Deeper In The Pile: Seven Alternatives To The Standard Patagonia Fleece

November 22, 2019

If you know your Greek myths (or Ray Harryhausen movies), you likely know the story of Jason and the Argonauts. To claim his rightful place on the throne of Thessaly, Jason must sail to faraway Colchis and retrieve the legendary golden fleece, shorn from a winged ram sent by Poseidon to…. it doesn’t really matter. Jason recruits the greatest heroes in Greece to accompany him on his journey, and they endure trial after trial — bronze giants, clashing sea rocks, a freakin hydra (or dragon, depending on the version of the story). Finally (spoiler) Jason is able claim his prize; to climb to the tree where the golden fleece hangs — the fleece peak. Back here in the real world, at the end of 2019, we may just be at peak fleece.

The polyester fabric that Yvon Chouinard figured would make a good jacket first reached saturation in the 1990s, as cheaper versions of Patagonia’s dense, light Synchilla fleece (SYNthetic chinCHILLA — developed with Malden Mills, the firm also behind Polartec) became the prized outerwear of granola moms and management trainees, as it was as easy to logo-embroider and wear over a golf shirt, and . After the Eddie Bauer wave crashed, fleece just became another element of normal American clothing — dadwear, normcore, whatever you want to call it. It was pretty democratic — unironic, inexpensive, and comfortable. And largely eternal; unfortunately, polyester doesn’t really biodegrade.

Whether it was fashion’s embrace of normcore elements, the 1990s, or outdoor gear, designers rediscovered fleece over the last few years. The streets are thick with fleece jackets, fleece coats, fleece hats and scarves, from nearly every clothing label, from McQueen to Target.

The gold standard, however, remains Patagonia,  whose Retro-X sherpa fleece jackets and vests and Synchilla pullovers are at a real sweet spot of markets — embraced by yuppie parents, preps, normcore kids, finance bros, and farm market vendors. They’re not too expensive, at under $200; they’re roomy and comfortable (actual, practical fashion); and for the moment, cool.

But that iconic status comes with ubiquity, and it’s been interesting to see what other designers have done with fleece fabric. Some, but not all, keep the traditional, sporty shape of the Patagonia (or North Face) designs — waist length and cinched, with a zip or button funnel neck and zip pockets; some riff on different eras of fleece — bright or muted, printed or plain, shaggy or smooth.

  1. Uniqlo U reversible fleece (sale: $39) — The real prize for cheap, good gear this fall was the Engineered Garments x Uniqlo fleece zip jacket, which combined three things we love — Engineered Garments’ patchwork aesthetic, Uniqlo’s accessible prices, and fleece. But with limited availability, not a lot of fleecy bois were able to get them at their retail price. The sleeper is the Uniqlo U reversible fleece (from their line directed by Christophe Lemaire), which is more subtle than the EG collaboration but still interesting, plus it’s lined and now less than 40 bucks. Cheaper than an Atari 2600.
  2. J. Crew Polartec Nordic jacket (sale: $47.50) — A groundbreaking design it’s not, but J. Crew went for the vintage Patagonia look with a natural-colored fleece (it’s synthetic, so natural is relative) with contrast trim and red zipper pulls. I mean it looks good. Like the Uniqlo fleece, this one has made it to sale and is right now <$50. (L.L. Bean makes a decent one, too, for about $100)
  3. Topo Designs fleece jacket ($149) — Wearable, classic-outdoor-influenced gear has been Topo’s deal from the start. This version is a little trimmer than those from the big outdoor gear companies, and is made from a finer microfleece from Polartec. (See lead image above.)
  4. Adsum Expedition jacket ($175) — At around the same price point as the Retro-X is this jacket from Adsum, which takes a slight step away from the standard sherpa turns a deep pile fabric inside out.
  5. Engineered Garments Workaday chore coat in poly fleece ($276) — Engineered Garments’ Workaday line, which features their re-occurring shapes like chore coats and fatigue pants — did one this season in a Synchilla-like poly fleece, with snaps rather than buttons. When Engineered Garments first started using poly/performance fabrics a few years ago (vs cotton, wool, linen), it was a little like Dylan going electric. At first I was confused, even disappointed, but eventually I got on board. (I also like their shirt in a black watch printed fleece.)
  6. Holiday Boileau Yvon jacket ($450) — At another price is entirely is a jacket inspired by another vintage Patagonia piece. This one has a deep pile and deep half zip (Holiday’s is made in France and uses fancier Riri zips). The new-ish Holiday Boileau line is helmed by vintage enthusiast Gauthier Borsarello, formerly of Ralph Lauren and owner of Le Vif vintage showroom, also in the Paris neighborhood of Boileau.
  7. Noah LP fleece hoodie ($1,200) — I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone buy a $1200 hoodie, but it’s interesting to me that it exists. Noah’s is made in Italy from a Loro Piana wool/silk blend, rather than your standard polyester. I appreciate the idea of taking a fabric and shape that we consider very pedestrian, and making it about as refined as possible (without adding a lot of loud trim announcing its refinement).


Honorable Mention: Pilgrim Fleece balmacaan ($925) — Stretching the definition of fleece here with Casentino-esque textured fabric (a wool/camel blend) bal coat. It combines elements of a number of traditional coats — it’s lined and belted, with a covered placket and button latches at the throat and hem to keep it closed up as needed. Wear it and you’ll look like you snagged the legendary golden fleece yourself. Or murdered a bunch of Snuggle fabric softener bears.