A piece-by-piece guide to help you pick just about any Techwear garment you want.
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.
When buying, consider your level of activity and the elements you'll be facing when you choose your items. Are you a mass transit commuter who isn’t in the rain for more than 5 minutes at a time? A hardshell will work, but a softshell will breathe better in cramped spaces. Do you bike or walk a lot? Given the amount of time you spend outdoors, a softshell might get totally soaked; you should look for something waterproof, well-vented, and light.
When you read garment descriptions, you’re going to see a lot of trademark logos (®, ™) next to futuristic, made-up words. Many companies put a lot of R&D into creating the fabrics and treatments that go into Techwear and trademark the subsequent creation. And a lot of companies also just license a fabric or treatment technology and rebrand it. So you’ll see a lot of trademarked names from brands that you might not see anywhere else. Look around the product maker’s website to see what their major claims for the product are.
Herno Laminar via On and Beyond
As a beginner you’re probably looking for a weatherproof jacket, the most protective of which is called a Shell or Hardshell. It’s also probably what you think of when you hear “waterproof jacket” – light, thin, and kind of plastic in feel and sound. The term “shell” usually signals waterproof, windproof, and overall the greatest level of protection from the elements.
But that impermeability has costs. Regardless of how breathable a shell is advertised as, moderate activity can make it very hot in warm weather and clammy in cooler weather. This can be mitigated with venting zips, but usually only outdoors companies include those. The synthetic nature of shells means you’ll get that distinctive plastic-like “crunching” and swishing noises with movement. And the synthetic composition of a shell also makes it more difficult to repair than common canvas or denim jackets. Though, regarding durability, an advisor to this article noted that durability often depends on the face fabric of a jacket: “a nylon shell of the same thickness/weight/weave as a denim jacket would be far more durable than its cotton counterpart.”
All shells will advertise their waterproof membrane, a synthetic skin that allows water vapor to escape (aka breathability) while keeping outside moisture droplets out. There are many membranes, some of which are just companies licensing out a common membrane and rebranding it. For a full explanation of how shells are constructed, what a membrane, laminate, and face fabric are, see Part 4.
Which membrane is the best? Don’t get caught up in the details. “Alan Dixon, the cofounder of BackpackingLight.com has spent hundreds of hours analyzing the claims of waterproof-breathable garments… His conclusion… ‘it’s splitting hairs. Yes, there are some differences in the membranes themselves. But to the average person, they’re often slight. It’s a matter of degrees.’” (Source). What matters are how it operates as a laminate, the type of face fabric chosen, the effectiveness of the backer, how they all interact, how the garment is cut and constructed. Once you realize all of that is at play, you realize "what's the best membrane" is mostly an academic question (unless you start choosing random, untested stuff).
So you don’t go in blind, I’ll introduce the major membranes. GORE-TEX is the membrane granddaddy; an undeniably high-quality product that, due to required rigorous testing and construction standards monitored by Gore itself, raised the bar for all shells that reached the consumer, but limited interesting designs. The advent of the eVent membrane, which is licensed out much more liberally, has allowed for more experimentation with shells and many more trademarked offshoots. Neoshell is another major player now.
The best combination of price and unobjectionable design is probably Uniqlo. They began with their Designer Innovation Project and now release shells and softshells year-round.
For business casual, outdoors companies like REI, Patagonia, and The North Face all make reasonably priced shells but they will usually show a logo. For more minimal designs but a bit more money, consider Tech-Focused Fashion brands like Aether, Arc'Teryx, Nau, Mission Workshop, and Triple Aught Design (TAD). Amongst Techninjas, Acronym, Arc'Teryx Veilance, and Stone Island Shadow Project are held in high regard. If you’re more fashion-inclined, take a look at the suggestions for “Jackets in Between” below.
Sorry I can’t suggest more but there are hundreds of shells out there. Look for brand and product reviews, don’t believe marketing hype, and good luck.
Reigning Champ Diaplex Parka Jacket (cropped photo) via Nomad
Storm King Parka via Outlier (Emiliano Granado photo for Outlier)
Stealth Hoodie LD via Triple Aught Design (TAD)
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 generally fall into two categories. The first is basically a baby softshell with something similar to a hardshell membrane. They emphasize water resistance and wind protection at the expense of breathability, air permeability, and dry-time.
The second is a specialty fabric, usually something synthetic and stretchy, with a weatherproofing treatment on top. Soft synthetic fabrics in single and double weave emphasize breathability, mobility/stretch, and rapid drying. There’s also Ventile and etaProof - cotton products that swell when wet to close off the minute holes in the fabric to create water resistance. Many companies license one of the two major swelling cottons (particularly etaProof), add DWR, and rebrand the result as their own product.
Some softshells, usually the second type, provide better durability and reparability than hardshells. Both can be incredibly thin and generally aren’t winter jackets. A high-quality softshell can protect you for around an hour in light to moderate rain. Downpours, you’re gonna get wet
Just like shells, there are too many softshells out there to make a quick and dirty recommendation. Most softshells are very basic in design, so the style categories of Techwear don’t matter as much here. It will likely be somewhat plain, feature a high storm collar or hood, zip slash pockets, and maybe a waterproof arm or chest pocket. Each company will make small tweaks on the design to leave its aesthetic mark.
The only recommendations I can make are in the cost-effective range. Just like with shells, I recommend Uniqlo and the casual outdoor brands.
Jackets in Between↩
White Mountaineering Mods Coat (photo cropped) via Jamesy
Undercover Knit Jacket (photo cropped) via Austere Print
Visvim PFD Corduroy Jacket via Union
A lot of jackets fall between shell and softshell; in the "styles" section they fall into "Fashion, with Tech Experiments." 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. Protective membranes besides GORE-TEX are available with little to no restrictions on garment design. It's wise 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 a very interesting but untested new material. It may be hard to be too wary: the designs are frequently incredible.
Note that even established brands are getting in on this, too. With the rise of "Performance Menswear," fashion brands like Calvin Klein and Zengna are creating technical garments. High-End brand Loro Piana licenses out its weatherproofing system, Loro Piana Storm System, to brands such as Brooks Brothers, Canada Goose, Faconnable, Giorgio Armani, Hickey Freeman, Hugo Boss, and Turbull & Asser.
There’s also the bad in-between. Some garments advertised as weatherproof are are just normal fabrics with water repellant treatments on top. These are fine for regular wear, but will only repel a little bit of water before soaking through like any other piece of clothing. At this point it will get you wet, be very heavy, lose the ability to breathe, and take a long time to dry out. This is why many people avoid jackets that are just basic cotton or denim with a DWR on top. With swelling cottons like etaProof and Stotz, you will eventually face all of the same consequences as regular fabrics, but the timeline is much, much longer.
The jackets here feel worth the risk, especially if you’re really into fashion and you want something that’s passably weatherproof. Japanese brands are becoming very commonplace on English language webstores. However, having a familiarity with Yahoo Japan Auctions (the closest thing to eBay Japan you’ll find), Rakuten, and Mbok, can score you big deals, Japan-only releases, and obscure collaboration pieces.
Undercover's FW 2009 collection was called Earmuff Maniac and featured no less than 6 technical jackets, notably using a fabric technology called DiAPLEX, and continue to release scattered tech pieces. Ten-C is known for fabric experimentation and twisting military classics up. Visvim takes its Americana inspiration to incredible new places; though most of its tech pieces are basic retreads of military pieces, every now and then an amazing reimagining will slip through. And North Face Purple Label is a Japan-only yearly collaboration release between North Face and Nanamica that is sorely missed in the US. Nanamica, Sophnet, Wtaps, Nonnative and Mastermind Japan are also worth considering.
If you’re looking at more streetwear friendly stuff, look for athletic inspired brands. Nike Gyakusou is a collaboration between Nike and Undercover designer Jun Takahashi. Nike NSW is a good option as well. Undefeated just released a technical line, but it’s untested by the public. Y-3 must have hired some new designers because the last few years it has calmed the hell down with some of its branding and has released some great stuff.
The North Face Purple Lable Mountain Sweat Parka via Jamesy
Stone Island Shadow Project Vest (photo cropped) via Haven
Liberated Wool Hoodie via Outlier (Emiliano Granado photo for Outlier)
A Mid Layer is anything between a piece of outerwear and a base layer used for insulation. Hoodies, sweatshirts, vests, shirtjackets, fleeces, etc. If you’re going to be extremely active, you’ll want something that won’t inhibit the transfer of moisture from your body to base layer to outside your jacket. Fleece has come a long way since the 80’s. Synthetic down is lighter, more compressible and quicker drying than fleece, at the expense of durability. In addition to these, there's the rise of the "hardfleece" fabric; fleece with a smooth exterior, closing the gap between softshell and fleece. Softshell hoodies are popular. It’s also worth noting that some companies have mid layer+shell systems that work together for warmth, breathability, and aesthetics.
The world is your oyster so don’t let me hold you back. Go down the brand list links in Part 3 and find the style that you prefer.
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. 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 are a good way to minimize odor and pack a little lighter for travel or hiking.
The buzzwords you’ll hear with base layers are Merino wool and a lot of trademarked synthetics. Merino wool is soft, stretchy and has advertised properties of moisture wicking, heat regulation in hot and cold situations, a high heat to weight ratio, and anti-odor properties due to it being naturally antimicrobial. Synthetics will be stretchier, wick moisture faster, be more durable, and may be cheaper. Many people note that certain synthetics do wick better but will smell like death if not regularly laundered, a concern shared by dirtbags and travelers alike. And it’s easier to wear a Merino wool shirt around casually. Smartwool is a Merino/Synthetic blend that claims to be greatest thing under the sun. Many brands use it and general consensus seems to find it to be a fine fabric. An advisor to the article noted that 100% Merino is fragile, so poly blends are common, but compromise some of the antimicrobial and thermal properties of the wool.
The most cost effective base layers go to… Uniqlo. How can one brand have it all? Their winter line offers Heat Tech undershirts and leggings, which they claim produces heat from sweat and moisture. Having worn it, it seems like a bullshit claim. I’m fine with that. If I’m sweating I don’t need more heat. That said it’s an excellent micro-thin layer to add a little warmth to slim fits. Their summer line offers Dri-Fit sythentic base layers, with which I have zero experience. They also regularly offer synthetic underwear and socks. Nike, Under Armour, LuLuLemon, really, any athletic brand will also produce reasonably priced warm and cold weather synthetic Techwear.
Most other Tech brands make some sort of base layer shirts, though you will pay more for brand names and, if offered, Merino wool. The big outdoors retailers and smaller brands in particular usually offer both Merino and synthetic options. Icebreaker specializes in Merino products and has a solid reputation. As previously mentioned, a Merino T-shirt can run $60-$100+ and underwear $25-$60+.
If you feel like really treating yourself, the following brands are known to Techwear approved underwear (in order of how much I encountered their names): Icebreaker, Ex Officio, Ibex, Rapha, Zimmerli, Falke, and Finisterre.
If you go with synthetic underwear, something to keep in mind, via an advisor to the article: “Nearly all synthetic underwear is polyester [as opposed to nylon]. It's also the use of polyester that makes underwear smell so horribly, as polyester is quite porous and ideal for microbes. A common antimicrobial treatment for poly underwear is the bonding of silver ions to the fabric. In my personal opinion this does not work particularily well, and there have been health concerns voiced about the usage of bonded silver.” The advisor added, “Patagonia's Capilene fabric is the standard to which all synthetic underwear is judged. Arc'teryx has a very interesting technology called ‘phasic’ that uses an aggressively ridged texture to very quickly spread out moisture over a large surface area… Synthetic underwear, due to its fast dry time, is still the best choice for activities that involve a risk of hypothermia.”
Commuter Cargo Pants via Levi's
New OG via Outlier
Arc’Teryx Veilance Voronoi Pant via Silver and Gold
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" since 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. When a pant is made of non-stretch fabrics, looser cuts and articulated patterns that allow for freer movement are both common to make up for the lack of stretch.
Casual Tech buyers won’t find extremely functional Techwear pants for cheap. Just like with softshell jackets, if you buy pants that are made of a basic fabric like cotton or denim with DWR on top, it will provide slight protection, then soak and take a long time to dry out. As far as I know, only Uniqlo and Under Armour offer stretch, quick-drying pants for under $100. If you’re looking for cost-effective (around $100-$150), consider Levi’s Commuter Line, certain Outlier models, Nau, and Triple Aught Design. Pants in this range won’t be incredibly weather resistant, but will provide fabrics that will stretch, dry out quickly, and have a DWR treatment.
You’ll have more options if you’re willing to range $150-$250. I recommend Outlier. I own a pair of their 4 Season OG's and it performs well. Mission Workshop, Proof NY, Makers & Riders all look promising in a similar vein, but I can’t vouch for them. Isaora makes fashionable, but more expensive, basic pants options as well. Be wary as many message board posts have been dedicated to Isaora's strange sizing and quality control issues - though the same people note that their customer service is top notch.
Cyclist-targeted gear probably started the Performance Menswear / Casual Tech hype, so there are a lot of offerings for them. Carefully check the cut of cyclist-targeted pants because some will feature a higher rise to hide their ass crack and larger seat and thighs to accommodate said bike-toned ass. If you do bike, look for something with at least 2% stretch material and/or a gusseted crotch. A gusset is an extra piece of fabric that allows for extra seam allowance or movement – a kind of anti-dart.
Outside of Casual Tech and Tech-Focused casual brands, you end up amongst Techninja companies. Very cool looking pants that are cut like polygons and are specially or specifically functional to the point of absurdity. But man they look cool. You’ll hear a lot of buzzwords, but none that apply so specifically to pants, as opposed to jackets or bags, that you can’t figure it out from the context alone. Acronym, Arc'Teryx Veilance, Stone Island Shadow Project, and Maharishi will give you Metal Gear Solid status.
As a last ditch effort – or if you truly need waterproof pants – go to the hiking and outdoors companies. GORE-TEX keeps a handy list of all of its current approved designs on its website, along with outside links to purchase. Many outdoors companies make truly waterproof pants. Arc'Teryx, Makers & Riders, and some of the Techninja brands offer waterproof pants as well.
Clarks Traxter x Hanon via Hanon
Y-3 Garde High via Concepts
C-Store x Diemme Roccia Vet (cropped) via Caliroots
Footwear is incredibly frustrating: athletic shoe and hiking boot companies commonly use technological terms for marketing, but very few make models that look decent in an urban environment and are fully functional. The very nature of footwear makes it incredibly difficult to design. Shoes are constantly exposed to the elements and infrequently removed, so it is a constant battle between staying dry from the elements, but not soaking through with sweat since there's no breathability or air flow.
There are some Techwear marketed shoes – Outlier Supermarines, Converse x Schoeller, and Clarks Traxter x Hanon come to mind – but they are few, far between, and plain. Almost all technical shoes are outdoors/hiking or winter/rain boots; take a look at GORE-TEX’s approved shoes for an idea. So, I could recommend Gore’s approved shoes or things like Vibram Five Fingers, Tevas, and Skora. But I won’t.
For fashion without much function, there’s a lot of design freedom in athletic shoes which is why you’ll see so many Techninjas in Nikes, regardless of its lack of actual Tech functionality. Many of Acronym's lookbooks show the models in Nikes and, unexpectedly, Doc Martens. For Nike, look to the Flyknit, Roshe, AF1, Lundarglide sole, Braata Oms – Google Image search any Nike model and you’ll find a wealth of colorways and collaborations. It’s worth noting that Nike has the Shield series for water repellency and 3M reflective accents, along with Shield options on NikeID.
Any other athletic company like Puma, Adidas, or Reebok, probably offers an acceptable range as well. Even New Balance has the NewSky and Vans has the LXVI series. Additionally, fashion and luxury brands create many futuristic sneakers. The Raf Simons Vandal, Y-3 Qasa and Garde, Jil Sander creeper, Prada creepers, Balenciaga, and Kris Van Assche are all notable models or brands. And for giggles, here’s the Air Jordan XX8.
For boots, Tretorn, Timberland, Danner, and Diemme (particularly the Diemme Roccia Vet) are options. It may surprise you that Doc Martens has massively expanded its selections and combinations of silhouette, sole type, upper materials, and stitching. Nothing specifically tech, but their classic sole in white and grey/clear are aesthetically correct.
Some people go with armed forces shoes and boots, but there are so many terrible selections clogging up the search pages, that it's hard to justify the effort. If you’re going this route I’m guessing that you want at least a little functionality with your military look, so instead of going to “military inspired” fashion brands that will remove the functionality, look for modern updates to classics from companies who specialize in armed forces footwear. For warm weather, look for updated desert boots and jungle boots. The best I’ve seen are the hobo x Diemme Utility Boot, the Oakley LSA Terrain Boot, and the Nike SFB Boot and Chukka which may or may not be re-released to NikeID. The SFB, like any Nike, gets a ton of special releases; just do a Google Image search of “Nike SFB” to see the variety. My friends like to point out that tech boots with a sneaker sole can make you look… special.
Bags, Duffels, Packs, Pouches, Cases and Covers↩
Isar Rucksack via Cote et Ciel
R2 Arkiv Field Pack via Mission Workshop
Visvim Canvas Floral 20L Backpack via Tres Bien Shop
Almost all of the companies listed here make large range of products with one or two cost-effective bags, so check them all out. “Modular” means you can attach more pieces to it. There are big and small modular bags, but make sure to check if it’s a proprietary modular system that only works with one company's stuff. If you see rows of nylon strips with rings protruding from it, that’s PALS webbing. It’s an almost universal system of webbings used by many brands to make modular systems. MOLLE is sometimes used interchangeably with PALS, but MOLLE is technically a distinct system that is slightly less universal – PALS is the webbing itself, often used with MOLLE.
For futuristic and minimal, check out Bagjack, Cote et Ciel, Porter / Head Porter, Lexdray, Incase, and Mission Workshop. Bagjack’s work goes far beyond the carseat-buckle one shoulder bags you see bike messengers using, including collaborations with Acronym and Baicyclon. Mission Workshop makes a lot of very cool, modular packs. Porter and Head Porter make a lot of cool transformable bags, but can be harder to come by if you don’t’ know how to use Japanese proxies. DSPTCH makes a very cool small messenger they call the Slingpack. Athletic companies also tend to have a few minimal, waterproof duffels (the Nike Eugene Duffel is pretty cool). Finally, for the more colorful amongst you, Timbuk2 is an option, but it’s heavily branded.
Techninjas gravitate to Acronym, with many bags that work within their brand-specific modular system. They are crazy expensive. Also note that some are ergonomically designed for right-handed people so left-handed people might lose out on some of the benefits. Remember what I’ve said before about Techninja companies being too functional?
For fashion, look to Visvim, Master-Piece, Porter / Head Porter collaborations, and Cote et Ciel. All of these companies are Japanese except for Cote et Ciel. Visvim you can find in American and European stores. Master-Piece and Porter / Head Porter collaborations will be harder to find, but you will often be rewarded for your hunting with seemingly one of a kind pieces. You will have to sell a body part that you will miss to afford Visvim or collaboration pieces.
Fuelband via Nike
G-Shock by Maison Martin Margiela via Opening Ceremony
Railroad Spike Cuff via Giles & Brother
Accessories are usually overlooked with Techwear designers and customers. If you go to a company’s dedicated 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. For things like waterproof caps, scarves, etc., outdoors companies are your best bet.
Wearable integrated electronic technology, "wearables" or "wearable tech," is poised for a huge breakout soon, but it's not ready yet. The only wearable tech that is widely available and consumer-ready are fitness trackers. These can be linked to mobile apps and online accounts. Used in tandem with a calorie tracker, they might actually help you (unlike all of the other crap I’m suggesting). Nike Fuelband, Fitbit, Jawbone Up, and Basis are the best-known.
Engadget, Gizmag, Mashable, The Verge, and Wired, all have sections dedicated to the development of wearable tech. Almost all of them will also have dedicated tags for things like Google Glass and Smart Watches, two of the most-hyped developments in wearable tech. Most wearable tech is still testing, or running through Kickstarter donators as paying lab rats. For a much more thorough look at wearable tech sites and recent developments, see "Fashion and the Future" in Part 5 of this series.
Since this is a series on fashion, I'm going to suggest how to style mostly aesthetic accessories with your functional gear. If this will make you mad, skip the rest.
If you’re going for a Futurist look, there are many options as long as you think “modern design.” Fitness accessories work here, as does anything clear or acrylic (Margiela makes a surprisingly large amount of these). Maison Martin Margiela also just released a collaboration piece with G-Shock. Keep your ear to ground with gadget blogs like Engadget, Wired, Uncrate, The Verge, Tech Crunch, and Cool Hunting. If you like to live dangerously, you can try the latest smart watches or go to Kickstarter and type in watches, fitness trackers, anything you can think of.
Militarist, Cyberpunk, and naturalist accessories can be mixed, matched, and swapped for each other at will. They all provide a nice contrast to minimalist and severe techwear outfits. For militarist looks, a plain Timex with a nato strap or a simple watch made of silver or stainless steel. If you’re into Cyberpunk, any classic electronic watch like a Casio is an easy way to go. For naturalist, you can go with rope, leather, elephant hair/grass, or precious metals in classic, masculine designs. More minimal designs from Miansai and Giles & Brother fit the bill, but any fashion webstore will feature designs that work as well. Any large watch or accessories manufacturer will have at least a few options that might work.
People into Techwear also sometimes end up interested in Every Day Carry (EDC) communities. People discuss the merits of what they have with them at all times, and photograph it neatly. You’re reading a 10 page guide on Techwear, stop laughing. Check everyday-carry.com/, EDC Blog, Reddit's EDC Subreddit, and Tumblr's EDC tag. Most of the major men’s fashion forums have EDC threads as well. Don’t tell them I sent you.