Techwear is clothing for everyday life with special fabric, treatment, cut, or construction that allows for maximum movement, comfort, and presentability. 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 waterproof jacket with a layer or two underneath saves space, functions better, and probably provides more ease of movement. This is Part 1 of a 5 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 photo shoots, reading, and tech advancements in clothing that doesn't involve Techwear.Note: this article updated on 2/20/14. This article has undergone significant changes since it was first published. If you have used it in a citation for any reason, a link to the original article can be found here: Link via the Internet Archive.
Technical clothing is any garment that, through advanced fabric, treatment, cut, or construction, provides a function beyond hiding nudity. Some older examples of technical clothing that you may recognize are, traditional or heritage garments like rubber boots and waxed jackets, and armed forces uniforms. Some newer examples are hiking gear and sports/athletic clothes. Techwear or Urban Techwear, is a subset of technical clothing with an aesthetic that is contemporary or futuristic, fashionable/stylish, and is designed specifically for your common city-dweller's day-to-day situations. This definition excludes other types of technical clothing for various reasons. Heritage items are excluded because Techwear strives to have a modern, contemporary appearance, and has generally improved upon heritage garments. True armed forces gear is mostly excluded because you'll look ridiculous cosplaying as a soldier.
An employee at a well-respected technical clothing company said he believes a technical garment needs to have:
1) Materials that offer enhanced properties,
2) Design that accommodates a wider range of motion than traditionally patterned garments,
3) Construction methods that go beyond the traditional.
He noted that "garments don’t need all 3 of these to be considered Techwear but it helps."
Materials that offer enhanced properties: the modern wave of technical garments can probably be credited to GORE-TEX. In 1969, Gore discovered a method of stretching Teflon into a "thin, porous membrane;" it was completed and marketed as GORE-TEX by "lining it with a urethane coating, then bonding it to a nylon or polyester fabric. The membrane’s pores were small enough for air to pass through, but too small for droplets of water to penetrate, making it both breathable and waterproof." (Source) Gore used it to create jackets, a compared to older weatherproof jackets, people could stay outside longer, dryer, and more comfortably. Gore was the first, continues to be the most dominant, and it's the reason jackets naturally what you think of with modern technical clothing. These days, there are many GORE-TEX membrane competitors.
Additionally, there are dozens of synthetic fabrics which can offer properties including, but not limited to: stretch, odor resistance, abrasion resistance, water resistance, waterproofing, reflectiveness. Natural fibers that perform well, like merino wool, are just as accepted.
Design that accommodates a wider range of motion than traditionally patterned garments; Construction methods that go beyond the traditional: these often go hand in hand. A basic tenant of clothing design is that it is designed for the human body, and so must be done in three dimensions - something good on paper might not translate. "Anatomical design," a common term in Techwear, takes that basic tenant as step further, designing for the natural shape and movement of the body, usually with maximum mobility in mind. A common construction method to achieve this is "articulated" joints, usually darting at the knee or inner elbow. For a more extreme, experimental example of anatomical design and construction, look at the Arc'Teryx Veilance Voronoi Pant. There are plently of construction methods that exist outside of patterning and range of motion. Taped seams to prevent water from entering at the seams are the most common.
Before we begin, a weird aside about two common terms you will see a lot. Breathability probably doesn't mean what you think it means. It means the ability to let water vapor, like sweat, escape. It is one of the most important concepts in Techwear. Lack of breathability is what makes a jacket feel clammy and sweaty even if it keeps you dry. It's why GORE-TEX, which started this whole thing with winter jackets, was such a huge improvement over rubber and cotton. Breathable Techwear essentially aims to release sweat vapor from the inside while blocking relatively large water droplets from the outside. Air Permeability is air flow through a fabric or vent. There is debate whether a membrane or fabric (without vents) can be both meaningfully waterproof+breathable and air permeable; generally as one increases, the other decreases. For more on this, see Part 4.
Breakdown by Item
The most common Techwear garments you’ll find are jackets, mid layers, base layers, pants, shoes, and accessories. For an thorough breakdown of each type of garment, see Part 2.
Hardshells, softshells, and jackets in between: A hardshell or shell is what most people think of with technical clothing. It's your classic thin, light, synthetic, kind of noisey weatherproof jacket. Though there's no unified definition to hardshell (or any of the other terms really), it usually means the highest level of protection: waterproof and windproof, hopefully very breathable but very unlikely to be air permeable unless there are vents.
Reigning Champ via Haven
A softshell is less bulletproof than a hardshell, but still weather resistant. It trades impermeability for comfort and style. Softshells vary wildly in design, but usually have a few of the following functions: breathable, water repellant, wind resistant, quick-drying, quieter during movemnt, and stretch. Often they'll have a weatherproofing treatment on top of the fabric as well.
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. It's good to be wary when choosing these jackets. Function is usually a second consideration to fashion (though sometimes not too far off). And when function is considered, it's often to make an experimental jacket or use a very interesting but untested new material.
Stone Island Shadow Project Vest & Quilted Liner via Haven
A Mid Layer is 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. Some companies have mid layer+shell systems that work together for warmth, breathability, and aesthetics.
Airism via Uniqlo
A Base Layer is an item of clothing that you don’t intend to layer underneath, and is usually limited to undershirts, shirts, underwear, and socks. You might already have some sort of tech base layer like a moisture wicking shirt made of synthetic fabric for working out.
Pants are becoming a larger market, especially for office workers that that bike to work or just want something for crappy weather. Basic Techwear pants will feature stretch, water repellency, and anti-microbial/odor resistance. Upon first glance they look like normal chinos or slacks, but closer inspection reveals a fabric between a canvas weave and a yoga pant. More extreme versions might be very water resistant but lack breathability; these will frequently use the term "softshell" as the fabric and construction will be similar to a softshell jacket. Outdoors brands frequently sell totally waterproof and windproof pants that may also be labeled "hardshell" like their impermeable jacket brethren.
Footwear is simultaneously the furthest into the technical realm, and the hardest Techwear to purchase. Atheletic brands, especially Nike, continue to push crazier new shoes into the market with amazing features, and are socially accepted to wear around casually. However, when you start looking for truly functional footwear for day-to-day issues like inclement weather, it gets difficult. Shoes are constantly exposed to the elements and infrequently removed. It's a constant battle between staying dry from the elements and not soaking through with sweat since there's no breathability or air flow. Most Techwear enthusiasts opt for comfort and aesthetics over function.
Fuel Band via Nike
Accessories are usually overlooked by Techwear designers and customers. If you go to a Techwear 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 apologies for the foolish names. If you want to save yourself some embarrassment, you can say, “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. Arc'teryx, Arc'teryx Veilance, Arc'teryx Law Enforcment and Armed Forces). What's important is that you're realistic about the function of the items. The more adventurous the design, the less likely it will be totally functional or foolproof.
Also known as "Performance Menswear," the term used by Conroy Nachtigall, lead designer of Arc'teryx Veilance. 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.
Adventus Comp LS via Arc'Teryx
An amorphous genre for brands that either 1) focus on technical garments over fashion, but still have contemporary designs, or 2) are focused on making very fashionable Techwear. They are more functional than Casual Tech, less experimental than Techninjas, but still city acceptable. For example, instead of stretch, antimicrobial pants, they will make fully waterproof pants with non-stretching membranes and hidden zip vents. In the first scenario described, a brand reaches into this genere by having some garments extend slightly beyond their the borders of their normal aesthetic or market. For example, Arc’teryx mainline is an outdoors brand, but has some very functional button downs and pants that are designed well. The second scenario is much newer, and slightly risky since their designs are untested - though not as risky or experimental as the genre below, Fashion with Tech Experiments.
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 for fashion. Many Japanese designers fit into this range.
Techninja is a joke word (predating this article) derived from Gothninja, based around the fact that so many Techwear enthusiasts would be happy to just wear black. The brands associated with Techninjas do make a lot a black clothing, but not even close to exclusively. 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. All Techninja brands have designs that fit in the other genres as well, they just happen to be associated with the Techninja label.
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, they flip the script by releasing many unusual garments in small runs with just 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 for mass consumption.
Sports and outdoors gear are the origins of Techwear, so they definitely shouldn’t be overlooked. 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.
Well-known runway designers 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, but they are rare
A message board user noted that even if certain futurist and runway designers are not 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'[teryx] inventing water resistant zippers) but other times it someone like [Iris] Van Herpen leading when she's doing 3D printed haute couture with MIT fluid dynamics scientists."