Hunter chic: No hiding fashion world's love of camouflage

Milwaukee Journal SentinelJanuary 1, 2014 

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— Camouflage clothing is in vogue – and not just among those who are trying to remain invisible to white-tailed deer and other critters.

“It’s a trend that is most popular now in the U.S. and Europe, but has seen its time in nearly every part of the world,” said Jordan Dechambre, a Milwaukee-based style expert.

In addition to guys in tree stands and duck blinds across the state, celebrities including Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani and Sarah Jessica Parker have been spotted wearing camo gear.

“Camo has been an important trend over the past couple seasons and shows no sign of slowing down,” Sofia Wacksman, vice president of trend for Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based Kohl’s Department Stores, said in an email. “While re-colored and abstract iterations make it look new, the classic camo can also feel modern when mixed with softer colors like ballet pinks and creamy neutrals.”

The fashion appeal of camo comes as no surprise to Al Lobner.

“I always thought that,” said Lobner, president of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association. “The rest of the world is starting to figure it out.”

Lobner, 60, said he has been wearing camo for at least 30 years. He has a closetful of the stuff. So do a lot of other people these days.

“The fact that camouflage is more easily accessible than ever – whether it’s from local boutiques or national retailers – makes it much more convenient to rock the trend,” Dechambre said. “ ‘Standing out’ in camouflage is no longer an oxymoron.”

Military or outdoor style

Camo reflects a lifestyle as much as it reflects fashion, said Jill Soltau, a Wisconsin native who is president and chief merchandising officer for Green Bay-based Shopko stores.

There are basically two pieces to the camouflage trend, Soltau said. One is military camo. Those are the types of patterns that are showing up on pouty, wafer-thin runway models as well as in boutiques and fashion retailers.

The other is outdoor camo, which makes up much of the hunting and casual camouflage clothing seen in outdoor stores and discount retailers.

“The growth of outdoor camo has really been influenced by pop culture and reality TV,” Soltau said. “Outdoor camouflage has become very cool.”

Pink and purple for women

And it’s not just guys who are in on the trend.

“Our core customer – and this is no different than most of retail – is female,” Soltau said. “The mom or the female head of the household does most of the shopping.”

That has led to all sorts of colorful camo-patterned clothing, including pinks and purples, hitting the market.

“Many, many women are out there hunting,” Soltau said. “They love the lifestyle. They really relate to the product. They’ll buy the pink for just hangin’ out and saying ‘hey, you know, I really love this lifestyle and I’m proud of what I do.’ 

“Our women’s camo is our biggest growing sub-department in our whole camo department,” said Casey Zeigler, clothing manager at the Cabela’s outdoor store in Richfield. “Women’s and children’s (camo) is just blowing up on us.”

The hullabaloo surrounding camouflage doesn’t come as a shock to Jody Clowes, exhibitions manager at the James Watrous Gallery, part of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in Madison.

Clowes was curator for an exhibit in 2010 that included an exploration of landscape through fabric and embroidery. Camouflage was a part of that.

“It’s just surprisingly long-lived,” Clowes said. “It’s got legs.”

Front lines to home front

Camouflage became mainstream during World War II when the U.S. hired artists and conducted extensive testing to find the best patterns for making troops, ships and armaments invisible to the enemy. Many of those patterns are still around today. Digital camouflage worn in the military is the latest development of that process.

Camouflage began making its way into civilian clothing with the punk movement of the mid- to late-1970s, Clowes said. “Fashion designers started picking up on that.”

Like Soltau, Clowes said the camouflage designs favored by fashion designers are different from the hunting camouflages that are popular in casual clothing and among hunters.

Part of the camouflage trend is also due to the country being on a war footing since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “Right after 9/11 it seemed to me there was a real spike in the use of camouflage, especially in high fashion,” Clowes said.

The situation is similar around the globe in places such as Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria, where war and armed conflicts have dominated the news in recent times.

“Fashion is a reflection of what’s happening in the world around us,” said Sandi Keiser, chairperson of the fashion department at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. “Fashion doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

Evolving fabric designs

Camouflage has morphed into other designs.

“The evolution within blurred camo, color camo, camo mixed with animal print are some of the updates we see driving this trend,” Josh Saterman, vice president of Macy’s Millennial fashion division, said in an email. “The globalization of the fashion world would suggest trends are more global than regional, and we see camouflage as a global trend.”

There is also the desire to make yourself invisible to critters that you eventually want to eat.

“If you’re not wearing camouflage, it makes it a little tougher” to harvest an animal, Lobner said.

Bottom line, fashionista or bear hunter, “We’re all in favor of camo,” Lobner said.

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