As an often-cold Midwestern child of the Nineties, I grew up with — or rather, in — a precious orbit of fleece jackets. There was the cosmically-patterned Patagonia pullover without which I was not photographed from the years 1992 to 1998 and the pistachio green The North Face zip-up I even slept in through middle school until it grew holey. For two decades, I wore one fleece until it physically disintegrated, only to replace it, eventually, and repeat the cycle all over again.
In 2016, when an unpretentious fashion trend called "normcore" gave way to another outdoorsy and granola-adjacent one called "gorpcore," I dug up those fleeces from the closet of my childhood bedroom. They were suddenly en vogue, and I was thrilled. They were in tatters, still smelling like a bonfire they'd witnessed in 2004, and weren't exactly the exaggerated fluff that cool-kid New York City brands — Sandy Liang et al. — were selling for $500. But they were an instant buy-in to a craze about which I was not only enthusiastic, but also nostalgic.
By now, fleeces have a new kind of multifaceted appeal, from strait-laced finance bros to Generation Z's VSCO girls. They're sold in retailers of all makes and models, by brands of every price-point and customer base. (At press time, one search for "fleece" on Net-a-Porter presented 94 results, with listed items as exorbitant as a $5,500 Chloé shearling.) They've trickled down into the product lines of fast-fashion and mass-market labels alike — which, traditionally, may signal its end of days. They're even a tenet of a sweeping new marketing movement toward "coziness," which is busy enveloping entire industries, from beverage to footwear.
The bubble only keeps expanding, swaddling more and more of us in snuggly polyester. So how long do we have until the laws of physics take the reins and it...pops? Perhaps the better question to consider is, well, what if it doesn't? That's entirely possible, given the actual functionality of the garment, at the very least.
"It lasts forever and will keep you warm forever. It doesn't degrade and it doesn't really wear out," says writer and trend-forecaster Andrew Luecke, who co-authored the book Cool: Style, Sound and Subversion, which chronicles the history of youth subcultures. "The idea, or illusion, is that one garment will keep you cozy, warm and safe forever. It's so simple."
Let's talk about those cozy, warm and safe qualities for a moment. The fleece jackets you see sheathing SoHo are made almost entirely of recycled polyester, and because they were originally engineered for practical outdoor use, they're designed to survive the elements — or even a 20-year fashion trend cycle.
Penfield is the ultimate case study on fleece's longevity. A true stalwart of the market, the outdoor clothing brand dates back to 1975, when a man named Harvey Gross acquired an old textile mill in central Massachusetts and began to produce first-of-its-kind down-insulated apparel. Penfield's signature fleece style, the Mattawa, came shortly after.
Four decades later, the jacket and its fleece version — both of which look like an insentient form of a New England liberal arts college's club rowing team — maintain a standing place in winter collections, only to be updated with fresh colors and patterns. It's also a technical marvel: machine-washable, lightweight and crafted with a full-body mesh lining to support breathability. But even more than that, it's consistent, just as in aesthetics as in technicality. And if the catalog of one Hedi Slimane is any indication, we will always be drawn to consistent.
"Classics never die," says Alastair Rae, Penfield's brand director. "With so many emerging brands in the market, customers have been seeking respite through heritage brands with hero styles. It's so versatile and easy-to-wear, so it tends to be a wise investment, too."
In the mainstream sustainability era, "investment" is a worthy buzzword. It can, say, indicate an individual's commitment to fighting the growing climate crisis by buying less stuff, therefore creating less waste. In fact, keeping clothing in use just nine extra months can reduce related carbon, water and waste footprints by up to 30%, according to research by the U.K.'s Waste & Resources Action Programme. And that's a statistic to which we should all be paying attention.
"We have always had a strong presence in the outerwear world, but it's unfortunate to say that recent changes in climate have increased the drive for fleece, oftentimes over the heavier outerwear," says Rae. "These days, a fleece jacket can be used as outerwear most months of the year."
To do their part, many outdoor (and thus environmentally minded) retailers now offer their own refurbishment services to rehabilitate or resell old outerwear, even in cases of extreme, seemingly irreversible wear-and-tear. Take Patagonia's Worn Wear, which launched in 2017 and has repeatedly repaired educator, author and civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson's signature blue vest in the years since. Premium gear brand Arc'teryx's launched its first-ever gear-recycling hub, Rock Solid, early last summer.
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"Fleece is eternal, and it won't just be discarded," adds Luecke. "It can be reused forever, relieving the buyer and wearer over guilt about contributing to waste or stuffing landfills."
Buyers and wearers actively like feeling relieved these days, and it isn't exactly difficult to understand why. (Where to begin? Here seems like a good start.) Fleece itself is so soft and warm that it offers an all-encompassing sense of comfort, both physically and emotionally. It's why Luecke hypothesizes that it's still ubiquitous among the coolest of the cool. Fleece, he says, is like a suit of armor made of coziness.
Fleeces have at least one more element contributing to its endurance, and it's just that: They've been around — pause for overwrought emphasis — forever, which, in contemporary North American fashion speak, equals the Twenties.
Deirdre Clemente, historian of the U.S. fashion industry and author of Dress Casual: How College Kids Redefined American Style, explains that the polyester jackets of today have roots in the quintessential shearling lumberjack coats, once particularly popular in the Pacific Northwest. Mind you, these garments were strictly worn among professional axe-wielders; until the Forties, outerwear was a wardrobe unto itself, with coats for every occasion from driving to dancing. By the late Fifties, the casualization of the American closet was in full swing, so as shoppers began prioritizing versatility over optionality, formal outerwear was the first specialized category to go. When the Eighties and Nineties gave way to the mass market, outerwear retailers started angling to tap into an increasingly practical market.
"The driving ethos behind this mass push toward casualization that we saw escalate in the late Nineties is this idea that you can wear it here, you can wear it there," explains Clemente. "You can wash that fleece and you can shove it in the back of your car and go, 'Oh, I don't need it right now, but I'll wear it this afternoon when the sun goes down.'"
Fleece jackets may operate squarely in the midway of two great American wardrobe ideals, functionality and comfort. But they also continue to tick all the boxes that the fashion industry consistently throws at them. Right now, fleeces are (sometimes literally) camped out in that aesthetic sweet spot between outdoor, sport and heritage, and with a third arm of eco-consciousness thrown in, as well. Not only do consumers already recognize fleeces's form and function, but they're still able to satisfy those sugary trend cravings as its designs update just so.
"With its heritage within authentic outdoor culture and opportunity for stylized reimagination, fleece becomes a canvas for taking something that is trusted and known and provides opportunity to create something completely new," says Tim Bantle, The North Face's general manager of lifestyle. "Brands have opportunity to take this blank canvas and put a forward-thinking spin on it."
That's when we see those very-2020 updates, like, again, Sandy Liang's marbled and blended effects or Outdoor Voices's curlier MegaFleece (which, by the way, comes in a jumbo-sized Outdoor Voices tote rivaling the scale of Ikea's Frakta). These embellishments only add to the fleece's aesthetic, all while maintaining the principles that made it so iconic in the first place. It's a win-win, wrapped in plushness.
Still, Clemente is realistic about lifespans. ("The teddy bear fuzz will go away," she predicts. "People won't want to wear that in a year or two!") But fleece's more timeless and functional attributes — like the technical and fabric innovations — cement it as a mainstay.
At The North Face, Bantle believes that the Denali fleece, launched in 1988, has endless potential to be adapted to keep up with market trends. That it also harkens back to its authentic outdoor roots has truly never been so vital.
"All of that comes together to create a sense of safety, comfort and long-term security, which isn't just trendy — it's invaluable in surviving a world that seems so unstable, where anything can happen at any time," says Luecke. "In that world, fleece is forever."