FUZZY FLEECE jackets, an old standby of the Clif-Bar crowd, have made an abrupt leap from your local REI’s outdoor-gear offerings to the pricey heights of fashion. In 2018, big-ticket labels such as Balenciaga, Lanvin and Moncler produced fleece jackets with four-figure price tags while celebrities like Shia LaBeouf, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and Kendall Jenner were all photographed in their own napped coats. And this trend has trickled down particularly swiftly. Today, a budget-conscious shopper can get a stylish $29.90 fleece from Uniqlo or a $50 plush bomber from Zara. “We’re seeing [fleece] across the board from casual wear up through to luxury,” explained Olie Arnold, the deputy style director at e-commerce site Mr Porter.
The idea of a “luxury” fleece jacket is antithetical to its roots. In the late 1970s, Yvon Chouinard, the rock-climbing founder of Patagonia, sought a more functional alternative to wool which, although insulating, gets leaden when wet. He turned to Malden Mills, a textile manufacturer based in Lawrence, Mass. “That led to the invention of synthetic fleece in the late ’70s which was commercially launched in the fall of 1981,” said Gary Smith, the CEO of Polartec, the company that was born out of Malden Mills’s ashes after it declared bankruptcy in 2007.
For decades, lightweight fleece jackets could be found somewhere between the carabiners and walking sticks at any self-respecting outdoor retailer. But the normcore trend–the early-2010s phenomenon that elevated ordinary, egalitarian clothing like Champion sweats and North Face puffers into fashionable curiosities–also conferred new cachet on fleece. High-fashion brands eventually took notice and began selling their own normcore-ish versions of Patagonia fleece jackets at far-from-norm prices. Lawrence Schlossman, 31, the brand director for fashion resale site Grailed, has used his personal Instagram account to catalog oxymoronic “luxury” fleeces, like Loewe’s $4,350 leather-patched shearling model and a $350 leopard-printed fleece from Japan’s Kapital.
Still, Mr. Schlossman himself most frequently wears a vintage Patagonia “Synchilla” fleece jacket that cost him $180. “Personally, I have limits,” he said, noting that unless you’re paying for real shearling (as with Loewe’s jacket), utilitarian and designer fleeces barely differ.
Many fleece fans still crave the basic models that conjure their childhoods. Fleece “was just a really lovely fuzzy source of comfort for me when I was a kid and now, as I get older, I’m like, ‘I want that again,’” said Abby Rand, 31, the social media director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. A fleece collector, she owns about 15 jackets, both vintage-inspired and actually vintage, including a bright orange, Jamaican-made Patagonia number from 1989, when fleece brands still largely targeted hikers or bikers, which she inherited from her mother.
The evolution of the outdoorsy fleece jacket speaks both to consumers’ heightened craving for comfort and a loosening of dress codes (see my column on how the fleece vest has become the uniform of urbanite bankers.) Mainstream brands are riding the fleece wave. “It’s J. Crew, it’s Banana Republic, it’s Gap. It’s not your typical outdoor brands,” said Gary Smith, the CEO of Polartec, of the players that are benefitting from the new demand. “That retro pile look is very much on trend,” he added, referring to archetypal fleece whose fluffy, raised surface (or “pile”) feels much like shearling.
Yet, unlike the natural wool of a sheep, artificial fleece—which is often synthesized from terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol or recycled from plastic bottles—is not environmentally friendly. “There’s a lot of concern about micro plastic getting into the ocean,” said Mr. Smith, alluding to the fact that a plastic-based material like fleece doesn’t break down easily and adds pollutants to our environment. Since 1993, Polartec (then Malden Mills) has experimented with recycled polyester and to date has used 1.3 billion water bottles to that end. Recycled fleece has lately become more en vogue, as companies like Everlane, L.L. Bean and Patagonia push collections fabricated from 100% recycled materials. Polartec is now experimenting with biodegradable and corn-based fleece which it hopes to take to market soon.
For many fleece fans, buying a vintage jacket is the most eco-friendly option. Austin Williamson, 20, a college student in Dayton, Ohio, has amassed 30 or so vintage (pre-2007) Patagonia fleeces over the past year or so. Beyond the sustainability of used fleeces, Mr. Williamson finds them “a lot warmer” and ineffably fuzzier than newer models. The demand for these fluffy vintage fleeces is so high that he’s begun to sell them online for as much as $300, roughly double the cost of a new Patagonia jacket. “I probably make more than my friends who work minimum wage jobs right now,” said Mr. Williamson. Today, where there’s fleece, there’s fortune.