As part of my quest for functional, stylish clothing to take with me while I backpack Europe in this Nov-Feb, I began researching “urban techwear”. Urban techwear is meant to combine the utility of adventure sport clothing from established companies like The North Face or Arc’teryx with street-smart looks that won’t be out of place in a museum, night club or office. You can read more about urban techwear and other options here. This review looks at one brand operating in this high-tech, high-function and high-style market: Alchemy Equipment.
Alchemy Equipment are a Kiwi-based brand that makes men’s and women’s clothing using quality components from around the world. When I saw that they were having an end-of-season sale, I decided to give them a try. Here’s my impressions based on a few weeks of winter-wear. I’ll update this review once I’ve properly tested these clothes in the dead of a Polish or Finnish winter.
Wool/Primaloft Hooded Jacket (AEM007)
This is the most substantial garment I bought from Alchemy. The outer is a Teflon-treated Portuguese wool-blend, while the insulation is Primaloft and the details are merino. Like most of Alchemy’s line, the actual garment was manufactured in China. However, this does not seem to adversely impact build quality. I’ve worn this in the rain a few times and in reasonably chilly conditions (4-12oC) and it is yet to disappoint. While not waterproof, the Teflon treated outer makes most water bead-up so that it is not absorbed. The hood is adjustable with both draw strings and a button on the back, which means that if it’s particularly cold, windy or wet you’ll have additional protection. However, note that the Primaloft insulation of this jacket is not as warm as a good quality down jacket. I recommend a mid-layer if it is below 10oC and expect that I’ll need to wear several layers for the kind of -10oC to -20oC that I expect in some parts of Europe.
As for styling, the jacket is lean-fitting and sleek. The zips to the chest pockets are hidden from view while all the hardware is anodised black. I’ve found that Medium is a perfect fit, such that I can wear it over a couple of mid-layers and still have a lean profile or on its own over a tee-shirt without looking bulky. This is fortuitous as for real cold weather I’ll be wearing thermals, a shirt, a merino henley and a fleece under this.
- Style: the jacket is definitely an attractive garment if you like dark clothing. In fact this jacket comes in two colours, described as Black and Moss Fleck, but the Moss Fleck could still be described as black. Alchemy’s line is a dark, so this jacket matches most everything else they make. (Note: they now offer this jacket in blue)
- Water-resistance: the jacket is not a water-proof hardshell. However, in light rain it is perfectly adequate. As it is not too bulky, one could easily wear a hardshell over this (and more layers) if heavy rain is expected.
- Warmth: I would say that while not very warm, the Primaloft does provide good insulation. Worn over a shirt and merino henley, you definitely won’t feel the cold unless it’s seriously chilly.
- Bulk: this is not a bulky garment, so it’ll fit into your daypack. This was a critical aspect for my purchase, as I like to travel very light.
- Price: the RRP of NZD450 is quite high (urban techwear is an expensive style). However, I bought mine at NZD270 on sale, which I think is very good price for a high quality jacket.
I’d definitely recommend this jacket. However, don’t buy it expecting a heavy-weight winter parka. It is warm for its weight and bulk, but there are warmer and more packable options (albeit, less stylish) from brands like Arc’teryx and Montane who also use Coreloft and Primaloft.
Ceramic Coated Stretch Jacket (AEM017)I don’t really know what the ceramic coating is on this jacket or what it is supposed to do. Alchemy Equipment says that the fabric comes from an Italian mill, Ponterto and is a 4-way stretch. The inner is polyester microfleece, which is very soft to touch.
- Style: as with all of Alchemy’s clothing, this fits lean and looks smart. The stretch fabric means that it fits over any layers you might have on underneath, but doesn’t look loose if all you’ve got under is a tee-shirt. I actually wore this over a button-down shirt and trousers to a job interview – that’s how sharp it looks. Sure, it wasn’t a law firm or a bank.
- Comfort: this is a very comfortable jacket. The microfleece is very soft. Coming into a heated room after wearing it outside it is easy just to unzip it.
- Warmth: this is not as warm as a proper fleece jacket. As a lightweight jacket to keep the wind off on a cool evening it will perform fine. As part of a layering system it will be great, because it is not bulky and stretches to accommodate layers underneath. However, I was hoping that it would be warmer than it is.
- Price: the RRP of NZD250 I think is too high, unless I’m missing some great benefit of ceramic coating. On sale at NZD150 it is more reasonable, but I think that there are probably more practical options for a warm mid-layer.
3XDRY Stretch Cotton Pants (AEM043)
The Holy Grail of urban techwear fabrics is Schoeller’s line of water-resistant, fast-drying cotton and nylon blends. These pants are actually cotton chinos and look like it, but the cotton is treated at a nano-level so that water rolls straight off. Note: they are actually darker black than the picture suggests.
- 3XDry: this fabric is truly magical. I’ve poured a tall glass of water onto one patch of the thigh while wearing it and all the water rolled straight off. You can see youtube videos that show this very feat. I’ve also worn them in the rain on several occasions without getting wet legs. They dry quickly, in about 20mins from being soaked.
- Travel-friendly: these will be my only pair of pants for 12 weeks (unless I get another pair). They are a good cut, comfortable and practical. For example, there’s a discreet zippered pocket on the right side with an entirely waterproof lining for your phone. On the other side the pocket has a clip to hold you wallet firm when confronted by pick-pockets, handy when travelling in touristy places. The little things count. These are well designed pants.
- Versatile: I’ve run in these, gone to the gym in these, attended a job interview in these and been on a date in them. Because they’re black trousers they can easily be dressed up, but with a classic chino styling they’re casual enough for all sorts of things. Importantly, because they’re not skinny-cut, and it is stretch cotton, they won’t restrict your motion.
- Wrinkles: these are cotton trousers, so they do wrinkle like chinos. That is disappointing — however, as they are in black the wrinkles do not show up much. Other pants with the Schoeller fabrics (eg Outlier, Proof NY, Mission Workshop etc) are made of nylon and probably wrinkle less. You can iron them just like normal pants, which actually reactivates the 3XDry, but my ideal travel pants would not need ironing.
- 3XDry: the magical treatment diminishes in effectiveness over time. While it is reactivated by heat (ironing or tumble drying), it won’t work as well after their twentieth wash as it did when new. Given how expensive the pants are (NZD192, on sale), you really want the treatment to last forever. Unfortunately, it won’t. That said, ironing them every now and then really does help.
- Attract fluff: I have a dog, so these pants attract a lot of dog hair. It shows up on the black – I always use a clothes brush before heading out with these on. That’s a combination of colour and material – my blue, brown, orange chinos don’t show dog hair or fluff on them.
I also bought a couple of shirts from Alchemy Equipment (AEM049 and AEM014) and a merino hoody (AEM022). The shirts are wool blended with cotton and polyester and I think will be good for winter travel as they are warmer than pure cotton and don’t wrinkle. The hoody is fine but not as interesting as Alchemy’s other offerings.
Alchemy Equipment is one of several brands in the urban techwear market. It is competing with American outfits Outlier, Proof NY, Mission Workshop and Isaora among others as well as, but to a lesser extent, the dedicated adventure brands such as The North Face and Arc’teryx. I think that Alchemy will do well because they offer a good line of well designed clothing. Mostly its competition have very limited selections or don’t produce women’s clothing.
One big advantage that Alchemy Equipment has is price. Urban techwear is expensive, we take that as granted. However, operating in New Zealand, Alchemy is going to be an attractive option for Australians (like me!) for whom the exchange rate will always remain favourable, as well as other foreigners. Particularly given that they offer free international shipping on larger orders and have had (and presumably will have again) excellent sales.
The real test for me will be wearing Alchemy Equipment, and essentially the same outfit at that, every day while backpacking Europe for 12 winter weeks. I believe that it’ll be up to the task, be that museums, hiking, skiing, going to the opera or enjoying the night life. I’ll give you an update in a few months.
Photo (mine): classic New Zealand North Island view; the fit of the 3XDry pants with the stretch-cotton jacket and Sorel Ankeny Hiker boots.