When I was at university I was a regular in H&M. After all, not only was it one of the few places I could afford to buy clothes, but its ever-changing array meant that it was always an interesting place to wander around.
But my lectures didn’t require any physical exertion. The only sweating I’d be doing was in the light sheen of a hangover.
Since 2014, the quality of clothing has become a major consideration for me. When I left the UK to sail across the Atlantic, suddenly it mattered very much what I wore and what exactly it was designed for.
Waterproof or weatherproof?
I talked to a lot of people who were experienced sailors because sailing isn’t a run-of-the-mill sport, clothes have to survive extreme weather for months at a time. For instance, a waterproof jacket is often just designed to be worn for a few weekends hiking a year, not for daily deluges of saltwater. Even sailing jackets are only designed to be worn a few times a year because most people only sail on summer weekends, not every day.
I was barraged with advertising from the major companies but were their clothes actually going to do the job? A jacket guaranteed for 10 years is guaranteed for 10 years of ‘reasonable use’. Sailing around the Atlantic for 2 years almost definitely didn’t qualify for reasonable use.
My partner skipped out on the sailing brands altogether, instead going for a Guy Coton jacket that’s designed for offshore fisherman, reasoning that if it withstands the harsh environment of a fishing trawler, it’ll withstand two years cruising.
I was also sailing in the tropics where the UV level was off the charts and clothes had to be light and yet resilient. My beloved cheap tank tops had gaping holes within weeks.
Now I’m living in the Austrian alps and skiing everyday, it’s just as difficult to find clothing that suits my lifestyle. It’s often minus-10 on the mountain and staying warm is key to a good day. But a tricky black run makes me so hot I need to open all my vents. Even baselayers aren’t just for keeping you toasty though, they also need to be able to carry sweat away from your skin otherwise you’ll be freezing cold on the next lift.
I used to think that clothes were clothes. That shoes were shoes. I couldn’t have been more wrong. But it’s wading through the advertising to the truth that I find so difficult.
Merino is a true super fabric and almost all my skiing baselayers are merino, as are my ski socks. But it’s so easy to spot the word ‘merino’ on packaging and settle for it. What happens when you read the fabric list on the back? Merino 15%.
Buying clothing for outdoor adventures is now the same as buying processed food – it’s a case of studying the back of the packet, holding two ‘ingredients’ lists up against each other and working out which one is better. These biscuits are made with butter, great, those ones, palm oil, not great. These socks are 15% merino, ugh, these ones are 58% merino, yay!
Branding is one of the most essential parts of running any successful business but for the consumer, it’s a time-consuming hobby to work out what brands are all show and no quality and which ones actually live up to their massive prices.
Want to do the sport or look like you do the sport?
So many t-shirts have the names of major surf and outdoor brands scrawled across the chest but are only the same as Fruit of the Loom. Sure they may have fancy branding and come at £50 a pop but they’re the last thing you want to wear up a mountain, despite their outdoor aesthetic.
It’s easy with some brands to disregard them for outdoor use. With shops like H&M, Primark and even the more expensive brands knowing that their clothes will be bought, worn once and then relegated to the back of the wardrobe, what’s the point in using good fabrics? Their gymwear ranges might look funky, but they’re designed to be worn in the Starbucks next door to the gym.
But what about brands that market themselves as outdoor? Many are no better, they just cost more and have a picture of a mountain embroidered on. And as more and more people start adventuring, climbing, hiking and generally enjoying being out in the wild, more brands are starting up with emphasis on decoration not on technical quality.
Fast fashion, as Esquire put it late last year, is ‘destroying the planet’. For lovers of outdoor adventure, it’s not only ruining the world we love so much but it’s also a vast waste of money. If you’re wearing cheap polyester t-shirts for a ten day hike, you’ll have to take ten of them or do your laundry every night. But invest in one or two pure merino t-shirts and you’ll have a fabric that pulls dirt and sweat from your skin and never smells.
I can’t tell you how much of a revelation it was to me that good quality clothing made sense. Not only did I no longer have a wardrobe with overflowing cheap clothes, but I had clothing that still felt good whether I’d walked up Squamish’s Chief or skied down an icy black mid-afternoon.
It’s becoming harder to find clothes that do what they say they’ll do. Every new outdoor brand seems to be ‘born out of’ someone’s walk in the woods, combining meaningless phrase after meaningless phrase. I found one pair of trousers in a hiking shop that ‘challenge the status quo’…really? The status quo of awful copywriting? I don’t want trousers that challenge the status quo, I want trousers that allow a full range of movement and dry quickly.
We need to stop indulging these outrageously expensive brands who promise the earth in flowery language but are actually just fast fashion with a higher price tag. A lot of inspiring copy on the label is often just hiding the fact that these clothes are made from cheap fabrics too, they just have better publicists.
Eco or What?
Searching out ethical and eco-friendly brands can be difficult, especially as they’re still a fairly niche market. But we can still be more ecologically sensible on an individual level. By buying only great quality clothing that will last us for years. Yup, that’s right people, years.
If everyone had a modest wardrobe of clothing that lasts and that works, we might start seeing a trickle down affect. The clothes from lifestyle companies aren’t that cheap and yet the quality is questionable. Buying a t-shirt from Patagonia at £60 takes a bit of thought but it’s only twice the price of a lifestyle surf brand t-shirt that has zero technology but a big hibiscus flower on it. And Patagonia create clothing that lasts, works and even excels in the harsh environments of life.
Owning a small quantity of excellent quality clothes will make all our lives easier than owning one hundred items of fast fashion that would fall apart if we wore them more than once.
If nothing else, it makes deciding what to wear easier.