Outerwear has gone high-tech Fashion: From pants to parkas, snow clothes are loaded with options and lots of zippers.

January 01, 1998|By Susan Phinney | Susan Phinney,SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Shopping for snow clothes is a lot like shopping for a sound system: Both involve myriad decisions.

How many speakers? How many pockets?

A tape deck? Taped seams? A multidisc player? Something multipurpose?

Sound systems come with owners' manuals and directions. Snow clothes do not. And in today's high-tech clothing industry, manuals -- even maps -- would be nice.

Try finding your way around a jacket, for example. What's that extra piece of lining hanging from the waist? (A snow skirt.)

Why are there zippers in the armpits? (They're "pit-zips" for ventilation.)

Where's the hood? (Probably hidden in the collar).

Why is there a chamois in a pocket? (It's for cleaning your glasses, stupid.)

And that funny little hole in front of the jacket? It's for your radio antenna. How silly of me not to know that.

Pants can have zippers from waist to ankles, more zippers on pockets, extra padding or elastic inserts.

Talk to the people who make this stuff and you'll need a dictionary. They go on about "breathable fabrics", coatings, laminates and flaps. They could be talking about airplanes.

They toss around words like "alpine" (that usually means downhill skiers), or "Nordic" (a term for cross-country skiers) and "crossovers." The latter has nothing to do with sex or dress, but lots to do with those who pursue several snow sports.

Sorting through all the technicalities is important because these clothes cost, and you're going to want them to last.

Snow clothes today are not so much designed as engineered. And their makers know shoppers inspect garments to see what's built-in. So they're installing features like articulated knees and elbows, drawstring waists and hems, reinforced butt and knee panels.

If today's outdoor apparel makes a fashion statement, it's a technical one. Snow clothes are all about function. Their mission is to keep those who wander around in snow and low temperatures warm, safe and dry. Clothing for men and women has become more similar. Colors are often identical, with only sizes and shapes giving clues to the occupants.

"There's still a fashion skiwear business, some more feminine things, but the technical is taking over, growing and emerging in both the men's and women's markets," says Jim Cyr, vice president of Pacific Trail's performance outerwear division in Seattle.

Cyr has seen big changes since he started the division in 1983. Fabrics, insulation, technology and fit have all changed dramatically. And high performance outdoor gear isn't just for skiing. It's for snowboarding, camping, climbing. It appeals to a broader age group. "We believe there's a shift to a more active outdoor lifestyle," Cyr says.

One of the instigators of this high-tech trend is the North Face, an outdoor clothing company based in the San Francisco area. "We take the position that you should always be prepared. That means water-resistant," says itsspokeswoman Ashley Devery.

The North Face specializes in "safety" colors like yellow, red and bright blue. It has a "Steep Tech" collection with a built-in panel for extra back support. A "Heli" collection for backcountry skiers features a Gore-Tex two-ply fabric that's highly tear-resistant.

Devery says the "Steep Tech" collection has really taken off. "More and more people want to get away from groomed slopes and into the backcountry," she says. "In order to do that you have to have the appropriate equipment and clothing to be ready for any and all conditions." Even snowboarders, once noted for their oversize, anything-goes apparel, have gone more mainstream. Martha Harkey, co-owner of Yang Snowboard Clothing in San Francisco, says shoppers are looking at function and value. "Originally, they [snowboarders] didn't want to wear anything that looked like ski clothes," she said. "Now they want functional designs and technical fabrics that keep them dry.

With more people using both skis and snowboards, and perhaps doing a little snow-shoeing on the side, they want clothes that work. They also want jackets that can be worn with casual clothes.

Martha Winstanley Bailey, product manager for snow sports clothing at REI, says garments have to be as versatile as possible. "We sell more shells and parkas than insulated jackets in the Pacific Northwest," Bailey says. Then they buy a fleece jacket or vest to wear underneath.

Bailey is also seeing cross-country or Nordic clothing increase in popularity. "There are more cross-training activities -- snow-shoeing, high-aerobic winter sports," she says. REI has even introduced its own brand of Nordic clothing with "wind-front" tights, jackets and vests, for example. Wind-front means the insulation is put where it's needed most.

"Women have had a hard time getting technical features in their sizes," Bailey says, but "this year, many brands are offering really technical styles for women. They're just like men's, but with appealing colors."

She cites a jacket from the North Face with zip-off sleeves. When not in use, they're stored in a pocket on the back of the jacket.

"When a customer comes into a store, there's so much more to choose from this year," Bailey says. "Whether you're a backcountry skier, snowboarder or frustrated female athlete who wants technical clothing that fits, you're likely to find it."

Quick tips for tech-impaired shoppers

Before you shop, figure out what you want the clothes to do for you. Do you really need a cell-phone pocket? Added features adds cost.

Fabrics can be coated or laminated to keep rain out, but still let body heat escape. They're called "breathable."

Coated fabrics are usually cheaper.

Best length for a multipurpose jacket is one long enough to cover the buttocks, but not three-quarter length.

Strive for a lean silhouette. Clothes may fit close, but if they're engineered properly, they'll function beautifully.

If you really want to make a fashion statement, seek out a faux fur -- a reversible jacket or vest, for example.

Expect to pay $220 and up for a waterproof/breathable jacket.

Pub Date: 1/01/98

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