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If You Can Get Killed Doing It, Fashion Wants It

It’s a mighty long way from El Capitan to the Louis Vuitton flagship on the Champs-Élysées, but don’t mention that to Virgil Abloh. For his fall 2019 collection, Mr. Abloh, the creative director for men’s wear at Vuitton, introduced a chalk bag not unlike the kind climbers like the free soloist Alex Honnold use to attack rock walls with little more than their limbs and their nerve.

Traditional outfitters like Marmot, North Face and Black Diamond make versions of the bucket-shaped carryall for holding the chalk crucial to keeping climbers’ hands dry as they scale crags and mark ticks on rock faces. Most sell for around $20.

The Vuitton Chalk Nano costs $1,590 (or $3,000 in backpack size), its added value, in corporate-speak, being the “understated Louis Vuitton aesthetic coded into the allover LV monogram.”

Fashion has had a long love affair with sports of all kinds, and it is easy enough to trace an arc from the genteel sports of the leisured classes of the 19th century to the more crazily individualistic ones of today. Since the 1990s, at least, extreme and adventure sports have excited designers, who imported to their runways superficial elements of gear created for street lugers, off-piste snowboarders, arctic surfers and, lately, those who push the outer limits of athletic pursuit.

Consider the new fall men’s wear collection from Prada, a label that has probably done more than most to advance the blending of adventure sports and fashion, exploiting technical fabrics and sporting motifs for collections that ready men for every conceivable style or climate challenge on, say, Fifth Avenue.

Its designs have varied widely through the years, and yet the visual vocabulary of extreme and adventure sports is an aesthetic constant.

“With time, the aesthetic could and has changed,” Miuccia Prada wrote recently in an email. “But the technical and performing element, therefore research, remains at the core of the collection.” She was referring to a group of fall clothes conceptually inspired, in part, by team wear for the Luna Rossa Challenge, the Prada Pirelli challenger for the America’s Cup.

ImageCreditOu Jia Cheng

Actual race wear for the team competing in Auckland, New Zealand, next year will be rigorously streamlined. “Performance is, and has to be, the absolute priority,” Ms. Prada wrote.

On the other hand, the multicolored paneled, cinched, zippered, hooded Windbreakers and parkas and backpacks and scoop-neck pullovers Prada showed in Milan in June came festooned with so many bellows pockets and utility compartments that a wearer would need a route map just to find his car keys.

IT WAS PROBABLY INEVITABLE that, as tech advances propelled sports culture further away from the contractually dictated sameness of numbered team uniforms and closer to the individualistic and highly Instagrammable realms of death-courting pursuits like free soloing and wing-suit flight, fashion would follow.

In a certain sense, it had no choice.

The street wear that has for so long stoked fashion’s edge eventually stalled, and as hoodies and saggers became a form of urban normcore, they yielded to the embrace by fashion-forward types like the rapper ASAP Rocky of zip fleece parkas from labels like North Face, Columbia and Arc’teryx — “gorpcore” as it was christened by The Cut.

Even Alessandro Michele, the Gucci panjandrum, went around looking like a base camp groupie.

“I believe that the street wear and sportswear influences we have seen lately in fashion are mostly aesthetic,” Ms. Prada wrote. “It is solely a fashion statement.”

Yet for many of the labels represented in a crammed adventure sports pavilion at the recent Pitti Uomo, world’s largest trade show dedicated to men’s wear and held twice yearly in Florence, Italy, the get-ups of the ornamental dandies for which the fair has become famous seemed as if designed for inhabitants of a distant universe.

At brands like Woolrich, Raeburn, Mountain Research, And Wander and others, it was adventure sports that drove the aesthetics of clothes better suited to the Iditarod than the cobbled streets of Florence.

Reinforced, padded, anti-abrasive, reflective, filtering, thermo-regulating, rated for water resistance to depths of several hundred feet, the designs were said to have been inspired by Thoreau’s survivalist essays, NASA’s Mars exploration program, ice fishing, survivalist bushcraft, bouldering and the rock-face daredeviltry that turned the 2018 documentary “Free Solo” into an unexpected, nail-biting success.

ImageCreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

“This is not really about the usual cycles of fashion, with trends like logo-mania coming back every decade,” said Andrea Cane, the creative director of Woolrich, the 189-year-old American label now owned by an Italian and Japanese partnership. “We’re seeing something we haven’t seen before.”

Mr. Cane was referring to the adrenaline-rush niche or “whiz” sports, whose amateur stars have substantial followings on social media. Think Marshall Miller, the base jumper, sky diver and wing-suit flyer whose death-defying antics make individualist renegades of just a generation ago seem quaint.

THERE IS SOMETHING ELSE at work, Mr. Cane suggested, in the push toward the outer limits of athletic adventure: environmental panic.

“We increasingly need to find tools to be protected, clothes that can adapt to rapid changes of temperature, keep out the elements,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a climber or a guy in the city — psychologically you’re wearing your house on your back.”

Or else perhaps you are clad in a Chinese military parachute upcycled into a smart suit like those at the British label Raeburn, which fold down to roughly the size of a bandanna. The label, barely a decade old, was founded by Christopher Raeburn, a designer whose stated goal is producing fashion almost exclusively from remade and recycled materials.

Recently Mr. Raeburn named his brother Graeme as performance director for Raeburn, the significance of the pairing less nepotistic than directional. At his previous job, Graeme drove the growth of the cycling lifestyle brand Rapha, possibly best known for its mobile pop-up clubs and the fact that its majority investors include Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of the founder of Walmart.

Or you are wearing a World War II E-1 radioman’s vest, open at the back for easy access to communication equipment (ready for end-of-days transmissions?) and reproduced as part of a line of clothing from Mountain Research.

This niche label from Tokyo, known as General Research when it was founded in 1993 by Setsumasa Kobayashi, was renamed in 2006 to reflect the designer’s predilection for stuff like zippered cotton-nylon snow pants resembling something an early mountaineer might have worn to traverse the Khumbu Icefall.

ImageCreditClara Vannucci for The New York Times

“Performance wear is a really important part of the fashion mix,” said Hideaki Ishii, a Mountain Research representative. “We don’t do any fishing ourselves, but we love the fishing men with their crazy pockets.”

Mr. Kobayashi was just one of many designers at Pitti Uomo producing garments suited for the kinds of adventure where survival is not necessarily a given. And, eerily, his designs embodied a low-grade environmental anxiety that hummed beneath the surface of the trade fair, as if the adventure sports trend in fashion had existential underpinnings.

FOR JOSH PESKOWITZ, the men’s fashion director for the luxury e-commerce retailer Moda Operandi, performance can be interpreted any way you like. Sure, Mr. Kobayashi may be a purist who lives two hours outside Tokyo in a specially designed green structure set deep in a forest, may haul his own wood and sleep in a loft bed he clambers into by way of a wall studded with rock climbing holds.

Yet, as Mr. Peskowitz pointed out, for many fans of extreme sports fashion, the spirit of adventure rarely takes them beyond the neighborhood.

Stroll through popular fashion destinations like the Omotesando neighborhood of Tokyo, Mr. Peskowitz noted, and it is not rare to encounter guys outfitted as if they were headed to base camp on Mount Everest. “I’ve seen men walking around with tent frames on their backs and Wigwam boots pulled to their knees, and they’re literally going for coffee,” he said. “They like the look.”

In a sense, this evolution was an inevitable one. More than six decades ago, Sports Illustrated canvassed a group of what would now be termed influencers about the effects of sportswear on fashion. One of them was Edward S. Marcus, a merchant who built a family specialty store in Dallas into the retailing behemoth Neiman Marcus.

“Increasing leisure and interest in sports have led people into avocational habits that influence fashion,” Mr. Marcus told Sports Illustrated in January 1956, noting that popular interest in active sports fashion had made it acceptable to wear knit shirts, bright colors and shorts off the tennis court.

“What I find interesting about the extreme sports influence, which speaks to this very ’90s moment we’re living in and some of the ideas Prada and Helmut Lang first introduced, is the extension of it to all aspects of the wardrobe,” said Ken Downing, a former Neiman Marcus executive who is now the creative director of the Triple Five Group, the Canadian developers of retail and entertainment centers like the Mall of America. “It’s a continuation of where casualization is heading beyond the sweatshirt.”

“If you think about it,” he added, “it’s even begun to find its way into tailored clothing. Functionality is the new decoration, in a way.”


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