Given the ubiquity of fleece in all its forms – oversized hoodies, mixed-print jackets, half-zip sweaters (Tech Bros’ unofficial uniform) – it’s hard to believe how incredibly uncool it was when the fabric went out 40 years ago was conceived for the first time. What was originally only seen as a practical solution for scratchy textiles has been reincarnated over and over again to become the latest street style staple.
The humble fleece story officially begins in 1981, although it actually dates back a decade earlier when a man named Yvon Chouinard, known as “the father of the fleece” and founder of a then little-known mountaineering clothing store called Patagonia, went in search of it a synthetic “wonder fabric” that offers the same warmth and durability as wool, but is also light, easy to clean and quick to dry. His wife, Malinda Chouinard, discovered something that looked promising: a polyester that was surprisingly intended for toilet seat covers (LOL). And with this fabric, a prototype was made that would become the blueprint for the fleeces we know and love today: a cozy layer with a zipper on the front.
The inexpensive, low-maintenance fleece, available in a rainbow of colors, was destined to be immensely popular.
Around the same time, Massachusetts-based textile maker Maldon Mills (now known as Polartec) began experimenting with polyester and researching everything it could. He turned it into a dense but lightweight terrycloth-like material that became fluffier when brushed. Water away and provided insulation. With Chouinard’s Vision and Maldon Mills’ Textil, they launched the first line of fleece pullovers on the market in 1981. “We had the best technical group, engineering group and research group in the textile industry,” said Chouinard in an interview. “We built performance into the fabric. We were so proud of what we did.”
Chouinard set out to create a layer for nature, and he succeeded. In the mid-1980s, Patagonia’s snap-t-sweater, made from first-generation fleece – a textile called synchilla (a portmanteau made of synthetic and chinchilla) – became a staple for family ski trips and hikes. In the 1990s, fleece was almost as common as denim in a variety of designs from various brands including Gap, Lands’ End, and The North Face, to name a few. The inexpensive, low-maintenance fleece, available in a rainbow of colors, was destined to be immensely popular.
But since all cool trends are considered uncool as soon as they go mainstream, fleece turned to high-waisted buffers and jeans in the wee hours of the morning (like in the closets of mothers and fathers across America). This is where the fleece rested (with the exception of camps, college football games and snuggies) until fashion rediscovered pedestrian textiles, when Normcore – the anti-fashion movement – threatened the existence of trends with its fixation on level. ordinary clothes. And when Normcore created Gorpcore, the work tool, a useful derivative that prides itself on functionality and comfort, fleece was once again brought into the spotlight.
Fleece. . . were either celebrated for their simplicity or reinterpreted through a high fashion lens.
“With its legacy of authentic outdoor culture and the ability to reinterpret it in stylized ways, fleece is becoming a canvas for trusted and well-known products and an opportunity to create something entirely new,” said Tim Bantle, general manager, lifestyle at The North Face Interview with Fashionista. “Brands have the opportunity to take this blank canvas and design it in a future-oriented manner.”
With the exception of the fleece Patagonia vests that have permeated Silicon Valley, for the most part, fleeces have either been celebrated for their simplicity or reinterpreted through a high fashion lens (see: Altuzarra’s Elevated Attitude or Sandy Liang’s Streetwear Style) in leopard print, flowers and bold hues). There is also the element of comfort – the desire to either look for soothing textiles or retreat into familiarity in turbulent times – that could be blamed for its irresistibility. And with Patagonia’s goal of perfecting a sustainable version of fleece (or the option to buy it second-hand) using recycled polyester or natural fibers like recycled wool, we can at least feel better about ourselves wearing it. Combine that with the designers’ relentless ability to come up with new and innovative ways to reinvent the same old clothes, and we can expect the fleece (with arguably even more iterations) to catch on for the next 40 years .
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