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

Tokyo Is Back!

Apart from the return to business, new stores are opening. Can we look to the Japanese capital for inspiration?

 

Uniqlo HarajukuThe new Uniqlo store in Harajuku, Tokyo

After Tokyo announced the state of emergency imposed on the city to be lifted on 25 May, six days before it was due to expire, news began to emerge that a raft of new stores would be opening in June. The revelation was not met with shock, not a whimper of surprise. Japanese retail is an evolving, ever-changing behemoth. While COVID-19 has impacted both business viability and the appetites of consumers for shopping, as seen everywhere else in the world, it has not dampen the spirit in Tokyo for keeping retail going, and with verve.

Here, we’re mostly exposed to gloom and doom. It is widely reported that the global economy is expected to shrink by 3% on average this year. Our economy, as reported by CNA last month, is expected to contract by 4% to 7%. According to Singstat, retail sales fell 13.3% year-on-year in March, which was the sharpest fall in two decades. The Business Times wrote that apparel and footwear saw the steepest drop of 41.6% in the same month, compared to last year. These figures are those before the Circuit Breaker measures were introduced. They are, therefore, expected to be bleaker.

Official Japanese numbers are not especially encouraging either. Retail sales, as reported by the Japan Times recently, have fallen 12.3% in May from a year earlier, with apparel retail hit especially hard. Japan Department Stores Association figures showed apparel sales in department stores to be ¥97,548 million for April, compared to ¥243,870 million in the same month last year. That’s a decline of more than half. Yet, in Tokyo, retailers, do not appear to succumb to such dismal prediction. They are actively participating in the on-going rejuvenation of shopping belts, such as Harajuku and Shibuya.

To be sure, many of the stores that opened in the past month were planned much earlier to coincide with the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, which was projected to yield nation-wide retail sales of ¥4 trillion, now probably not to be realised. Undeterred by the double whammy of the rescheduled Games and the COVID-19 pandemic, some retailers are forging ahead with not just opening new stores, but also creating novel shopping experiences for a market that is already far more compelling and innovative than most. Harajuku, a district in the Shibuya ward, with a youth fashion history younger than Shinjuku’s, appears to be leading the recovery as some of big boys of retail open new, crowd-drawing stores.

Uniqlo Harajuku Style HintUniqlo’s first physical Style Hint corner in its new Harajuku store. Photo: Uniqlo Japan

Uniqlo leads the pack with not one, but two new stores opened, just eight kilometres apart (also new in neighbouring Yokohama is so mega a store that it is called Uniqlo Park). There is Uniqlo Harajuku situated in the new mall With Harajuku that faces Yoyogi Park, across from the equally new Harajuku Station. Then Uniqlo Ginza, a refurbished and larger “Global Flagship” in the swanky shopping belt of the same name. Despite skeptics saying that Uniqlo is over-stretching itself during an unending pandemic that has subdued consumer spending, Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo, told the media during the opening of Uniqlo Harajuku that “the coronavirus has accelerated change, but this store is to be a part of the recovery.”

Such positive and upbeat sentiments are reflected in the 2,000-square-metre Harajuku store itself: a hub of happy vibes. While habitués of Uniqlo would recognise the typically neat interior and layout, they will spot one new stand-out concept. Housed in a separate boutique-like space in the basement of the two-level store is Style Hint. One visitor last weekend described it as “a bit experimental”. Perception aside, Style Hint is tech-centric to better serve its digital-savvy customers. Inside, the highlight is a wood cabin-like wall of 240 touch screens that feature influencers and customers all fashionably togged in Uniqlo pieces. The pictures are reminiscent of those in the now-no-more local magazine Fruits. If any of the photos catches your fancy, you may touch any part of the outfit, and corresponding information will pop up to guide viewers to where the clothes are available, in-store or online. Also new to Uniqlo Harajuku (and any Uniqlo, for that matter) is a flower shop(!) that offers bunches of blooms (ten varieties, according to a staffer) for sale.

The new Global Flagship store in Ginza is not the biggest as the accolade still belongs to its older, similarly titled sister—the world largest, in fact—on Ginza’s main drag. This must-stop for tourists is oddly sandwiched between the swanky Ginza 6 mall in front and the edgy Dover Street Market Ginza in the rear. The new store, located in Marronnier Gate Ginza 2 (of three buildings) in the Yurakucho area, just 500 metres away (or 10 minutes by foot) from the sibling, sits amid less pricey names such as Loft, Tokyu Hands and Muji, whose first hotel is practically round the corner. Spread across 4,500 square metres of space across four flours of the building designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, this Uniqlo features the first LifeWear Square, a sleek space with exposed skeleton of the interior that brings to our mind Nike Town.

20-06-27-17-34-07-781_decoNext to Uniqlo is Ikea’s first compact store

Not to be outdone, Ikea—increasingly inching into the fashion sphere—has also opened its first “city-centre store” two weeks ago, in Harajuku. As a matter of fact, they have Uniqlo for an immediate neighbour. In the past, Tokyoites who wanted to get their Ikea fix would head to Tachikawa in the west of the city, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo Station. Out here, the Swedish company’s first store opened as recently as 2014 (it arrived on our shores in 1978). That Ikea has opened in “cool” Harajuku (ironically losing its DNA as more mass-market brands have set up shop here, including Daiso) has many living in the heart of the city quite thrilled, even if the store offers mostly small Yamanote-Line-friendly home ware—more Färgrik mug than Klippan sofa.

While Ikea’s retail director Jaap Doornbos told The Straits Times last month that Ikea at Jem (slated to open next year), similarly a “smaller concept—within a shopping centre—will be the first of its kind in the region”, Japan beat us to it. In fact, it is possible that Ikea Harujuku is a foretaste of what the upcoming Ikea Jem would look like. The 2,500-square-metre “compact” store, as the Japanese media called it, is, like Uniqlo, unmistakable in its image. Just imagine its Market Hall shrunken and given a steroidal boost, and a visible shop front. Once inside, the merchandise arranged to greet shoppers is reminiscent of Ikea’s closest competitor, Nitori, with a nine-storey store less than a kilometre away, in the Shinjuku neighbourthood.

People come to Ikea to be inspired by their “room” set-ups, and here they mirror the average Japanese homes—small. But unlike those of Muji’s home department, the merchandise here do not seem to be specifically designed for Japanese living spaces and quirks. However, Swedish lagom seems to work fine with Nippon wabi-sabi, such as the yet-to-launch-here Symfonisk speaker-lamp and desk lamp. People come to Ikea for the food too. Unfortunately, their famous meatballs are not available at the Swedish Café. Instead the main comprises tunnbröd, Swedish flatbread sandwiches with assorted fillings. There is, unsurprisingly, a Swedish Food Market—with familiar combini-style fittings— that is called, what else, Swedish Combini. Even cup noodles with the Ikea branding is available (they are labelled as “plant ramen”). A shopper, out with his wife for the first time since the state of emergency was lifted, smilingly told us that, Ikea Harajuku “is a good date place.”

20-06-27-23-58-10-755_decoBustling, as always, at the Harajuku intersection of Meiji Dori and Omotesando

Harajuku—kawaii central—seems to be where the action is taking shape (nearby Shibuya too, but that’s for another post). Apart from Uniqlo and Ikea, beauty giant Shiseido has opened a new “digital store” called Beauty Square (also at With Harajuku) that is reminiscent of their retail concept from the ’90s known as the Cosmetic Garden (situated at a basement unit of a donjukai apartment at the adjacent Omotesando that is now replaced by the shopping centre Omotesando Hills), where customers can visit to discover things, but now with a digital, also app-driven component. Another Japanese brand that has opened a new store in Harajuku is Snow Peak, which is, to us, a more advanced—design wise—The North Face (except the only-in-Japan The North Face Standard). For hipsters who camp! The new store, dubbed Land Station, has a more urban vibe—industrial rather than outdoor.

It cannot be certain that much of the buzz is to meet pent-up demand, but Tokyo, with 14 million inhabitants, has always been the hotbed of hype-prone retail activity. Not only are the Japanese brands getting into the scramble, foreign names are, too. Kith, the New York-based sneaker retailer, now with their own clothing line—including a Vogue collab, has announced that they will open their first overseas store in Shibuya next week, in the recently unveiled Miyashita Park, a 67-year-old public area with a playground that was once a conduit of sorts between Harajuku and Shibuya, now turned into a shopping complex. It is hard to say how Kith’s entry into Tokyo will pan out, given the presence of local sneaker retailers such as Atmos and Mita Sneakers, but Kith will no doubt add excitement to the mix.

Last Saturday, the crowd on Meiji Dori, a thoroughfare that cuts through Harajuku and the swanky Omotesando, is as large as it typically was before COVID-19. From new malls to the indie shops of Aoyama further south, people succumbed to retail therapy with palpable joy and corresponding reward. If retail performance can be gauged, even superficially, by the number of people with shopping bags, then this particular weekend, a month after the state of emergency was lifted, could be indication that, for Tokyo, retail isn’t doomed. Two weeks after our own Circuit Breakers measures were eased into Phase 2 and retail businesses resumed, things are not looking as jaunty.

It is often said that comparing us to Tokyo is pointless. The common conclusion is that we are not even near Hong Kong. Nationally, the Japanese enjoy shopping and are not fashion-averse. And they have made many retail businesses buoyant through their collective interest and curiosity, and consumption. Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku alone reportedly sees retail sales amount to about ¥720 million per day. While, in general, Japanese fashion retail volume has registered deficits since 2011, it has not put a damper on the spirit of creating good, usable, attractive products and selling them in spaces that can rightfully claim to be experiential. Japanese retailers are often thought to be more intrepid and innovative than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Perhaps, here on our island, retailers can abandon predictable, and try plucky and leading-edge too.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

The Wordiest Logo?

Or do you prefer less?

TNF Junya logo

It’s a collaboration that spawned one of the biggest logos we have ever seen, with an unusually large amount of text. There are a total of nine words, 14 syllables, and 43 letters! And both brands seem like a match that has to be made: their logotype is in still-a-fave Helvetica!

It is, of course, a mouthful to say. There’s a reason WeAretheSuperlativeConspiracy—just just five words but chock-full of 24 letters—is known as WESC, making the one-time lengthy Fruit of the Loom, with a now-modest line-up of 14 letters, a breeze to say. But The North Face Junya Watanabe Comme des Garçons Man isn’t, thankfully, quite a tongue-twister even when boasting three languages. That is unless you have a dreadful relationship with French pronunciation.

In fact, the coming together of the two brands (since we’re counting, three, if you consider CDG in there as a separate entity) is missing the typical X, as in the upcoming Erdem X H&M (designer Erdem Moralıoğlu’s full name may, indeed, be the tongue-twister here), which means Junya Watanabe’s collaborative work for autumn/winter 2017 would otherwise have 44 letters. But who’s counting? Okay, we are.

TNF Sacai

On the other extreme is Sacai, a brand that, interestingly, also collaborated with The North Face for the autumn/winter 2017 collection. But the logo is so succinct that you may miss the Japanese name. Comprising just four words and a grand total of 17 letters, The North Face Sacai is almost minimalistic. Similar to Junya Watanabe’s, it is absent an X. Perhaps it’s a Japanese quirk. Whether long or short, are we getting more or less with the respective brands?

With these Japanese burando, especially these whose designers are alumni of the school of Comme des Garçons (Sacai’s Chitose Abe was, in fact, a member of Junyta Watanabe’s pattern-making team before she struck out on her own), you are not likely to get less. Sacai’s collection dubbed “Cut Up”, does not spare any design their distinctive slicing and splicing, which means less is not part of their DNA. In addition, their collaboration is available for women as well.

In the end, a label with many words may look intriguing and, hence, alluring, but it really isn’t a matter of which. We say, why have one when you can have both?

It isn’t certain if Junya Watanabe and Sacai stockist Club 21 will bring the two brand’s collaboration with The North Face. We suspect the soon-to-open Dover Street Market Singapore will carry both capsules. Watch this space for updates. Images: the respective brands