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Roughing It in the Urban Jungle : Fashion: So what if they don’t hike, or fish or climb mountains? Lately, city slickers like the look of pricey but durable outdoor duds.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The people at Patagonia get downright testy when talk of their rugged, boldly colored outdoor clothing turns to fashion. But the reality is that authentic fishing and hiking clothes--not the designer remakes--are doubling as city sportswear and making the pages of fashion magazines.

“We’re pretty nervous about the fashion label,” says Kevin Sweeney, a spokesman for the Ventura-based manufacturer of gear for skiing, mountain climbing, sailing and fishing.

“We spend a lot of time and energy making clothes for a small group of people whose lives depend on their clothing. If we ever start marketing to yuppies, we’ll lose our core customers.”

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Still, Patagonia comes out year after year with some of the snappiest colors and styles around. Its parkas, vests and storm pants--in vivid blues, bright oranges, lush greens, vibrant fuchsias and rich reds--not only stand out sharply on snowy-white slopes or granite-gray cliffs but also make heads turn on the sidewalks of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York when athlete-wanna-bes sport them to ward off the chill.

That bodes well for other companies as well, such as Willis & Geiger, Timberland, North Face, L.L. Bean, Lands’ End, and even Banana Republic and the Gap.

“The whole rugged look at the moment is quite important,” says Madison Riley, a consultant with Kurt Salmon Associates, an Atlanta-based retail consulting firm. Riley estimates the sports apparel market at $25 billion and growing. Of that, he said, probably only 25% or so actually gets used for sports.

As the recession-hampered holiday season amply demonstrated, the austere early 1990s are shaping up as a time for practicality, quality and value. To find their way into careful shoppers’ closets, clothes must be prepared to serve several purposes.

“The direction definitely is clothes versatile enough to be used for sports or just to look the part,” says Roseanne Morrison, fashion editor of the Tobe Report, a New York newsletter for the apparel and retail trades.

The idea of rough-and-ready apparel crossing over into the fashion mainstream is scarcely new. It happened with surfwear, high-top basketball shoes and flight jackets. But the look, particularly in outerwear, appears to be coming on stronger of late.

It’s not that the clothes are inexpensive. A top-of-the-line Nitro jacket from Patagonia costs $340; a layered ensemble, from underwear to outerwear, can easily run $600. Waterproof leather coats from Timberland, best known for its boots, can run $1,000.

But the clothes do last and last, and they perform. Eddie Bauer, a division of the Spiegel catalogue company known for its weekend and leisure wear, boasts of its parkas and jackets being handed down through generations.

Even if the wearer has no intention of kayaking the Colorado River or scaling the rosy-hued rocks at Joshua Tree National Monument, it’s fun to look the part.

“For a lot of people trapped in the urban environment who can’t really get to the woods or the mountains, wearing the clothes is a kick,” says Cameron Tuttle, executive editor of Sportswear International and In Fashion magazines in New York.

Leonard A. Lauder, president and chief executive of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, calls the durable duds from Patagonia and Timberland “classless clothes (that) are the new status symbol.”

“When I go into a mountain shop and buy a jacket,” Lauder says, “I feel I’m equipped to scale Mt. Everest.”

But the truly sports-minded value the clothing’s versatility.

Take anesthesiologist Bob Cedergreen, an avid long-distance runner, skier, wind surfer and rock climber. Reached at his Palos Verdes Estates home, Cedergreen said: “I’m sitting here in a Patagonia pullover right now, paying bills. I wore it to work today too. I own mainly that type of clothing.”

Cedergreen even had a tale about how a Patagonia pile coat saved his life when he was caught in a freak rain- and snowstorm while ascending Tahquitz Rock in Idyllwild. “If I’d been wearing cotton, I’d have died,” he said matter-of-factly.

At most of the rugged-wear companies, function comes first. Patagonia, for one, maintains that the best design is one with the fewest bells and whistles. Notes Sweeney: “People on expedition don’t want three extra ounces that come with zippers.”

To maintain its integrity with athletes, Patagonia has chosen to sell only through its own stores and glossy travelogue-catalogues and through specialty outdoor merchants. For fall, the company is dramatically scaling back its line after an overly ambitious growth plan in 1991 collided with the sluggish economy, nearly sending the company into a tailspin. Annual sales at Patagonia mushroomed to $107 million in 1991 from $3 million in 1981.

Timberland sales have reached $225 million from $84 million in 1986, largely on the strength of the company’s success in Europe. “Timberland has become a look in Italy in particular,” says Elise Klysa, a spokeswoman for the Hampton, N.H., company, which, unlike many of its peers, is publicly held.

For most of its 90 years, Willis & Geiger made private-label clothes for Abercrombie & Fitch and L.L. Bean, but in the 1980s the company began selling under its own name, as word spread that it was the source of those sturdy garments.

Ernest Hemingway, Teddy Roosevelt, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Dwight David Eisenhower and President Bush are among the notables who have worn safari jackets and camera and fly-fishing vests from Willis & Geiger. It also supplied flight clothing for Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic solo flight, outfitted Adm. Richard Byrd’s expeditions to Antarctica and made flight jackets for the U.S. military in World War II.

The company’s clothes have spawned many imitators, but Burt Avedon, Willis & Geiger president, says: “We just laugh at them; none of them have all the special features our clothing offers, such as drop-seat pants for bird watchers.” Flight jackets, the firm’s bread and butter, run $300 to $800.

At Tilley Endurables, a Canadian maker of travel and adventure clothing, function is said to follow form.

“When we design things, the intent is they must be very attractive on people,” says founder Alex Tilley. “Then we figure out how to be practical.”

The company, based in a Toronto suburb, started with a seemingly indestructible natural-colored hat designed by Tilley in 1980 when he could not find a proper sailing hat--one that would float, that is. Made of sturdy cotton duck, the Tilley hat (about $45) is guaranteed for life and comes with an amusing four-page “owner’s manual.” Canada’s soldiers and sailors were issued 6,000 Tilley hats during the Persian Gulf War. Washing instructions on the label read: Give ‘em hell.

In the company’s catalogue, Tilley provides this lifetime guarantee: “If you ever succeed in wearing out your Tilley hat, send us the remains and we’ll replace it free.”

By Los Angeles fashion standards, the Tilley clothing would seem conservative at best, dowdy at worst. But Tilley’s customers swear by it. Interior walls of the company’s stores are plastered with photographs and testimonials from customers sporting the hats and the multi-pocketed classic pants and shorts.

One Ontario man wrote in mock anger to say that his Tilley shorts had gotten caught on a cleat on his sailboat one day. He was pitched overboard and found himself dangling upside down until he was rescued by a teen-age girl.

“Your shorts refused to tear and release me,” the man wrote. “Any other brand would have ripped immediately. . . . Have you no regard for the dignity of your customers?”


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