“Clothes make the man”
Much of Shakespeare has transcended quotation and become proverb. This line from Polonius (strictly speaking he says “for the apparel oft proclaims the man”), the fool in Hamlet, accompanies another of Shakespeare’s proverbs: “to thine own self be true”. Perhaps Polonius recognised the tension between these lines, for he surely never followed his own advice.
This takes us to urban techwear. Marketers try to sell us an idea of who we want to be when they sell their goods. In the case of urban techwear, it is the stylish but adventurous man who can confidently stroll from boardroom to parkour competition without breaking a sweat or changing a thread. What is urban techwear? Well, through use of technical fabrics and modern production processes, small clothing brands like Outlier, Proof NY and Alchemy Equipment promise clothes that can make even your average cubicle worker feel masculine and adventurous again without looking like he’s just stepped out of The North Face catalogue. However, a quick look at the price tags of these clothes will reveal that the modern life of adventure is expensive, at least if you want to look good while doing it – or, perhaps, the idea of adventure is expensive.
When you buy techwear, are you just paying a premium for the romantic idea of adventure?
Urban techwear: fab or fad?
You can read my review of Alchemy Equipment’s offerings for my impression of one brand’s take on the genre. Synopsis: it’s good stuff. What interests me though isn’t just the cut or build quality, but the ideas underpinning this trend in clothing.
- Urban techwear recognises that most people, and certainly their target market, overwhelming spend their time in urban environments, not climbing mountains. Hardcore alpinists, cyclists, marathon runners etc. will always choose dedicated clothing rather than the ‘do-all-in-style’ of techwear
- Modern (corporate) life is tame and bland, but difficult to escape. People are willing to buy the idea of adventure if they can wear this idea on a daily basis rather than just on the occasional holiday — regardless of whether the benefit of coffee-repelling suit pants is minimal or, indeed, adventurous.
- Businesswear and a lot of stylish casual clothes (thuggish sweatpants notwithstanding) are actually quite impractical for exercise, particularly if you want to cycle to work or live a wet climate. Techwear is actually quite good at this.
The third point is reasonable: techwear is comfortable, it performs well and if you exercise a lot on your way to or from work, then maybe techwear is worth the investment. However, the second point interests me most. When you buy techwear, are you paying a premium for a romantic idea?
I would say yes, particularly if you do not already lead an active or adventurous lifestyle. And so we return to the opening quote.
Proof NY Nomad
Clothes make the man, but to thine ownself be true
Expensive clothes that shed water like a duck’s back and that stretch every which way won’t make you a more adventurous person. Chances are, they won’t make you want to ride to work when it’s bucketing (most techwear is ‘water repellent’, not actually waterproof like Gore-Tex). Clothes may make you in the eyes of others, but they will not change your nature.
But what if you are an active person? In that case, urban techwear will definitely outperform conventional casual or business attire for whatever adventurous activity you can think of. However, it likely won’t outperform dedicated non-urban techwear from sporting and adventure retailers. If you have the luxury of changing clothes between work and going to the gym or your next hike, you don’t really need $200 pants.
That said, there is great appeal in having few but high quality, versatile possessions. If you think that one $200 pair of pants will replace 2 or 3 $90 pants in your wardrobe, why not? Many of these brands pride themselves on being made in the USA. That itself may be worth a premium to you.
A traveller’s dream
Finally, I’ll point out that while urban techwear is likely superfluous when you have easy access to a wardrobe and laundry, it is ideal for people who want to travel light and look good while doing it. Shirts that don’t need ironing and don’t get smelly, pants that dry in 20 minutes, jackets that are warm but pack down small are all ideal. Up until the recent popularisation of urban techwear the only clothes that could perform these functions were some combination of hideous and hideously expensive, or simply far too outdoorsy for walking around the streets of Paris, London or New York. You can read more about my search for ideal travel clothes in a future post, including comparisons between techwear options.