Mar 18, 2023

Refined, outdoor

Tilley Endurables's tech shield shirt is part of the 43-year-old adventure brand's drive to revamp itself in a way that dovetails with the current style zeitgeist.Tilley Endurables

After years of online exercise-bike workouts and physically distanced yoga classes, activewear fashion is evolving – again. Those who want to work out while becoming casual nature enthusiasts can sport all the outdoorsy clothing and accessories to match. Let's call it the rise of the "hike beast."

It's not to be confused with the "hypebeast," a term often used to describe an individual whose sense of style is defined by owning the buzziest items first, be they sneakers or bucket hats.

The hike beast's tastes run toward adventure styling that, unlike gorpcore, another outdoor-driven fashion moment that emerged as a streetstyle trend in the early 2020s, doesn't exaggerate the rugged aesthetic of highly specialized outdoor gear. Hike beasts want pieces by a brand such as Canadian-born outerwear label Arc'teryx that truly enhance their experience of being active outside, while looking stylish.

Solid Swim Short from Tilley's new clothing line.Tilley Endurables

These new consumer expectations play right into the revamp of venerable Canadian adventure brand Tilley and its latest owner, Joe Mimran. The 43-year-old company, popular internationally for its outdoor travel adventure hats, is coming out strong this season thanks to a rebrand that dovetails with the zeitgeist. (Think of a customer profile less focused on safari-goers and sailors, more on urban foragers.)

Mimran, who was one of the founders of Club Monaco and starred on CBC's Dragons’ Den, says he had his work cut out for him in retooling a brand that was never at the vanguard of fashion. "It was more a utility-based brand or, I’d say, pure functionality."

In Tilley's early days, its dependable hats and multipocket expedition trousers conjured images of Henry Fonda in his beige bucket hat from On Golden Pond. They were available in shades of drab khaki, beige and tan, and featured in advertisements quoting New Zealand mountaineer and adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary.

"The first thing we figured out is how to bring back the original T1," Mimran says, referring to Tilley's bucket hat. "They had abandoned it! Can you imagine?" The design team freshened it up, called it "the remastered T1″ and released it in 12 colours.

In many ways, Tilley seems ideally repositioned to capitalize on the macro changes to consumer behaviour coming out of the pandemic: refined smart design for active lifestyles, without sacrificing the commitment to quality ethos of the original brand, which still has its devotees.

"I don't think Tilley would do well with a $150 white T-shirt," says Jeffrey Spivock, senior vice-president of integrated media (retail) at the PR firm Weber Shandwick Canada. "But I think the right jacket? Yes."

There are few Canadian brands, he adds, that have that kind of heritage and iconography (maybe Roots and The Bay) and a hero product in its ubiquitous wide-brimmed Airflo hat.

Tilley's has been "the hat" of the Masters Tournament for many years, Mimran says, hence the company's introduction of a new golf apparel line to go with the hats.

"It's activewear that you can wear right out to dinner – highly functional, all UPF 50+ but it's got more style than your normal golfwear," he says.

Even contemporary French label A.P.C. has a new golf offshoot. "It killed me when I saw that the other day," Mimran says. "You know it's hot when that happens. I think the timing is good – and it's really all predicated by the hat."

The adoption of activewear as everyday wear is permanent, Joe McDonnell, head of insight at WGSN, an influential consumer and design trend forecaster, explained in a recent webinar that unpacked changes shaping the outdoor lifestyle market through 2023.

While the hike beast aesthetic is less flashy than gorpcore's exaggerated lug-soled footwear and hazard-sign colour palette, streetwear flash points such as Gucci's collaboration with The North Face have helped shoppers rediscover outdoor-driven brands that prioritize technical fabrics, recycled materials and performance.

"Where culture goes, consumers follow," McDonnell says, citing streetwear label Kith's partnership with Columbia inspired by outdoor lifestyles.

A white cardigan from Tilley's new lineup of golf apparel.Handout

Attention to detail in design and functionality is the hallmark across the comebacks of active brands such as Patagonia, K-Way, Merrell, Moncler, Barbour and L.L. Bean. Quilted fabrics, sleek utility pockets and mixed-media garments in fine merino, cashmere, canvas and cotton twills have long been the aesthetic codes of active apparel and the designer offshoots that cross over into that world.

"A lot of it feels inspired by global runways – a lot like Moncler and Prada, you really see those influences coming in at a slightly easier price point to get into for an investment piece," Spivock says. "An ‘investment piece’ for people who don't buy luxury brands."

Hike beast gear also illustrates that what we expect from our clothing is often overthought by designers and marketers. "The functionality of sport has translated mainly because they’re non-wrinkle and comfortable," Spivock says. "Leaning into that simplicity and modernity, you don't look like you’re wearing sporting attire."

When asked about Tilley's benchmark, Mimran says: "We talk more about activities than we talk about brands." However, he does single out a few he thinks are doing interesting things melding clothes for outdoor pursuits with high fashion, including Prada, Dior, Jacquemus and Zegna.

With functionality and performance at the forefront, educating the customer about what has gone into Tilley's garment design and fabrication became important.

"A lot of people might not know what the benefits of merino wool are or what makes ours better and different," Mimran says. "It's up to us to tell the consumer why we put a coating on a particular fabrication for water repellence, or UPF or anti-bacterial properties. There's so many things that go into the product because it is so technically based."

Mimran says that an important part of his message is helping his customers understand how Tilley's pieces add real value to their lives. Before fast fashion and fads powered the 21st century, durability, unchangeability and practicality were points of pride. (Tilley was previously known as Tilley Endurables and its vaunted "Guaranteed for life" motto – still applicable on hats and select apparel – seems a prescient sustainable message now.)

Never before has there been such a desire for authenticity, Mimran adds. "It's at the core of what the new consumer wants; they want brands that have shared values."

It's an interesting observation from the man once at the vanguard of fast fashion in Canada through Loblaw Companies Ltd.'s ubiquitous low-priced trend-driven brand, Joe Fresh (and who more recently developed Dip, American supermarket chain Kroger's affordable apparel brand).

"Fast fashion is a great pollutant and there's a huge amount of evolution going on in the textile industry," Mimran says of Tilley's positioning. "So we want to take all of that and say, if we are trying to find joy in life outdoors, which is at the heart of the brand, we also have to carry that flag in all our products."

About 65 per cent of Tilley's hats are made from recyclable material or fibre with plans to transition that closer to 100 per cent by 2025.

As the footprint of the hike beast trend continues to expand, so does the consumer appetite for brands at the intersection of that kind of sustainability, technology and fashion. In an authenticity- and activity-obsessed industry, their bona fide outdoor enthusiast credentials ensure that heritage brands like Tilley have more than a sporting chance of success.