Outdoor Gear Is More Than Just A Fashion Statement; It's A Way To Stay Warm And Dry
"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky," we mutter (borrowing from poet John Masefield), ashen and hacking, our shirt collar constricting at every step.
Is there any further explanation needed for the flourishing of field and stream sports as never before? According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, more than 15 million people hold hunting licenses and 30 million own fishing licenses in the United States. These traditionally male-dominated sports are rapidly gaining popularity with women as well. Female shotgun target shooters and hunters, for instance, increased 79 percent between 1988 and 1993, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
On the business side, the foundation estimates that hunting and shooting sports annually generate more than $18 billion in economic activity in the United States and support more than 690,000 jobs. According to the American Sportfishing Association, fishing is even more popular: "The popularity of sport fishing has grown steadily over the past several decades to the point that one in four Americans now go fishing each year," according to the Edward Goldstein, the association's acting public affairs director. These anglers spend in excess of $24 billion annually. Of this amount, more than $530 million is spent on camping equipment--$195 million of that on special clothing.
This clothing encompasses a wide spectrum of gear, from custom-made tweed shooting suits and reversible parkas made out of loden (a thick woolen cloth for outerwear), to old khakis and flannel shirts. Once upon a time, when the trout were bigger, a person could get outfitted from his local sporting goods shop, the venerable pages of the L.L. Bean catalogue or that monument to sybaritic sports gear on Manhattan's Madison Avenue, Abercrombie & Fitch. That revered store went the way of all flesh back in 1973 (although its shops in other locations still exist) as did many of the smaller local sporting goods shops, only to be replaced with mega-athletic mall stores whose floor space is predominantly taken up with racks of logo-encrusted T-shirts and piles of hideously over-designed sneakers.
But L.L. Bean is still chugging along, as are half a dozen other fine companies with catalog merchandise. Along with several U.S. purveyors, a number of renowned European shops have recently given a decidedly luxe boost to field and stream accoutering by opening stores in the United States. What these venues have in common is a matchless concern for quality, defined by a wedding of function and style.
Granted that a high proportion of this type of clothing has become very much the fashion cry--everything from loden shooting capes to safari shirts are fair game for designers. But good sporting gear must be made to withstand the rigors of the outdoors. Boots must be comfortable all day long; pockets must actually hold and store items; jacket sleeves must be constructed for both ease of motion and protection from cold and wet; leather belts must be stitched with thread that won't rot; gun patches, bellows pockets, two-way zippers, removable hoods, storm-fly fronts, game pouches, fleece quilting--they're all there for a purpose.
Herewith our choices for the best suppliers of field-proven country clothes with panache. Addresses are those of the main venues in the United States and elsewhere. Prices are approximate and may vary.
165-169 New Bond Street,
London W1Y OAR
725 Fifth Avenue,
New York, New York 10022
Founded in 1781, Asprey remains under the direction of the Asprey family, having expanded from its origins as a manufacturer of fine dressing and writing cases (its first royal warrant as a supplier of traveling cases to Queen Victoria came in 1862) to jewelry, antiques, decorative gifts and tableware, objets d'art, clocks, watches and silver. The firm began offering shotguns and rifles in 1990, with a wide choice of new, used and made-to-measure guns. But it is the sportsman's wardrobe, accessories and gifts that concern us here. Clothing and gifts for the discerning marksman are designed to be practical and elegant. Asprey furnishes tweed jackets (£350/approximately $537) and shooting breeks (short trousers) (£145/$223), check shirts (£40/$61) and wool challis ties (£40/$61), and wonderful "Windstopper" lined sweaters (£135/$207). The firm also has cartridge magazines (250 shell size) in thistlehide leather (at £650/$998), and cartridge bags (at £65/$100 in green canvas, £175/$269 in thistlehide leather), telescopic design shooting sticks with saddle leather seat (£125/$192), beautiful and practical leather-lined wicker cocktail and luncheon hampers (from £1,100/$1,689 to £1,500/$2,303) for those picnics on the downs and leather-bound game books to record the bag (£155/$238). And for the dandies, hand-painted, 18-carat gold game bird cuff links (£1,950/$2,993).
J. Barbour & Sons
Simonside, South Shields, Tyne & Wear,
NE34 9PD, England
55 Meadowbrook Drive, Milford,
New Hampshire 03055
J. Barbour & Sons has been making fine outdoor clothing for a hundred years. Its specialty is its famous green waterproof and thorn-proof country jacket. Designed in 14 models--from a short, waist-length wading jacket to the calf-length "Burghley" overcoat--each is made of fine, long-staple, oil-proofed Egyptian cotton. All seams are double-rolled, zippers are corrosion-proofed and press studs are solid brass. The linings, collars and cuffs are designed for the best protection and lined with quality corduroy, cotton and wool. Available in heavyweight and lightweight versions, jackets are priced from about $275 to $400. Very pre-synthetic. The firm also stocks a selection of canvas field bags, socks and stockings, tweed hats and caps, knitwear and country shirts.
Freeport, Maine 04033
L.L. Bean is the grandfather of all sports mail-order catalogs. Started in 1912, the year that L.L. himself invented his now legendary rubber-and-leather Maine hunting boot, the company now publishes five outdoor catalogs--Spring Sporting, Summer Sporting, Winter Sporting, Fly Fishing and Hunting--in addition to its more general seasonal ones. Each catalog's hundred-odd pages is chockablock with products for camping and backpacking, cycling, skiing, hunting and fishing, boating and hiking--everything from kayaks and portable stoves to bike racks, binoculars and balaclavas. Apart from its famous hunting boot, Bean stocks perhaps the largest selection of outdoor footwear available: lightweight canvas-and-leather hikers ($55) and nylon trail-running shoes ($75), several dozen models of sandals and sneakers, and its hand-sewn camp moccasins, introduced in the 1920s (in three models: bluchers, camp mocs and boat mocs, each at $69). The "North Col" hiking boot of Gore-Tex and leather is a poem to rugged practical footwear ($185); Bean's "Aqua Stealth" wading shoes are ideal for mountain streams ($90). You'll also find a full complement of cotton chamois and flannel shirts, canvas duck field coats, insulated waders, whipcord and moleskin shooting trousers, cargo jackets and fishing vests, heavy and reinforced wool sweaters, deerskin gloves, down-filled camouflage parkas, insulated boot socks, Gore-Tex and neoprene waders, a dozen styles of fly vests and everything else for a day by a trout stream or a week in deep woods. Then there's the traditional and genuine split-wicker fishing creel for carrying your catch, complete with leather shoulder harness, latch strap and waist belt ($48).
718 Madison Avenue,
New York, New York 10021
317 South Washington Street,
Alexandria, Virginia 22314
Beretta is the world's oldest industrial enterprise: it has been making superior firearms in Italy since the sixteenth century. Bartolomeo Beretta, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, became a master gun-barrel maker; a descendant, Pietro Beretta, made weapons for Napoleon. Today, in addition to the extraordinary guns and rifles, the firm creates a full range of hunting clothes and accessories--marvelous field jackets in water-repellent Rovertex cloth (with or without goose down) with all the authentic details: removable hood, adjustable waist, bellows pockets, zippered game pocket, quilted liners and storm cuffs (from $250 to $575). Beretta also offers extremely durable and handsome shirts in cotton gabardine, fine poplin and pinwale corduroy, with large button-flapped chest pockets (from $60), water-repellent cotton hunting trousers with cargo pockets ($95) and a good basic selection of sport luggage in green resin-coated cotton and tan leather (from $60 for a Dopp shaving kit to $550 for a hunting bag).
812 Thirteenth Avenue,
Sidney, Nebraska 69160
Cabela's chunky 200-page catalog is crammed with selections of duck decoys, binoculars, thermal underwear, plaid wool shirts by Pendleton and Woolrich, the firm's own label flannel-lined and Thinsulate-lined chamois shirts, 18-ounce wool-and-nylon shirts, wool shirts with suede collars and elbow and shoulder patches, and hunting and fishing hats and caps of every conceivable style. Cabela's has the largest collection of camouflage hunting clothing to be found anywhere.
London W1V OPE
Renowned for its English country clothes of traditional styling and durability, Cordings has been outfitters for gentlemen for more than a century and a half. It stocks a complete range of Grenfell cloth rainwear and Barbour jackets; the justly famous Veldtschoen shoe (it's like a shoe built within a shoe, for maximum protection) made by Crocket and Jones, long considered the best country walking footwear ever made; three-piece tweed shooting suits (jackets £325/$499, waistcoats £145/$223, plus fours--long knickers--£150/$230) and field coats (£395/$606); rubberized cotton mackintoshes--raincoats--short or long (£215 to £395/$330 to $606, respectively); a good selection of cotton-and-wool blend tattersall shirts (£52/$80); heavyweight corduroy and moleskin trousers in some 10 colors (£67/$103); and the Cording leather-lined rubber field boot (£195/$299).
41 East 57th Street,
New York, New York 10022
Marley Hodgson, Ghurka's founder and head designer, created the first Ghurka bag, the now famous khaki cotton twill and saddle leather "No. 1," as a bookbag for his son in 1975. Today the line includes about 200 choice items--the largest selection of the most elegant, yet durable, sportsman's luggage we know of: duffels, overnight bags, knapsacks, field bags, rod and creel cases, garrison bags, hip sacks (priced from $295 to $800); not to mention saddle flasks, camera bags and folding travel alarms. Of special note is the "No. 45 Valet," a veritable hanging closet with half a dozen zippered compartments, detachable vinyl-lined toilet pack, spacious main compartment and several large pockets for shoes, laundry, shirts and other bulky items ($995 in khaki twill). Most items are available in several handsome, natural grain, water-repellent leathers as well as the original twill.
777 Madison Avenue,
New York, New York 10021
Goldpfeil is included here because, since 1856, it has been a premier international leather goods maker. While the firm is perhaps best known among those with a taste for real luxury for its array of superior handmade purses, handbags and wallets, it is to the lightweight travel luggage and smaller personal leather goods that we turn here. The high-quality nylon bags with brass fittings and fine leather trim come in five colors and are the epitome of lightweight travel gear: backpack ($269), weekend carryall with rollers ($461), duffel ($271), garment bag ($767) and toilet kit ($91). Small leather items of a decidedly elegant practicality include a travel flask ($116), double compartment pillbox ($37), manicure kit ($138), stainless steel pocket knife and case ($146), and for those who want to get away but can't completely disconnect, a cellular phone case ($96).
Holland & Holland
31-33 Bruton Street,
London W1X 8JS
50 East 57th Street,
New York, New York 10022
"Making the best products is simple," says Alain Drach, chairman of Holland & Holland. "It's merely a matter of refusing to compromise at any stage in their manufacture." That's the kind of thinking that has made Holland & Holland a premier London gun maker since 1835. It holds the royal warrants of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh, among others. Its shotguns and rifles are meticulously custom-built (clients are measured with a "try gun" at Holland & Holland's shooting grounds, established in 1880), cost the equivalent of a small luxury car and are legitimately considered to be works of art as well as precise sporting guns.