Mountain Equipment Co-op's outdoor wear gets a lifestyle remix

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      The chilly season has come to Vancouver with a one-two punch of torrential downpours and shortened daylight hours. For the city’s sportier set, the season presents an opportunity to hit the Lower Mainland’s swollen creeks and rivers for some white water or look to the North Shore mountains in wistful anticipation of perfect powder. For others, the shift in the weather is a call to curl up on the couch with a Netflix queue, venturing outside for little more than the routine back-and-forth to work or the grocery store.

      Historically, the outdoor-apparel industry catered almost exclusively to the former group, with technical innovations in cut, insulation, and textiles to make the most of every winter activity. The hibernators had to make do with water-resistant shells that were practical but suited more to the line for the quad lift than the line at the coffee shop.

      Recently, that’s begun to change. Performance labels around the world and close to home are looking to create ever more accessible lifestyle lines combining outdoor apparel’s many advancements with a more casual sensibility. The race is definitely on.

      Lululemon’s flagship store on Robson Street boasts a handful of stealth fashion pieces that could pass muster in an office setting or during an evening out. Kit and Ace, launched by Shannon Wilson and JJ Wilson, wife and son of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, is breaking new ground with a line of technical cashmere.

      Even Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), that most venerable purveyor of performance gear, is tweaking its image and staking a claim. Newly ensconced in a massive 112,000-square-foot, LEED-certified head office on Great Northern Way, the company’s design team—senior designers Natasja Parlee and Spring Harrison and apparel designer Janna Bishop—spoke with the Georgia Straight about MEC’s newest venture.

      Harrison heads the company’s backcountry department, while Bishop holds the reins for its active-lifestyle segment. (Think Sunday brunch in Kits after a yoga class.) Parlee, meanwhile, has been tasked with distilling a 40-year heritage of technical expertise into everyday streetwear.

      “It’s not like we weren’t doing lifestyle before this year,” Parlee explained. “We always sold organic-cotton T-shirts, for example, but the selection was extremely limited. Our customers told us they wanted to shop with us for not only their activewear but for everyday pieces as well. So once we moved forward with it, it was the area that needed the most work.

      “We started this season with our jackets,” she continued, pointing to a women’s Bon Vivant 3 jacket ($165) on a nearby mannequin as a prime example of the lifestyle line. With a more feminine silhouette and a flattering mid-thigh length, the jacket is made of a breathable, water-resistant tech fabric (naturally) and features a two-way zipper “in case you want to go for a bike ride or that’s how you get to work”, Parlee said.

      On the adjacent mannequin is the men’s Steadfaster jacket ($195). Cut to a pea-coat length that will fully cover any blazer or sports coat, the Steadfaster incorporates a waterproof and moisture-wicking textile, which is carefully camouflaged by a striated design that gives it the appearance of a natural, trench-coat-like material.

      MEC is so confident about this new direction that it recently shot a campaign for the jackets—not on top of some breathtaking backcountry mountain but on the cobbled streets of Gastown. It’s a monumental shift for a company whose advertisements usually feature real MEC customers engaging in some sort of strenuous outdoor activity.

      Parlee said people can expect slim-fit khakis in breathable fabrics, collared shirts, and shoulder and weekender bags such as the Cascade series ($24 to $95), made of a hard-wearing waxed polyester with nubuck straps and a printed lining featuring tiny canoes.

      It’s a virgin trail for a company that had, until recently, carried a somewhat stodgy reputation from the fashion side of the business. But Parlee is optimistic about creating a whole new line out of whole cloth, saying: “It’s the best of both worlds.”