Fashion

Social climber: how the North Face puffer jacket became street style

Forget the camel coat or the classic trench. This winter, investment outerwear is all-weathers friendly, it’s puffy, brightly coloured and has a semi-circle logo in homage to a Californian rock formation. The North Face puffer jackets – such as the classic two-tone Nupste from 1996 – have become both the height of fashion and a familiar sight on streets nationwide. They’re worn by models ranging from Emily Ratajkowski to Kendall Jenner, as well as teenagers in parks everywhere.

These jackets – which cost around £250 new – are a popular secondhand purchase for younger consumers. They are the most searched-for item on Gen Z resale app Depop, with a rise of 500% over the past four months. On eBay, someone searched for The North Face every three seconds from July to December 2020, while vintage store Beyond Retro reported a 315% rise in sales of The North Face items. The brand is popular new, too – Asos reports a 400% rise in sales, year on year, of various exclusive styles.

Some of the popularity is the pandemic effect. A jacket designed for braving the elements is infinitely more desirable when leisure time is limited to outside. It also fits into a yearning for comfort in a year of anxiety – wearing a coat that doubles up as a duvet is reassuring.

But, in addition to those qualities, The North Face has fashion pedigree. The Nupste was relaunched in 2018 with celebrities like Kanye West wearing it. This week, the brand revealed its much-anticipated collaboration with Gucci: The North Face x Gucci monogrammed puffer, with a video featuring climbers, graffiti artists and the brand’s eccentric designer, Alessando Michele.

It could be seen as “peak gorpcore”, the trend for young urban creative types to wear outdoorsy items. Jeff Carvalho, the co-founder of streetwear site Highsnobiety, describes the Nupste as “the icon for the category”. He says, “style fans like nothing more than to rock highly engineered gear… It’s made for the mountain but wow does it look cool on the streets”. The North Face Gucci-monogrammed puffer is the latest example. It has been endorsed by A$AP Rocky this week, along with Vogue staffers.

Collaboration is familiar to fans of The North Face – and it’s part of its crossover appeal. The brand, which was founded in San Francisco in 1966 and is now owned by the VF Corporation, has collaborated with streetwear giant Supreme since 2007. A recent alliance with MM6, a Martin Margiela brand, saw Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber wear a sell-out gilet.

Endorsement from models like Hadid, Bieber and Jenner – with their huge Instagram followings – probably have more influence on young people buying The North Face than a designer collaboration.

Peter Semple, chief marketing officer at Depop, credits social media: “From November to December, we saw 20 times more searches for ‘Brown North Face Puffer’, coinciding with its recent popularity on TikTok.” This TikTok trend can be traced back to Jenner wearing a brown The North Face puffer in winter 2019. They are now so hard to get that they can cost over £400 on the app.

Teenagers wearing The North Face jackets means they have the potential to become a controversial item for the grown-up establishment – as happened in the US in the 90s. The jackets became so highly prized – and are so highly priced – that they were the cause of crime. Speaking to The Cut in 2018, The North Face collector Joey Ones said that young people regularly shoplifted the brand’s jackets in the 90s, sometimes reselling them.Similar crime has been reported in South Korea. Hugely popular with high school students in the noughties, The North Face items were called “spine-breakers” by parents, because the high price broke their financial backbone. This reached international headlines in 2012, when a widely-circulated blog post revealed how different styles announced a pupil’s place in the high school pecking order – from loser, in the cheapest Nupste, to “the boss” in a Himalayan Down parka. The LA Times then reported on bullies at schools forcing pupils to buy their discarded jackets to fund a purchase of more expensive ones, and students caught conducting a burglary to raise funds to buy North Face jackets. The status that comes with wearing one was seductive. ”Mine was around $400,” 14-year-old Jeon Seo-hyun boasts in the article. “Yeah, I know it’s quite expensive.”

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