One of the most long-lasting, utilitarian trends out there has gone high fashion. But what do you actually get for the money?

By Marlen Komar
Updated Mar 05, 2020 @ 3:15 pm
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Not too many fashion cycles ago, a fleece sweater was something you wore on the couch while watching The Bachelor, or tossed over pajamas during a work-from-home day. Not anymore. Luxury brands are now making their own versions of fleece, giving the errand-running staple an upmarket update. And suddenly, high fashion fleece is everywhere. This winter, Celine Dion wore a turquoise fleece peacoat; Donald Glover was spotted wearing an Emily Bode fleece; and Shay Mitchell wore a fleece zip-up at the airport, which is also where you might wear your dog hair-covered Old Navy one. The style has also appeared on runways (and in Fashion Week street style) from Spring/Summer 2018 through this season.

The thing is, designer and mass-market fleece barely differ: They're both made from plastic, and it turns out some of the cheaper brands are actually producing it more sustainably. Patagonia and Everlane use recycled plastic to make their fibers, lessening our dependence on petroleum-based materials. Most luxury labels don't follow the same practices yet. But if the material itself isn't all that luxurious, why did it become high end in the first place?

There's a simple reason: Luxury brands are a business first and foremost, and a trend that's familiar is easy to sell. “Typically when a trend trickles down from the runways and makes its way to fast fashion, it sometimes starts with a concept that can be a bit obtuse, because that's what capitalist fashion can be sometimes. It can be elitist or, for a lack of a better word, weird,” says Lawrence Schlossman, brand director at Grailed, a designer and streetwear retailer. “But in this case, this is something everyone is familiar with. This isn't some crazy concept that's trickling down from the runway to the masses, this is the reverse thing: It's a trickle up. People have been wearing fleeces in a variety of price points for a few generations.”

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We wore it, our parents wore it, and it's a creature comfort some people are prepared to shell out hundreds of dollars for. To wit: Sandy Liang fleeces range from $496 to $650; Loewe's high neck fleece jackets clock in at $790; and Bode's shawl pullovers are a crisp $570. “I think there's a certain type of person that spends a lot of money on fashion, it is something that they have been doing, so they might not want to get in the same places that the more pedestrian person, for a lack of a better term, does, so that's why high fashion houses are taking this trend that everyone is comfortable with and filtering it through their high end prism,” says Schlossman.

A Casualization of Fashion

This trend also marks a move toward “cool luxury” which has been happening since athleisure took hold in the early aughts — when the North Face fleece was a status item on college campuses across the country — and has proliferated into relaxed work dress codes and generally chill social norms around what it means to get dressed every day. “Formal clothing has not totally disappeared, but it is dominated by sportswear, streetwear, outdoor wear ... which mix and match and set the tone for a generalized 'casualization' of fashion,” says Dominique Cuvillier, a luxury fashion trend expert. “To respond to this basic trend, luxury brands are going to draw from a casual wardrobe and take iconic products such as sneakers or fleeces.”

This can be seen at even the most fashion of environments. Loro Piana marched cashmere fleece jackets down its Fall 2020 runway, and Sandy Liang's Fall 2020 show had a variety of half-zip fleeces. Tibi's Fall 2020 lineup had fleece pullovers paired with elbow-length leather gloves, and New York-based label Maryam Nassir Zadeh paired fuzzy fleece pants with crocheted halter tops. During Paris Fashion Week this season, Bella Hadid was spotted wearing a yellow-and-blue fleece pullover, paired with sporty yellow-lensed glasses. Timothée Chalamet attended the Haider Ackermann show at Paris Fashion Week wearing a similar look, and Quavo wore a military-print jacket outside the Heron Preston show. There were blue-and-yellow rugby striped fleeces (paired with chandelier earrings) and baggy brown fleeces at London Fashion Week, and outside of the Alberta Ferretti show at Milan Fashion Week, models wore their roomiest fleeces to keep warm.

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Naturally, shoppers have come to the fancified fleece trend, too. Luxury resale site The RealReal has seen the trend take off, with both mid-market brands like Patagonia and The North Face, as well as luxury fashion brands Sandy Liang and Off-White seeing high demand. Search for "fleece" grew 66% in the last quarter, and 400% year over year, Sasha Skoda, the head of women's at The RealReal tells us. “Across the board we've seen the search quadruple from year to year, and it continued to grow heading into Fall/Winter 2019,” she says.

“I think it has become really popular because it's this really nice intersection between athleisure, which continues to be a major trend, and streetwear,” Skoda says. Because of that The RealReal is seeing a really broad customer base adopt the trend. In fact, it's the higher end versions that are getting more screen time on the site. Luxury fleece jackets get 2.58 times more viewers per item than non-luxury fleece jackets, like North Face, Nike, and Patagonia, Skoda explains. Perhaps that's because shoppers come to The RealReal specifically scouting for luxe brands, but it still shows a healthy demand for luxury fleece.

Connie Wang, a senior features writer at Refinery29, believes that fleece is part of a larger trend that's happening right now that she has dubbed “campcore.” It's an outdoorsy, workwear look that is gender neutral and has a sustainability component, but primarily consists of long-lasting, really hardy, and versatile clothing like hiking boots, Tevas, Dickies, and fanny packs. She believes that fleece is the outerwear answer to this trend.

“It's utilitarian; it doesn't show dirt easily. It doesn't wrinkle, so you can pack it away and wear it without it having to regain its shape. You can be pretty hard with it; it can withstand a lot of living,” Wang says.

She also believes fleece is trending because oversize and cloud-like silhouettes are the predominant fit right now. “You're looking either sleek or streamlined, or you're looking like a Teletubbie. Those are the two silhouettes that are on-trend right now. So fleece gives you that cozy, cuddly marshmallow shape. And I think that's appealing to a lot of people,” Wang says.

There's another reason she thinks high end brands are making fleece, which is a granola staple, but are not producing their pieces sustainably. “I think performative sustainability right now is much trendier than pure sustainability,” she says. People want to look like they're “the type of person that carries a straw” without actually walking the walk (still getting a to-go cup for their coffee and taking “tons of flights every year,” Wang adds). “Fleece is one of these definite signals to people that you're outdoorsy, care about the environment, care maybe about sustainability, but when push comes to shove you might not be as eco friendly as you think.”

So what's in a luxury fleece?

While fleece is made from polyester, which is made from plastic, some upmarket designers add higher end materials to spiffy up their versions. Brands might feature beautifully tanned and softened leather as pockets, collars, or elbow patches on sweaters that also use proprietary hardware, or the best suppliers for zippers and snaps. But even while the raw materials might drive up the price point, the inherent value — or quality — may be no different from the one you've had in your closet since 2007. “People buy from high end labels and pay for brand names, and that's not anything new. Is it always pound for pound; does the quality equal the final price? No, obviously a lot of that is based on the cache that the brand might have. A lot of times people are paying a premium to have a high end label, and that's just the nature of the game,” says Schlossman. "That's what high fashion has been doing forever. [Often] high fashion is taking something that has been established, that people appreciate, and doing it in their luxury version.” Colorblock styling, contrast leather panels and fastening, and a pop of neon pink on the inside makes a Sandy Liang version just look cool when the Patagonia style delivers straight functionality.

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But when it comes to the sustainability of upscale fleeces, the conversation gets tricky.

Fleece is essentially wearable plastic, and while mid-market brands like Patagonia and Everlane create their sweaters using recycled water bottles, luxury retailers aren't as open about their sustainability practices. And fleece has a hefty environmental impact. “Fleece is often made from a type of polyester called polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is derived from petroleum,” says Jessie Curry, the sustainable business innovation manager at Outdoor Industry Association, which means fleece relies on non-renewable fossil fuels to be made. Once the polyester threads are woven together to create a fabric, Curry says, it is brushed to increase in volume, and gets an extra chemical coating to make it water repellent.

“Because fleece is most often made from virgin polyester, which is derived from petroleum, the material is connected to environmental impacts related to fossil fuel extraction such as drilling in sensitive environments, pipeline issues, oil spills, etc. Additionally, polyester production is energy intensive and emits greenhouse gas emissions, which contributes to our growing climate crisis,” says Curry. “However, one significant way brands can minimize these impacts is by choosing recycled polyester (rPET) over virgin polyester.”

In Patagonia's Spring 2020 season, 80% of the brand's polyester fabrics were made with recycled polyester, which led to a 7% decrease in CO2e compared to virgin polyester fiber. According to Patagonia, this amounts to five million pounds of CO2e emissions avoided.

Even if fleece is made from recycled materials, it still has an issue with shedding micro-fibers. According to a 2011 study funded by Patagonia, washing a single polar fleece jacket sheds as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers, which are sent into the water supply. Outside Magazine reported that based on an estimate of “consumers across the world laundering 100,000 Patagonia jackets each year, the amount of fibers being released into public waterways is equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags.” According to Patagonia, the brand intends to research new fabric solutions to address this problem. In Spring 2018, it commissioned Ocean Wise's Plastic Lab to investigate microfibers and find science-based solutions to minimize shedding. The study is still ongoing.

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Then there's the issue of just how durable fleece is — it's made to last, which means it's not exactly biodegradable. Holding onto one for years and years is the most conscious way to consume it, as well as donating back into resale/reuse programs, which not many brands offer (Patagonia was a pioneer of this concept, as well, with its Worn Wear program).

But that's not to say luxury labels aren't worried about sustainability — the technology just might not be there yet. “Durability is intrinsically linked to luxury brands, many of whose products have a long life due to the quality of manufacture and the choice of materials used,” Cuvillier, the luxury trend expert, says. And yes, when an item is crafted from leather, cashmere, silk, and wool it can last a lifetime — but synthetic items that happened to be produced by luxury brands pose the same waste problem as any off-the-rack gear. “This is the whole contradiction of a system that has to move from ready-to-wear to ready-to-last, producing less and better,” says Cuvillier. “Sustainability is an accepted economic advantage today, but it takes time to tick all the right boxes and assure brands that they are ecologically correct,” she says.

Skoda says, at least at The RealReal, luxury shoppers are looking for those boxes to be checked. In data from 2019, 46% of shoppers said they plan to shop more sustainable brands and retailers in the coming decade; 55% said they will shop less fast fashion in the coming decade; and 66% of shoppers said they will buy resale in the coming decade. “This points toward where the consumer is going in their mindset towards shopping sustainably,” Skoda says. “Based on our survey data, 56% of our overall consignor base cite environmental impact or extending the life cycle of luxury items as key motivators for consigning with us,” she adds. A 2019 survey from Accenture that polled 6,000 consumers found that 83% felt it was "important or extremely important" for companies to design environmentally conscious products. For now, the conscious way in might be buying used, or promising to re-wear for years and years to come.

Shoppers want to shop responsibly, but it may take the luxury sphere some time to get there. At the moment, luxury fleece's high markup also has an environmental cost you need to be ready to pay. Ultimately, you're still buying plastic that sheds fibers into the sea. Even if it's the coolest, coziest, designer-est one there is.

We're shining a spotlight on sustainability in fashion to help spread the word: Reusing, re-purposing, and re-styling is never a bad look.