Hunting apparel a billion dollar business


Mar 11, 2001
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August 14, 2001

Hunters' Camouflage: Not Just for the City Streets.


Their clothes are designed expressly not to be noticed, in styles that used to undergo major change about once every 20 years. Their garments are often constructed so durably that people are known to include specific favorites in their wills. They exert a tremendous influence on capital F fashion, as evidenced by the recent proliferation of camouflage cloth garments from New York sidewalks to the runways of the Parisian haute couture. Yet the last group most people think of as fashion conscious are the 14 million people that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates go into the woods each year with gun or bow.

In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, Americans spent $259 million on hunting and fishing apparel, or more than $1 billion if you factor in boots and shoes. Three of the top five categories of sporting goods sales are accounted for by people who hunt, fish or go camping, said Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "It's the biggest growth area," he said, "after fitness equipment and golf."

Although the deer-hunting season does not begin in parts of the Northeast until mid-September, fall hunting sportswear catalogs from Cabela's, C. C. Filson, L. L. Bean and other retailers are now filling hunters' mailboxes. And specialty stores, both the bricks-and-mortar and the online kind, have begun reordering sold-out items from the most popular hunting and fishing lines.

For many people, the enduring image of a hunter is that of a grizzled Jethro Bodine wearing face paint, grunge clothes and a scent with a name like Doe Estrus, Spring 2001. The surprising reality is that many sports people are as attuned to the cut, fabric and line of a garment as any fashion- besotted socialite.

This is as true of the customer for L. L. Bean's Total Illusion 3-D Camo outfit, with its patented odor-eliminating technology, realistic-looking cloth foliage and spooky hood, as it is of patrons of British Sporting Arms Ltd. online. Not only would the latter's $595 Laksen tweed jacket satisfy a sportsman's latent D. H. Lawrence fantasies; its smart styling, military cut (and built-in game pouch) would make it a fine addition to any fashionista's wardrobe.

More than at any other time, sportswear buyers and manufacturers are "very conscious of fashion," said Diane Sustendal, a former consultant to Alexander Julian and other menswear designers. Orvis, for instance, "changed its women's Zambezi jacket," Ms. Sustendal said, "to have a new slimmer line and a Nehru-type coat, so it's not the big safari thing with unflattering pockets all over women's hips."

Designer clothes are often judged on the strength of their silhouette; in designing clothes for hunters, the opposite is true. "The most important function of camouflage is not to make you look like a tree, it is to break up the human silhouette," J. R. Miglautsch, the editor of, noted recently in an online essay. "It is easy to blend into a bushy environment," he added. "But camo is for when you are not exactly where you are expected to be."

Perhaps Mr. Miglautsch has not yet seen the Total Illusion camouflage from L. L. Bean, which is brush-patterned and appliquéd with realistic polyester leaves. Changes in the appearance of camouflage cloth itself are instructive, not merely because the fashion pack adopted it wholesale.

Before Stephen Sprouse took the military camouflage Andy Warhol used in a series of his paintings and worked it into Day-Glo clothing designs in the 1980's; before Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons made ironic use of disused military cloth in the late 1990's; and before John Galliano turned camouflage cloth into the emblem of Dior as a label for hip grease monkeys this spring, the pattern underwent some startling evolutions in marketing and design.

"The bottom line has always been function," said Steve Culhane, product manager for the big game clothing division of Cabela's, a 40-year-old outfitter based in Sidney, Neb., that sells sportswear at seven retail stores and through the 60 million catalogs it distributes each year. "But there needs to be a certain amount of shelf appeal, so there is always some fashion involved."

Traditional hunter's clothing, Mr. Culhane explained, was the black and red check plaid that instantly evokes Paul Bunyan and his big ox, Babe. Following the Vietnam War, this pattern was essentially replaced by the amoebic green, tan and brown of old battle clothes. "Most hunters were going to surplus stores and buying up military garb," Mr. Culhane said, "until the designer Jim Crumley came up with a fabric that made you look like a tree."

Mr. Crumley's Trebark is still popular in the field; from it were derived many other camos, their original designs hand-painted, that attempted to make the wearer easy to conceal in a dappled woods or a stand of cattails in a marshy blind. Since computer graphics came into wide use, there has been "an explosion of patterns," Mr. Culhane said, with nearly 100 now to chose from. Some use digital imaging to keep hunters concealed; some also add features that foil animals' ability to detect colors outside their natural spectrum or that lock human odors behind a carbon-fiber shield.

"We don't chase fashion," said Gary Bergeron, the manager of hunting and fishing clothes for L. L. Bean. If anything, fashion would seem to be chasing them. "We live in an antiheroic time," said Stefano Tonchi, fashion creative director of Esquire.

The attraction of hunting uniforms is utility. "They're authentic," Mr. Tonchi said. "They are not overdesigned and passed through many hands."

Authenticity is practically doctrine for the Seattle outfitter C. C. Filson, which has become a best-kept secret among the fashionable while remaining an object of near religious devotion to its sporting consumer core. Founded in 1897 as a provisioner to miners headed north to Alaska and the Klondike gold rush, Filson is renowned for making garments of moleskin, superweight virgin wool and a cotton duck called Tin Cloth, which is impossible to kill and possibly even to be killed while wearing.

Filson catalogs are replete with testimonials from survivors of downed bush planes and wild animal maulings. "I was attacked by an enraged bull," wrote Bruce Ashley of West Union, Ohio, who apparently was once thrown, butted, rolled and stomped on by a disgruntled bovine.

After cleaning the hoof prints off his Tin Cloth jacket, Mr. Ashley mused on the contribution made to his survival by his jacket. "I feel like the almost armorlike quality of the caped part of that coat probably saved my life," Mr. Ashley wrote.

"Function, function, function," a Filson spokeswoman, Terri L. Young, explained of the company's philosophy. Where else in fashion does anyone make such claims?
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