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Outdoors Clothing Coming of Age, part I

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The Gear Junkie—Outdoors Clothing Coming of Age, part I

The rare perfect mix of function and form is an apex of design, a blending of beauty with utility to create something that at once satisfies both a need and a want. Ostensibly, clothing, of all things, should provide such attributes, inherent desirability and amplification of the wearer along with such characteristics as comfort, sun protection, freedom of movement, sweat wicking, water repellency, and warmth.

But style has always trumped utility in the halls of fashion. Workaday wear hits a mushy middle ground. The outdoors industry—the purveyors of polyester and nylon and laminates from Gore—for years eschewed mainstream looks for design that seemingly wanted its possessor to stand out: “Look at me! I ski!”

Then a funny thing happened. Apparel companies associated with the outdoors industry began making clothing that was really cool. And they left the technical aspects intact. Form met function, quietly, and people—outdoorsy and non—are just now starting to take notice.

You want names? I’m talking about Icebreaker, Salomon, Nau, Cloudveil, Ibex, Indigenous Design, Topo Ranch, Blurr, Mountain Khakis, Horney Toad, Arc’teryx, Ex Officio, SmartWool, and a dozen other brands.

High-end merino wool, organic fibers, hybrid fabrics that stretch but maintain shape, laser-cut pockets, radio-frequency-welded seams, waterproof treatments that truly breathe—these are the enablers of the function. The form comes from a new mindset within the outdoors industry, a wider-reaching theme that says you can hike or ski and be seen in the same day, in the same outfit.

Take the Nau Acoustic Jacket ($165; www.nau.com; see picture above) as an example: This low-profile, stylish piece breathes, repels wind and water, and is made with recycled polyester and a stretchy synthetic for an unrestrained fit. The jacket has saddle-stitched seams placed away from irritation points, sculpted sleeves, and laser-cut zip pockets.

Blurr’s Redpoint Shirt ($60, www.blurrstuff.com) is an organic cotton button-up that’ll pass muster in a semi-formal setting. Or, as its name alludes, wear it rock climbing: The shirt incorporates a tinge of Spandex to provide stretch and ease of movement.

The Cache Creek Windshirt by Cloudveil ($85, www.cloudveil.com) is half jacket, half shirt, though not really either. Wear it on a misty mid-October morning when it’s 48 degrees outdoors. Its nylon shell face is wind and water resistant, and there’s a sweat-wicking lining inside. The semi-iridescent cowboy snap buttons are a nice touch, too.

Even Carhartt, a traditional working man’s brand, has jumped in with some innovative digs. The Cordura Front Work Dungaree pants ($60, www.carhartt.com) are stitched with 12-ounce cotton though on front is a Cordura chap panel with a water-resistant coating to keep you clean and dry. Water beads on the chap, rolling off as you walk through mist and rain.

Clothing should work like that. It should behave as second skin, doing its job without any attention or notice, repelling rain or sun, or keeping you warm in elements of any kind. Demand that kind of function. Good form is sure to follow.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

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