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‘Gorpcore’ a global validation of Korean ajeossi’s fashion instincts?

Hiking attire-inspired look attracts new, younger consumers amid global boom of utilitarian fashion

By No Kyung-min

Published : Nov. 25, 2023 - 16:01

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Models dressed in gorpcore style (Courtesy of Musinsa) Models dressed in gorpcore style (Courtesy of Musinsa)

Long before the seemingly inscrutable neologism "gorpcore” entered the global fashion lexicon, middle-aged men in South Korea were trailblazing the look, seamlessly incorporating Gore-Tex jackets and hiking boots into their daily attire for work, dining and socializing.

Leisurely strolling through Seoul's Dongmyo flea market, some of these ajeossi, an appellation for middle-aged men in Korean, caught the eye of a young menswear designer in July 2018: Kiko Kostadinov, whose anti-decorative, utilitarian approach to fashion is now resonating with numerous fashion enthusiasts worldwide.

The London-based, Bulgaria-born designer posted on his Instagram photos of older Koreans dressed in vividly colored outdoor clothes. The "best street in the world," he called it.

In South Korea, where mountainous terrain envelopes approximately 70 percent of the geography and the capital city boasts over 100 mountains, hiking and outdoor attire have long been a staple in the wardrobes of older generations.

But now, functional outdoor wear is evolving into streetwear for younger Korean hipsters, albeit with a more urban, stylish twist.

Kiko Kostadinov's Instagram post (Kiko Kostadinov's Instagram) Kiko Kostadinov's Instagram post (Kiko Kostadinov's Instagram)

Gorpcore and young consumers

A 20-something office worker surnamed Park, who regularly dresses in the gorpcore style even at work, prioritizes functionality and durability in his daily attire.

“While striving for a fashionable aesthetic, I prefer wearing comfortable and durable clothes, especially those with additional functions,” he said.

He shared that he has sensed the surging demand for outdoor wear these days, as he failed to buy a windbreaker at a pop-up store of outdoor streetwear brand San San Gear a few months ago, after it soon sold out.

Windproof, waterproof jackets are among the gorpcore essentials, along with cargo pants, hiking boots, puffer jackets and more, blending practicality with effortless style.

For those not familiar with the fashion terminology, gorpcore was first coined by New York Magazine’s The Cut in 2017. It merges “gorp,” an acronym for trail mix -- "good old raisins and peanuts" -- and “core” from “Normcore,” signifying an unassuming style of clothing.

Part of the popularizing factor of this hiking-themed clothing is a surge in outdoor activities and social gatherings during the COVID-19 era.

Brands previously known for their high-performance gear tailored for outdoor activities like Arc’teryx, Patagonia and Gramicci have solidified their position in runway collections of high-end fashion houses like Celine, Gucci and Balenciaga, appealing to the mainstream fashion scene. These brands have gained traction by embracing the gorpcore style often sported by celebrities, who have furthered it on the fashion front.

In South Korea, where outdoor wear was previously associated primarily with older generations, these factors have also proven to reinforce gorpcore’s appeal to young consumers.

This shift in consumer preference has significantly boosted the outdoor apparel market, which saw its size increase to 6 trillion won ($4.62 billion) last year, up from around 2.4 trillion won in 2020.

American outdoor brand The North Face, for instance, witnessed on-year surges in sales and operating profits of 40.3 percent and 37.1 percent, respectively, last year. Domestic outdoor brand Kolon Sport also reported a 140 percent increase in operating profits last year.

Meanwhile, relatively smaller outdoor brands, including Arc'teryx, Salomon and Snow Peak, have expanded their presence in the local outdoor apparel market, with their products frequently appearing on online secondhand goods platforms.

Representing a convergence of style and function well-suited for outdoor leisure activities such as running, camping and hiking, the gorpcore style is highly preferred by many young Koreans who showcase their styles during outdoor activities, industry insiders emphasized.

Some shed light on the enduring appeal of this outdoorsy attire in the fashion industry.

According to a research paper titled, “A Study on Gorpcore in Contemporary Fashion,” released by the Korea Institute of Design Research Society, the gorpcore style is projected to remain prevalent in the mainstream fashion scene for an extended period.

The paper cites the style's “use of recycled materials based on ethical consumption” that manifests “an eco-friendly sustainability" as an important contributing factor.

Singer-songwriter IU in an ad for outdoor wear (Courtesy of Blackyak) Singer-songwriter IU in an ad for outdoor wear (Courtesy of Blackyak)

Hiking lifestyle

The dressing choices of younger generations in hiking-themed clothing extend beyond mere aesthetics in South Korea, as the surging popularity of outdoor and functional apparel mirrors a broader embrace of hiking as a lifestyle.

Kim Jae-hun, in his 30s, frequently ventures to Seoul's mountains with his girlfriend, seeking to immerse himself in nature and alleviate stress.

"Being lost in nature away from urban life offers a refreshing experience. Reaching mountain peaks brings a sense of accomplishment, easing my mind and body," Kim said. He further highlighted how hiking grants him a respite from anxiety.

Instagram posts from these summit adventures are a means of sharing hiking experiences with friends online, he said.

Indeed, young Koreans find social media platforms an outlet to prove their healthy lifestyles.

Search results for #deungsanstagram, a term combining the Korean word "deungsan" that means hiking and Instagram, tallied 1.72 million results on the photo-sharing platform, as of November. Posts under the hashtag show young Koreans in their 20s and 30s clad in vibrant outdoor attire at mountain peaks. There are also almost 900,000 search results for #deunglin-i, referring to hiking beginners in Korean.

Lee Eun-hee, a consumer studies professor at Inha University, links the increased engagement in physical activities to the preference for outdoorsy aesthetics, not just limited to gorpcore but also encompassing other fitness-oriented fashion styles.

Underlining the blurring boundary between everyday attire and activewear, Lee said “social media serves as a platform for showcasing a healthy lifestyle and personal achievements through self-improvement.”

"Today's younger Koreans are increasingly involved in diverse physical activities indoors and outdoors. Their fashion choices align with their pursuit of comfortable and functional clothing," Lee noted.

Screen capture of search results for #deungsanstagram (Instagram) Screen capture of search results for #deungsanstagram (Instagram)