, who was so distinctively kitted—Visvim patchwork yukata coat, a rust-coloured quilted cape (there was a blizzard outside), and a United by Blue roll-top backpack—that he could have just stepped out of some stylish monastery in the Himalayas. These guys could use non-fashion items as fashion items, and that, to me, speaks so much more than wanting to look like one of Gucci goofy models.

The North Face seemed to have been rather judicious when it comes to who they collaborate with. Prior to Gucci, it was with Maison Margiela’s MM6, the street-inflected diffusion. The collection, interestingly, did not look weird. Build primarily on the house’s circle pattern, they have as much TNF’s DNA, and they look like you might actually be able to hike in them, not just frolic on flatlands. I like that both brands seem to share equally billing in the end products. Before MM6, there was Supreme, which requires no description. I don’t see why Supreme needed another collaboration, but I understand why TNF would agree to it. This was, to me, one of the lamest pairings ever. Even without Supreme, MM6 and, certainly, Gucci, TNF could hold nicely on its own with just the Japanese iterations, led so convincingly by Nanamica and The North Face Purple Label. Japan’s TNF, I suppose, is really perched on a different peak.

Sure, I can see that Mr Michele and his team has re-proportioned some of TNP’s classic outers, such as reshaping and shortening the sleeves of the women’s jackets. In addition, the breadth of the collection could mean that they’re not putting out some negligible capsule you’ll forget next week. This was conceived to sell, and in larger numbers than the typical collaboration. But that does not mean that stocks for individual items will be plentiful when they launch in January in the coming year. And the ’70s vibe is unmistakable too, in case you have not had enough of their romanticised version: Woodstock in the winter, if the cold is conducive to concerts. And there are backpacks, hats, beanies, and, of course, hiking boots, smacked with a massive logo. And just in case there is anyone seriously thinking of really wearing these clothes to go up the mountain or go down by the rapids, there is a tent too, even a sleeping bag. But will all these really tempt those who have not already adopted Gorpcore? Or, understand it? Will they seduce fashionistas to later consider a TNF not in collaboration mode?

Truth be told, I do subscribe to the Gorpcore aesthetics. But I can’t see myself buying the meaningless Gucci attempt. When in Tokyo, I visit, without fail, The North Face Standard in Harajuku, Nanamica in Daikanyama, And Wander in Marunouchi, White Mountaineering and the sensational Snow Peak flagship in Aoyama. But it isn’t always the high-end that I call on. There’s always the nine-storey L-Breath store in Shinjuku, where I end up buying more bags and such than I will ever need, mountain-bound or not, and, in contrast, a tiny shop smacked in the Tokyu Hands building in Shibuya, Function Junction, where hippies might stop by if they were heading for the hills (they have the most interesting range of carabiners). For all my cold-weather wear, I have always been able to rely on Nanamica and White Mountaineering, while resisting the soft spot I have for the terribly expensive The North Face collaboration with Junya Watanabe. As you can tell, it is in Japan—cities and mountaintops—that I get my Gorpcore wet dreams.

Photos: The North Face/Gucci

4 thoughts on “Does The North Face Really Need Gucci?

  1. Pingback: Through Snow And Ice | Style On The Dot

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