cozy couture: the rise of fashion track pants

Or how the Adidas sweats you wear to the deli have inspired a million runway remixes — by Marc Jacobs, Gucci, Vetements, and Céline.

Feb 22 2017, 7:05pm

Marc Jacobs fall/winter 17. Photography Mitchell Sams.

Track pants are perhaps the third most basic garment, after the T-shirt and the tube top (another Sporty Spice staple). A classic triple-stripe pair from Adidas will set you back $20 and can be delivered to your doorstep within 24 hours through Amazon Prime. They have a loose ankle and drawstring waistband for maximal ease of entry and are available in sizes small through 3XL. Track pants are purposefully designed so that almost anyone can wear them — and in recent years, almost everyone in America probably has (while exercising or most likely not).

It seems ironic, then, that when you Google "fashion track pants" you receive several sets of instructions for "How to Wear Track Pants." Like another recent runway debutante, the Croc, track pants have been worn by my dad, and other civilians, for years without instructions — since long before Marc Jacobs's most recent collection or Christopher Kane's experiments in Croslite™.

Related: Crocs on the Runway — From Dream to Reality

Track pants fall squarely into the category of the reborn basic, a standard-issue garment made shiny and new (and notably more expensive) through a designer's vision and runway presentation. This transformation, in the case of the track pant, is both beautifully democratic — what could be more approachable and wearable than track pants? — and also faintly absurd. As anyone who hasn't heard of Vetements or Gosha Rubchinskiy might reasonably wonder, How could you ever justify spending hundreds of dollars on a pair of track pants?

To put it another way: Why are today's most influential fashion designers fascinated with the track pant? How and when did the simple, comfortable garment in which you both exercise and watch TV (a weird irony) become a covetable catwalk item?

To understand today's creators of high-fashion track pants — Marc Jacobs, Vetements, Céline, and Gucci — it helps to look back at the garment's O.G. fashion-world adopter: Tommy Hilfiger. After establishing a strong customer base for his preppy Americana read-to-wear in the late 80s, Hilfiger famously made a (controversial) shift in strategy in the early 90s by switching his aesthetic world from the boat club to the club. His first-ever runway show, in 1996, featured models including Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss walking in boldly logoed athletic wear that clearly riffed on the styles of successful contemporary hip-hop artists like TLC and Aaliyah (who starred in Hilfiger's denim campaign that same year). Not only did the models wear track pants — in a marked departure from traditional ideas about what runway fashion was — but Treach from New Jersey hip-hop duo Naughty by Nature soundtracked the show wearing a pair of navy oversized Tommy track pants. (In his 2000 movie Bamboozled, Spike Lee famously satirized Hilfiger as a designer intent on exploiting African-American culture.)

Hip-hop's influence on fashion undoubtedly helped usher the track pant onto American runways. And its power is still visible in many of today's incarnations of the catwalk track pant (partly thanks to the A$AP Mob's promotion of Cozy Boy culture). Last week, model Casil McArthur walked Marc Jacobs in red track pants with gold and black stripes stitched up the leg. While the pants were an unashamedly luxurious update of a street wear classic — the matching track jacket featured a gold zip-pull designed by artist Urs Fischer — Jacobs made clear in his show notes that he was aware of the heritage he was remixing. "This collection is my representation of the well-studied dressing up of casual sportswear," he explained. "It is an acknowledgement and gesture of my respect for the polish and consideration applied to fashion from a generation that will forever be the foundation of youth culture street style." He also listed the 2016 documentary Hip-Hop Evolution as a source of inspiration.

Vetements, a collective that works with less overt references, has been repping track pants on the runway since its first catwalk show in 2014. In the first six looks of that spring/summer 15 offering, more pieces were track pants than weren't. Lotta Volkova wore tailored high-waisted black versions. There were jersey ruched-waist bodysuits. And there were track pants of such exaggerated JNCO-like proportions that they seemed to transcend their trackpant-ness altogether. For the brand's entry into high fashion from the Paris underground, deconstructing and boldly remaking such a basic garment was a perfect show of power.

Vetements fall/winter 17. Photography courtesy of Vetements.

At the other end of the fashion spectrum — where you're more likely to witness a collection's unveiling in a serenely lit Parisian mansion than in the basement of a gay club — track pant sightings have also experienced an uptick. Phoebe Philo has been tapping the louche silhouette of the track pant and translating it into her own offbeat form of luxury since her spring/summer 11 collection for Céline. She has a knack for taking the everyday and making it sublime. (See also: her riffs on the Birkenstock and the plaid plastic shopping bag.) Philo has remade track pants in black leather, color-blocked silk, and abstract stripes. Funnily, just as original brandname Birkenstocks rose in popularity after Céline's cover version hit the runway, sports-brand track pants seem to have entered fashion-conscious wardrobes at Philo's suggestion. Céline fans who can't afford Philo's silk track pants can recreate their casually voluminous silhouette by going straight to the source and buying a pair of Adidas triple-stripes a size too big.

Notably, Philo is from the UK, where track pants have a different set of connotations from their US cousins. Central Saint Martins graduate Caitlin Price is London's reigning track pant queen. She plays with the pant's UK heritage through glamorous frilled and shiny zip-up suits that are inspired, she told i-D, by the looks she saw as a teenager in South London. "I've seen this a lot around me growing up, girls transforming themselves for a night out, tracksuit bottoms by day, fake eyelashes by night," she said. Another emerging European designer on the track suit tip, Daniëlle Cathari, also draws on the cultures she witnessed in her home country, the Netherlands. The collection she presented at the VFILES fall/winter 17 show was made entirely from recycled polyester tracksuits. Her patchworked, multi-striped creations bring to the mind the gabber getup of early-90s Dutch hardcore fans.

Daniëlle Cathari at VFILES fall/winter 17. Image courtesy of VFILES.

Vetements's Demna Gvasalia cited the book Exactitudes, a photo document that captures the uniforms of subcultural types including Rotterdam gabbers, as an inspiration behind the collective's most recent show. The fall/winter 17 collection, he told i-D, stemmed from his "fascination with social uniforms and how people dress," and "sometimes it looks really normal," he added. The show included, of course, several mutations of the track pant.

In 2017, the fashion industry is striving (with mixed results) to create a new way of being, one that includes and represents "real people" in all their variousness. Track pants are perhaps the perfect symbol of that struggle between actuality and aspiration — especially when they're shown during Paris Couture Week, as Vetements's versions were. But as Gvsalia understands, fashion is at its most interesting when it reflects our most basic selves back to us strangely reformed.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Mitchell Sams