Patagonia: From Peaks to Pioneers
Patagonia is one of the most recognisable American outdoor clothing brands. Along with providing genuinely functional clothing for outdoor enthusiasts, the company has become the poster boy for the great outdoors and for sustainable businesses worldwide.
Over a period of 50 years, Patagonia has been making waves across the cultural spectrum. They’ve hit the mark with the outdoorsy types looking for a functional piece for their next hike, the style conscious streetwear kid who find joy in the irony of strolling urban streets in techwear, to the business folk who spend their time out of suits in athleisure.
The origins of the Patagonia brand
Left: Patagonia Catalogue, 1989 Right: Patagonia Catalogue, c. 2000
Patagonia's mission has always been to create high-quality, sustainable products that minimise the company's environmental impact. The journey to creating the Patagonia brand began from a deep love for mountaineering. Its founder Yvon Chouinard began making climbing equipment for personal use before launching Chouinard Equipment in 1965. The climbing equipment company offered a range of high quality climbing equipment.
In 1973, Patagonia clothing company was founded. On a climb in the Scottish highlands, Chouinard noticed the need for high quality and durable clothing and expanded his offering to include clothing for outdoor activities. He noticed other climbers wearing woven Rugby shirts. On returning to America, he imported surplus and vintage rugby shirts to sell on.
Over the years, Patagonia has developed new product ranges for other extreme sports as well as leaning into the fashion industry. The range of men and women’s clothing is designed with durability in mind: everything from Patagonia fleece, jackets, and gilets to hats, bags and backpacks. They also developed a separate line of products for kids and babies.
The Patagonia Fleece
Patagonia has claimed to be the creators of the world’s first fleece. In the early 1970s, when Chouinard was on a climbing trip in the Welsh mountains, he noticed that the wool sweaters he and his climbing friends were wearing became heavy and waterlogged when wet, and took a long time to dry out. On returning to California, Chouinard and his wife Malinda, searched for the perfect material that would replicate the warmth of wool whilst being lightweight and quick-drying. They found the synthetic material, Polatrec, a strong pile fabric originally used for toilet seat covers (yup), and began making their iconic pullover fleece.
Patagonia fleece pullover quickly became popular among outdoor enthusiasts and the demand for the product grew rapidly. In 1979, Patagonia began to manufacture the fleece in big numbers and soon the fleece pullover became Patagonia's flagship product. From there, the company continued to innovate and refine the with new styles and colours.
As the iconic Patagonia fleece gained popularity, the company faced several challenges, including the environmental impact of the production of synthetic fabrics. To address this issue, Patagonia began to research and implement more sustainable production methods and in 1993, the brand produced the first recycled plastic jacket for outdoor use.
Who wears Patagonia?
Left: Virgil Abloh in Patagonia Right: ROKIT's Gorpcore Edit campaign image
The Patagonia fleece moved from an outdoors staple to a fashion piece. The success and innovation of the Patagonia fleece inevitably led other brands to join them on their hike to change how we dress for the outdoors. In the 90s, brands like GAP, Tommy Hilfiger and Old Navy, as well as the big time outdoor clothing brand, The North Face, began to produce synthetic fleeces in various colours and patterns, in huge numbers and at varying prices.
In the last decade, the fleece has resurfaced as a fashion item. Patagonia fleeces in the 2010s were worn by tech professionals and ‘business bros’. For these customers, Patagonia brand became a status symbol and adopted the nickname Pata-gucci.
On the other end of the fashion spectrum, Streetwear adopted the fleece as it favoured functionality with a retro logo. Most notably, the king of streetwear, Virgil Abloh, wore vintage Patagonia fleece which influenced streetwear trends for years to come.
Patagonia is front and centre in the current techwear style trend, a.k.a. ‘Gorpcore’, that is sported by millennials and Gen-Zs today. The trend mixes the edge of streetwear and the practicality of hike-wear through brands like Patagonia, The North Face, Arc'teryx and Saloman. The gorpcore trend has also become an aesthetic centred around the fight for climate change.
Is Patagonia sustainable?
Patagonia is one of the very few fashion companies who have put their money where their mouth is. With 94% of their current line made from recycled materials, their commitment to reducing C02 emissions, as well as their regenerative farming practices, they’re inspiring an industry shift towards a more sustainable fashion system.
Patagonia's 'Don't Buy This Jacket' campaign, 2011
The manufacturing process of Patagonia clothes is centred around sustainable practices. For example, the company uses a closed-loop system to recycle water in their dyeing process, which helps to conserve resources and reduce pollution. They use renewable energy sources to power their factories, and have implemented a strict policy of not using any hazardous chemicals in their production.
Patagonia company engages in a number of other sustainability initiatives. ‘Common Threads’ is an initiative to encourage customers to buy only what they need, and to repair and recycle their clothing instead of buying new items. Their most famous campaign 'Don't Buy This Jacket', was part of this initiative.
Patagonia also partners with organisations that work to protect the environment, such as The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Alliance, and have donated 1% of annual sales to environmental organisations year on year.
And they haven’t stopped there...
In 2022, Chouinard made a first-of-its-kind move in business and donated 100% of Patagonia sales to a non-profit organisation that’s helping to fight climate change.
The Legacy of Patagonia
Patagonia the brand is the gift that keeps on giving. For years they have been striving towards a better and more sustainable clothing manufacturing process and business practice. They have been a vocal advocate for environmental causes, both by inspiring people to get outdoors and by partnering with non-profit charities to help them fight climate change.
And yet… Despite all their work in establishing themselves as a brand for the planet, they still produce new clothing. The outdoor brand is therefore contributing to the problem of making, transporting, and owning ‘stuff’ that pollutes us and the planet.
Why not opt for a secondhand and vintage Patagonia fleece or jacket instead? Not only will you keep iconic Patagonia clothes in circulation, you’ll also find Patagonia sale items in our collection. So, it is a win-win, really…
The Evolution of the Fleece, New York Times