“This is the antithesis of what getting outdoors stands for,” one commenter said when The North Face revealed its collaboration with Gucci via Instagram. Like other fashion collaborations announced through The North Face’s socials, outdoorsmen threw their hands up in the comments section. Many declared that it was another nail in the coffin for one of the world’s most storied outdoor brands. Their sharpest critics raised questions like how many hypebeasts would actually “go exploring” after buying one of these jackets. Others wanted to know if The North Face was abandoning its core fanbase to become a fashion brand. Meanwhile, ASAP Rocky, a Gucci ambassador, was running around Harlem in a monogrammed Gucci North Face that looks like something Dapper Dan would have cheffed up for Alpo Martinez in the 1980s.
As an avid fan of The North Face, when I heard about the collaboration I was excited and skeptical. Although it felt random for both brands, it also seemed like a natural evolution. It’s a moment that’s been brewing ever since magazines coined “Gorpcore,” a term that defines the fashion industry's interest in outdoor clothing from brands like Arc’Teryx and Patagonia.
But upon seeing the Gucci collaboration, which highlighted a range of North Face pieces from the brand’s earliest years in the 1970s, I wasn’t exactly floored by the products—but I was impressed by what it represented. It acknowledges that The North Face, an outdoor technical clothing line constructed for the elements, is a luxury in itself. And that brands like Gucci are maybe thinking more about what a consumer wants and needs during these unprecedented times.
Now it’s not like my love for The North Face was birthed from camping trips or watching videos of explorers climbing Mount Everest. Growing up in New York City, The North Face became an omnipresent brand throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s. In middle school, you were considered a bum if you didn’t rock a North Face backpack. And in high school, the brand’s collaborations with Supreme were coveted but unattainable garments for most broke teenagers. It wasn’t really until college when I started getting into vintage North Faces. Aside from recognizing the long-lasting quality of a 30-year-old North Face jacket, I was also enthralled by how much the brand resonated with New York City graffiti writers, a subculture that I'm deeply passionate about.
Since its founding in 1966, The North Face might not be categorized as luxury in the same way Gucci is, but that doesn’t mean it isn't aspirational. What’s made a $200 Denali fleece or $280 Nuptse puffer a popular symbol of middle-class luxury is that storied reputation the brand’s built amongst rock climbers like Alex Honnold and other world class athletes. They sell a promise that if a customer buys their gear they might actually be able to perform like the athletes who appear in their ads. Consequently, the brand’s messaging and expensive price tags are what made it appealing to urban youth in the ’90s, who recontextualized the brand’s garments as coveted pieces of streetwear within the concrete jungle. Since being purchased by the fashion conglomerate VF Corp, which now owns Supreme, in 2000, The North Face has seen its global revenue go from $242 million in 2001 to $1.9 billion in 2012. And since the brand’s very first collaboration with Supreme in 2007, The North Face’s collaborations with high-fashion brands like Sacai and streetwear brands like Brain Dead have made its half dome logo as recognizable as Supreme’s red box emblem.
While The North Face has worked with MM6 Maison Margiela, Supreme, Junya Watanabe, Raeburn, and other fashion collaborators, Gucci, unlike many of its peers, doesn’t collaborate with a lot of brands. But since Alessandro Michele joined Gucci in 2015, he’s revamped the Italian luxury house with thoughtful curation that looks toward the past for inspiration. Whether it’s releasing campaigns inspired by 1960s England’s Northern Soul movement or bringing back pussy-bow blouses, Michele’s Gucci excels at finding beauty in looks from the yesteryear, revamping them for today, and telling a story consumers relate to and believe. That ethos comes through when it collaborates with the New York Yankees or creates a sub-label with the hip-hop fashion pioneer Dapper Dan—which came about after Gucci infamously copied one of his designs. The North Face is a heritage brand that's over 50 years old, which makes it ripe for Michele’s time traveling reinterpretations. The collaboration’s focus on the ’70s is particularly fitting, since it’s a decade Michele’s constantly referenced within his runway collections.
When Gucci unveiled its collaboration with The North Face in December with a campaign celebrating the great outdoors, many of us were still stuck inside. The campaign’s video and lookbook featured a diverse group of models trekking through the Swiss Alps in luxurious Gucci North Faces while Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising'' blasted in the background. The collaboration revived icons from The North Face’s earliest years like their beloved Sierra Parka and one of their original geodesic tents. The branding was minimal on some pieces, simply bearing a co-branded label on outerwear that maintained the look of products sold in 1975. Other pieces closer to Michele’s maximalist aesthetic included puffers covered with a sprawling ’70s floral print or the Gucci monogram. The campaign looked like a vacation we could only daydream of during an ongoing pandemic. And plenty of customers actually went outside to purchase clothing out of geodesic dome tents that Gucci pitched up in the middle of Brooklyn, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto. They trekked out of shops with oversized pink shopping bags reaching the peak of consumerism rather than exploration.
Although Gucci x The North Face still seems unlikely, the collaboration arrives at a moment when Gucci’s revenues have slowed down because of the pandemic, which has led Gucci to release products that resonate with older shoppers as well, like its Fifties Constance bag popularized by Jackie Kennedy. The North Face serves as the perfect middle ground since it can excite a young customer who learned about the brand through Supreme, and their parents, who’ve likely worn iterations of the garments in this collection during their younger days. Fashion is grappling with what to sell people during a pandemic, and Michele might have found the perfect balance with The North Face collab, which isn’t as obvious as making a sweatsuit (although there are some hoodies and T-shirts in the assortment). The brands worked together to create technical outerwear. “I don’t differentiate between beauty and functionality,” said Michele about the collaboration. “I find it very comfortable to be beautiful and I find it very beautiful to be comfortable.”
More importantly, it also comes at a time when being outdoors is a luxury. Personally, the pandemic has greatly altered my perception of what luxury is. It no longer feels limited to brands or products traditionally labeled as such. Right now, it feels like a luxury to own a bike or to be able to work from home. Whereas having the means to own several different jackets doesn’t feel as opulent as it used to be, because how often can you even wear them during a pandemic? The greatest indulgence I’ve found during this crazy year was the opportunity to escape New York City, thanks to my girlfriend having access to a car, to go hiking throughout the tri-state area. While most of my clothing remains inside space bags jammed inside the closet of my apartment, a set of North Face garments have stayed in my daily rotation since we went into lockdown in March. A red Gore-Tex Mountain Jacket, a Denali, a Nuptse puffer, and a Steep Tech backpack. Ironically, I purchased all these items with the same intentions as anyone who bought a piece from the Gucci North Face collection this week. It was simply for the look. But when I decided to actually wear this gear to climb up rocky scrambles and venture up foggy ascents in upstate New York, I understood the value of my gear beyond how good I thought I looked while standing on a subway train. The North Face and Gucci collaboration embodies that feeling of reaching the top, physically and socially.
I’m not saying that anyone who buys a Gucci North Face will become spellbound to go hiking in the Adirondacks. And yes, The North Face has undeniably positioned itself to become a hyped clothing brand like Supreme. But, at its core, The North Face has always represented the spirit of exploration and our innate human desire to connect with the great outdoors. It’s a company that produces clothing which helps us access a world that feels as inaccessible as a Gucci outfit. A lot of us can remember begging our parents to buy a simple North Face backpack growing up. The North Face has long been a precious item for most of us, which is why you’ll meet old hikers who’ve worn one North Face jacket for 30 years straight, and graffiti writers who’ve boosted them to make ends meet.
By no means do I plan on actually shelling out $3,500 on a Gucci North Face puffer. Besides, vintage North Face jackets from the 1970s and similar releases from The North Face today are widely available at more affordable prices. But I will enviously stare at anyone who owns one of these jackets, simply because I can’t afford it. And I do know I have the good fortune of wearing North Faces I already own for future explorations, whether that’s a voyage up to the Catskill Mountains this weekend or wearing a vintage Steep Tech hoodie while biking up to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Whether you lined up for one of these jackets at a pop-up this week, or scoffed at it while wearing a 20-year-old Denali fleece, the Gucci North Face collab acknowledges that clothing can give us a sense of escapism even during the darkest times.