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Image: Roman Pohorecki, Pexels

During the cooler months I sometimes like to play a game. Standing on a street corner or intersection, waiting for public transport or a light to change, I count the puffer jackets I can see. Not infrequently I have calculated, in a group of a dozen or more passers by, a human-to-jacket ratio of two to one, my eyes tripping over a succession of Kathmandu, Patagonia, and North Face logos, each slickly corporate in defiance of their hippie roots, and bearing the outline – incongruous in metropolitan Adelaide or Melbourne – of one or another exotic-sounding mountain peak.

In my game, I score bonus points if I see a couple dressed in matching jackets (not as rare as you might think). I’ve seen whole families decked out in them – mum, dad, daughter, son – distinguishable at a distance only by height.

(I kid you not – I worked on this piece in a bar in Melbourne, and just as I was just about to put my pen down, a couple sitting opposite me who had been in a long-running conversation with a wedding planner stood up to leave, and the woman put on a Kathmandu puffer jacket, the logo settling between her shoulder blades as she went to pay the bill.)

In 2019 the puffer – or down, or insulated – jacket is everywhere, a uniform reminiscent, in its bland utilitarianism and tubular, sheeny design (they’re called ‘baffles’), of vintage science fiction. That it has become omnipresent, mutating into hoodies and vests as well, is not just true anecdotally. In 2017 the total global market was valued at US$101.3 billion and was forecast to reach US$384.5 billion by 2025. In the last financial year, the New Zealand-based Kathmandu saw a sales increase in Australia – home to 118 of its 167 outlets – of 2.7 per cent, with the company’s Australian share price initially vaulting up 20 per cent to $2.44.

As with activewear, developed from workout clothes to allegedly maximise the functionality of everyday apparel, the key to the puffer jacket’s success has been a carefully honed ability to transcend its niche origins and become an unlikely staple of both high-end fashion and the urbanite wardrobe. Both embody the aspirational logic of surveillance capitalism, evoking, rather than affirming, a healthy, Instagram-worthy lifestyle.

The key to the puffer jacket’s success has been a carefully honed ability to transcend its niche origins and become an unlikely staple of both high-end fashion and the urbanite wardrobe.

There are, however, telling differences. For a start, activewear’s form-fitting range of crop tops and leggings – the multibillion-dollar industry mostly targets the ideal woman – are designed, in short, to make you look good. In contrast, puffer jackets are bulky and shapeless (a fact not unconnected to their enthusiastic uptake, especially of North Face’s Nuptse, among US rappers in the 1990s – a curious fate for a jacket named after a lesser-known mountain in Tibet).

The point of the puffer isn’t to accentuate physical difference, but to eliminate it. Its marketing emphasises functionality over form, which is to say the jacket’s lightness, durability, and especially warmth, or ‘loft’ – its ability to trap and retain heat. (Loft is measured by way of ‘fill power’, the space one ounce of insulation takes up in cubic inches. Basically, the higher the fill power, the warmer the jacket).

More fundamentally, the rise of the puffer – helped along, no doubt, by its close tracking with the recent revival of 1990s fashions, as well as a growing appetite for hip hop-influenced streetwear – is a product (if that’s the right word) of the corporation’s paradigmatic shift from manufacturing to branding since the 1980s. For all their talk (puffery?) of micro-thin polymers and durable water repellents, Kathmandu, Patagonia, North Face, and Superdry are in the same business as everybody else: selling an idea in a marketplace crowded not with actual things, which are almost all produced out of sight, out of mind in the Global South, but with other ideas. As Naomi Klein put it in the classic No Logo (2000):

Savvy ad agencies have all moved away from the idea that they are flogging a product made by someone else, and have come to think of themselves instead as brand factories, hammering out what is of true value: the idea, the lifestyle, the attitude. Brand builders are the new primary producers in our so-called knowledge economy.

Like the four-wheel drive flecked with spray-on mud that never leaves the suburbs, the puffer’s true utility lies in the way it captures and commodifies a certain spirit – in this case, that of wilderness, and the kind of rugged individualism necessary to being in or, better still, overcoming it. It is not so much a piece of trekking wear designed to keep us dry and warm as we scale windswept mountains and rough hiking trails, but a broadcast about who we are, or would like to be seen to be, as we schlep to yoga, the hardware store, and the supermarket (try scaling anything in a full-length quilted parka). Marisa Meltzer, in the Guardian, describes a Patagonia catalogue cover: ‘A man on a motorbike – carrying a pair of skis under one arm – smiling at a squirrel as it crosses the road.’ ‘You can take a backpack to school,’ North Face-sponsored endurance runner Dean Karnazes tells her, ‘but you feel like you’re in Yosemite.’

The puffer’s true utility lies in the way it captures and commodifies a certain spirit – the kind of rugged individualism necessary to being in wilderness or, better still, overcoming it.

It’s a measure of the derangement of industrialised economies under late capitalism that the puffer’s ubiquity has arrived even as we become further and further removed from the natural world. In fact, the puffer not only reflects this dislocation – it entrenches it. What practical use, after all, could an 800 fill power puffer have in South Australia, famously ‘the driest state in the driest continent’, with its mild winters and 2,500 hours of sunshine a year? As readers of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short stories will know, it takes the blackest satire to capture the alienation that lies at the heart of a system in which biophilia – our innate affiliation with other living organisms and nature – seems all but extinguished, except where it can be marshalled to sell us more stuff we don’t need.

In defiance of the environmental cost, we heat our homes and shopping malls more than we need to, and dress accordingly – lightly, with an easy to remove puffer thrown over the top. It is as though we are so removed from the natural world, so abstracted from the climate crisis that is slowly rendering it uninhabitably warm, that we simply don’t know how to be in it anymore. It is no small irony, too, that brands trading on the idea of connecting to nature should continue to rely on down produced by the live plucking of ducks and geese – let’s call it what it is, the systematic torture of sentient animals – which, despite the introduction of the Traceable Down Standard in 2017, remains endemic in the industry.

Not long ago I read somewhere that, in contrast to previous eras when the rich were readily distinguishable by their clothes, everybody wears North Face now. No doubt, this is not as true as North Face would like it to be – in certain parts of the world their jackets are known as ‘spine breakers’ on account of how much it costs parents to buy them for their children – but the point remains: puffers, regardless of the individuating social capital that can be gained from their branding, tend to flatten difference, and they do cut across the old class lines. What does it say that the jacket’s popularity has recently exploded in Korea, a highly culturally homogeneous country?

Just as our eateries have come to resemble conveyor belts more than cafes or restaurants, so too have our clothing choices been shaped by the demands of optimisation.

Under the terms of late capitalism, anything that streamlines day-to-day tasks that are only peripherally necessary for its functioning – eating, commuting, and, yes, dressing – is to be encouraged, rewarded, and, of course, sold back to us. Just as our eateries have come to resemble conveyor belts more than cafes or restaurants, so too have our clothing choices been shaped by the demands of optimisation. Time spent layering knitwear, scarves, and overcoats is time not spent answering emails or online shopping. One size fits all. As Jia Tolentino writes: ‘We have not “optimised” our wages, our childcare system, our political representation; we still hardly even think of parity as realistic in those arenas, let alone anything approaching perfection. We have maximised our capacity as market assets. That’s all.’

It has become a truism of our times that the more human-like our machines become, the more machine logic determines how we live. It can feel, as it did when I began seeing online advertisements for puffer jackets within minutes of starting research for this essay, that our relationship to the machine, the one becoming evermore like the other, forms a closed, ineluctable loop.

That this image seems as remote as possible from the ideal of outerwear sold to us – the smiling man on the motorbike – only heightens the absurdity of both. To exert, even simply immerse ourselves in the natural world is among the few truly human things left for us to do, an urge no less genuine for its relentless coopting by the market. To reassert the human in this system, then, means not just ‘getting back to nature’, but also getting out of the loop. Above all, perhaps, the puffer jacket is a sign of this struggle, of being lost in this wilderness.