Techwear is the clothing that people have always demanded: comfortable, weatherproof, unrestrictive, and stylish. It’s been a long time coming, and now that it’s available, there is no basic information or guidance on the subject. I'm here to lead you to your glorious future, kicking and screaming.
Technical clothing is any garment that, through advanced fabric, treatment, cut, or construction, provides a function beyond hiding nudity. Techwear (the name the internet came up with), or Urban Techwear, is modern technical clothing that has a current or futuristic aesthetic, is fashionable/stylish, and is designed specifically for urban environments, as opposed to hiking, winter actvities, sports, etc. It can look seamless with modern fashion, or look like something straight out of Metal Gear Solid. An employee at a well-respected Techwear company said he believes Techwear is dependent upon three things: “materials that offer enhanced properties, a design that accommodates a wider range of motion than traditionally patterned garments and construction methods that go beyond the traditional. Garments don’t need all 3 of these to be considered Techwear but it helps.”
Put simply, Techwear is clothing for everyday life that allows for maximum movement, comfort, and presentability, sometimes even taking precedent to protection against inclement weather. And there are less obvious benefits beyond comfort and weather protection. If you bike to work, why wouldn’t you choose pants that have stretch, odor resistance, and weatherproofing? On a crowded subway train, a huge down jacket takes up a lot of space and won’t work if it gets wet; an insulated hardshell with a layer or two underneath saves space, functions better, and probably provides more ease of movement.
Older, traditional or heritage garments like rubber boots and waxed jackets are technical, but I've excluded for the sake of simplicity and the fact that modern Techwear has improved upon their functions. Armed forces gear is also mostly excluded because, while love is a battlefield, your commute probably isn’t. If you’re in Mogadishu or Detroit, I’m sorry for being presumptuous.
This is Part 1 of a 6 part series, where I introduce you to the absolute basics of techwear. Part 2 is a Beginner’s Buying Guide for every piece you could need for an Tech outfit. Part 3 is a Style Sheet, showing you all of the common genres of Tech style, with a brand list for each one. Part 4 is a Glossary of all of the common terms and scientific claims you’ll see along the way, including the science behind the tech. Part 5 is a compilation of Style Inspiration blogs, styled photoshoots, reading, and tech advancements in clothing that doesn't involve Techwear.
Breakdown by Items
The most common Techwear garments you’ll find are jackets, mid layers, base layers, pants, shoes, and accessories. Mind-blowing I know – but with Techwear, each item holds a special function or reason for being.
Actuator via (L) Arc'Teryx Veilance and (R) Mr. Porter
A shell or hardshell is what you probably think of when you hear “waterproof jacket” – light, thin, and kind of plastic in feel and sound. The word “shell” usually signals waterproof, windproof, and overall the highest level of protection from the elements. Shells are the most alluring option because of their combination of lightness, thinness, and weatherproofing. But that impermeability has its costs. Regardless of how breathable a shell is advertised as, (depending on how hot you run) moderate to intense activity can make it very hot and sweaty in warm weather and clammy in cooler weather. The synthetic composition of a shell also makes it less durable and more difficult to repair than common canvas or denim jackets. An advisor to this article noted that durability often depends on the face fabric of a jacket and that “a nylon shell of the same thickness/weight/weave as a denim jacket would be far more durable than its cotton counterpart.”
Reigning Champ via Haven
A Softshell is a weather resistant piece of outerwear designed with comfort and/or style in mind, and can’t boast the impermeability of a shell. It can be hard to pin down since there’s an even broader range of fabrics and garments that fit here. Depending on the materials and treatments used, softshells can be very breathable, water repellant, wind resistant, quick drying, quieter during movement, and provide stretch fabric (not all of them at the same time). Some also provide better durability and reparability than hardshells. Some softshells are basically less protective forms of hardshells, some are specialty fabrics with weatherproofing treatments on top. A high-quality softshell can protect you for an hour or two in light to moderate rain. Downpours, you’re gonna get wet.
Jackets in Between
Visvim x Number (N)ine Nomad via Keith Tio
A lot of jackets fall between shell and softshell. Japanese companies, in particular, experiment a lot with technical fabrics, treatments, and construction. Besides Japanese designers being more adventurous, it’s rumored that Gore-Tex Japan is more lenient with their license than their US or European counterparts, who are notoriously stringent about what they will approve. Alternative protective membranes are also available with no restrictions on garment design. You’ll drop a lot of cash, and some jackets are true experiments in the name of aesthetics, but these brands produce some amazing designs with Technical function as a close second consideration.
There’s also the bad in-between. Some jackets advertised as weatherproof are are just normal cotton or wool fabrics with water repellant treatments on top. These are fine as regular jackets, but will only repel a little bit of water before soaking through like any other regular jacket.
Stone Island Shadow Project Vest & Quilted Liner via Haven
Mid layers are typically anything designed to keep you warm under a hard/soft shell. Often hoodies, sweatshirts, vests, shirtjackets, and fleeces - but also synthetic and down insulated jackets. Synthetic down is lighter, warmer, more compressible and quicker drying than fleece, at the expense of durability. In addition to these, there's the rise of the "hardfleece" fabric, which is a fleece with a smooth exterior, closing the gap between softshell and fleece. It’s also worth noting that some companies have mid layer+shell systems that work together for warmth, breathability, and aesthetics. There are tons of options out there, so if you’re not restricted by practical concerns and you're feeling creative pull some images out of your style inspiration folder and go nuts.
Airism via Uniqlo
A Base Layer is an item of clothing you don’t intend to layer underneath, but is usually limited to undershirts, shirts, underwear, and socks. You might already have some sort of tech base layer, probably a nylon wicking shirt for working out like Under Armour or Nike Running. Beyond athletics, most Techwear beginners avoid techwear brand base layers due to the cost. Merino wool t-shirts run $60 - $100+. Synthetic and nylon underwear easily breaks $25-$60 a pair. But if you’re willing deal with the cost, many people swear by the moisture wicking and odor resistance of their base layers in the summer, and heat regulation in the winter. Some people find Tech base layers a good way to minimize odor and pack a little lighter for travel or hiking.
Pants are becoming a larger market, especially for the Casual Tech crowd and people that bike to work. There are three types of pants you’ll encounter. Casual Tech pants, which look like normal slacks (upon close inspection, the fabric can look yoga pant-esque) and will feature stretch, water repellency, and anti-microbial features (more extreme versions might be waterproof but lack breathability. Tech-Focused Fashion brands, which will look somewhat nylon or plasticky, usually looser leg to accommodate that fabric’s lack of stretch, and will usually be very weatherproof but lacking in mobility or anti-microbial features. And finally, Techninja companies. Very cool looking pants that are cut like polygons and are specially or specifically functional to the point of absurdity.
Footwear is incredibly frustrating: athletic shoes and hiking boots commonly use technological BS for marketing, but very few make models that look decent in an urban environment. There are some techwear marketed shoes, but they are few, far between, and plain. Almost all truly technical shoes are outdoors/hiking or winter/rain boots. Most people opt for comfort and aesthetics.
Fuel Band via Nike
Accessories are usually overlooked with Techwear designers and customers. If you go to a company’s webstore and click “Accessories” you’ll probably find a lot of bags, pouches, and a belt or two. If you’re not an accessories person, think beyond watches, bracelets, rings, and necklaces to functional objects, or protecting your functional objects. Fitness trackers, keyholders, phone and mp3 player cases, umbrellas, and camera straps are all fair game.
Breakdown by style
These genres are totally made up by me based on what most people look for, so the stupid names are my fault. Save yourself some embarrassment by saying, “I want something like Brand X makes.” Many brands hit multiple genres by having a wide range of products or having multiple lines (e.g. Arcteryx, Arcteryx Veilance, Arcteryx Law Enforcment and Armed Forces). What's important is that you are realistic about the function of the items. The more adventurous the design, the less likely it will be totally functional or foolproof.
Well-known runway designers like Raf Simons and Prada, who usually only utilize technical fabrics and anatomical cut/construction for aesthetic purposes; they will rarely use technical fabrics or techniques for more than a few pieces per season if at all. There are exceptions. Hussein Chalayan and Issey Miyake continue to be conceptual and futuristic. Junya Watanabe and Undercover frequently make Techwear pieces.
Sports and Outdoors gear are the origins of Techwear, so they definitely shouldn’t be ignored. They’re an affordable route to base layers and shells, though the conspicuous branding scares off a lot of Techwear enthusiasts. The best known athletic companies are Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour. The best-known outdoors companies are The North Face, Patagonia, Columbia, and REI.
AKA business casual Techwear. These brands fit very easily into a normal office lifestyle while still featuring new fabrics and treatments, usually for stretch, odor reduction, and water repellency. The best-known brand here is Outlier. Other brands you may have heard of are Proof NY and Nonetheless.
Adventus Comp LS via Arc'Teryx
Brands that focus on technical garments but still have fashion as a concern; more functional than Casual Tech, less experimental than Techninjas, but still urban acceptable. For example, instead of stretch, antimicrobial pants, think fully waterproof membrane pants with hidden vents. No brand fits here perfectly, and usually end up here by hitting the borders of their normal aesthetic. Arc’teryx mainline is an outdoors brand, but has some very functional button downs and pants that are urban acceptable.
A weirdly specific subset of brands that design multiple items a year with technical fabrics and construction, but more often than not, will sacrifice function of fashion. Many Japanese designers fit into this range. Brands you may have heard of are Isaora, White Mountaineering, and Visvim.
These brands look futuristic and advertise their tech specs prominently. They feature the latest fabrics and treatments (often with brand-specific trademarks), brand-specific modular systems, and high production values when marketing to showcase the technical aspects of their clothes. You'll find a lot of very cool features with Techninja brands that you won't find elsewhere. The downsides are that some brands introduce features based on aesthetic appeal rather than pure function. All of these brands feature aspects from most of the other genres as well, they just happen to be associated with the Techninja label.
Visually, the Techninj is heavily invested in the newest releases and is unconcerned if they look a bit like a Minority Report extra. Techninja is a joke word (predating this article) derived from Gothninja, based around the fact that so many would be happy to just wear black – though this is untrue of most of the brands in this category. The best-known brands are Acronym, Arc’teryx Veilance, and Stone Island Shadow Project.
Aitor Throup; video via Aitor Throup Studio
Designers pushing things to the next level, but in an experimental way. The Fashion designer’s mad scientist cousin that flips the script and releases many unusual garments in small runs, and a few basic salable goods. The functionality can overtake wearability due to absurd designs, hyper-specialized functions, or conceptual functions. Entirely fascinating, but not that great to wear, or even necessarily meant to be worn widely. The best-known designers are Aitor Throup and Final Home. Runway designers like Hussein Chalayan and Issey Miyake also fit here.
A technical garment forum poster noted that futurist and runway designers may not be Techwear in the functional sense "they are all important to mention because tech evolves by dialogue and the fashion designers pushing the tech are just as much a part of it as the tech designers doing fashion. Sometimes it's the tech side leading (like Arc' inventing water resistant zippers) but other times it someone like Van Herpen leading when she's doing 3D printed haute couture with MIT fluid dynamics scientists."