Please allow me to introduce you to the “Toronto Cozy Gal,” a figure I’ve come to notice in growing numbers in recent years. This stylish soul roams the city from late fall to early spring in an aloofly plush uniform of soft staples including amply cut elasticized waist trousers and, most importantly, a synthetic fleece sweater or piece of outerwear. It could be a roomy bomber jacket splashed with a prismatic animal print or a fleece crop-top composed of bold blocks of bright colours.
The reason I began to clock this trend is because I have morphed into a TCG myself. As someone who a handful of years ago would’ve scoffed at the suggestion that fleece could be fashionable, I now admit my error and count two fleece outerwear pieces, both from Uniqlo, in my wardrobe rotation. I also snapped up a snazzy fleece crewneck sweater from COS last year under the guise of it being for my husband’s use. In the end, its boxy cut and alluring caramel hue makes it an equal-opportunity garment.
Fleece – which, for the purposes of this story, is the fake kind and not that which is spun into yarn – originated from a collaborative effort between the U.S.-based manufacturer Malden Mills and recreation-focused clothing retailer Patagonia in the early 1980s. Their ambition was to produce an alternative to natural materials that are renowned for their warmth but are more costly and difficult to maintain. This fall, novel fleece pieces have shown up in collections by Ulla Johnson, Chopova Lowena and Mother of Pearl, confirming that the functional fabric has leapt from a mere utility-touting textile to a favourite canvas for many designers.
Synthetic fleece has caught the eye of designers and retailers who understand the material’s potential including reversibility, ease of care and lower price point. “The beauty of polyester is that it’s like Mystique from X-Men – it can transform into any look,” says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and expert in textiles. In recent years, many fleece pieces have started to incorporate recycled plastics in their composition, making fleece an emblem of sustainability efforts.
Bespoke tailors combine old-school artistry with cutting-edge tech
Richard Simons, vice-president of buying at the Quebec-headquartered department store Simons, also points to the versatility of fleece as a key reason for its desirability to designers. “It has to be one of the most iconic materials developed for the 21st century,” he says, adding that it can sit alongside denim in terms of its readiness for reinvention. “It’s the perfect cocooning uniform,” Simons adds, hinting at how fleece sales surged during the height of the pandemic. He notes that it’s poised to remain popular since you can also find more elegant options for chilly nights out on the town. Unlike other materials, Simons says fleece possesses a low-maintenance appeal, from its ability to be washed at home to its lightweight and wrinkle-free characteristics.
One brand at the forefront of fleece’s decades-long glow-up is Japanese retailer Uniqlo, which launched its fleece category 30 years ago. Maria Dziedzic, Uniqlo U.S. Global Creative Labs managing director, says that the brand’s first fleece offering was outsized – a feat of 50 colours, in fact. While shoppers loved the existing options, Dziedzic says they began sharing feedback about wanting lighter fleece garments “so they could layer them,” and thus the company proffered microfleece. More recently, Uniqlo has also developed a wind-proof version.
Uniqlo’s array of fleece wearables now spans basics and designer collaborations. Jonathan Anderson of luxury labels JW Anderson and Loewe has incorporated fleece into offerings for his Uniqlo collection. Clare Waight Keller, who has acted as artistic director for tony labels such as Chloé and Givenchy, recently introduced a new line called Uniqlo: C. Its fleece stand collar coat is a mountain range away from the humble origins of the fabric in terms of its tailored sophistication.
Toronto-based designer Ellie Mae Waters has also tapped into the diversity of silhouettes and motifs that can be applied to fleece for her eponymous label, with a natty peacoat flaunting a retro pattern included in her current collection. “Fleece immediately makes you want to wear it when you touch it,” she says. But beyond the tactile joy, there’s a sentimentality factor that can’t be ignored. “I think many people are drawn to our designs because there’s a little bit of nostalgia in all of them,” Waters says.
Whether the satisfaction is physical or temporal (or both), Selina Ho, founder and CEO of Recloseted, a sustainability-focused brand consultancy based in Vancouver and London, says it’s always important to consider the “why” behind a buy.
“I tell my clients all the time that we can make the most beautiful sweater out of the most sustainable material at the best factory in the world,” she says. “But if no one wears it, then we’ve just made sustainable junk that’s going straight to the landfill.”
Fleece, particularly if it’s made from recycled materials and therefore can’t be recycled again, will stay on the planet for a very, very long time as synthetic fibres do. Savvy second-hand stores such as Toronto’s In Vintage We Trust have amassed a spectrum of fleece wares for this reason. Ho says that care – whether it’s for a preloved or new fleece – is paramount to it staying in your wardrobe for years to come.
“We love the fluffy look of fleece and if you wash it too much, it can lose that texture,” Ho says, adding that in general, people tend to overwash their clothing. Her recommendation: turn your fleece inside out and wash it on cold. Zip it or button it up so that nothing gets snagged or broken. “And, because of the microplastics that will detach from synthetic fabrics in the washing cycle, I recommend using a mesh bag to trap them.” This means those microplastics will go in your garbage can rather than the water supply. It’s a small measure that ensures we are more cognizant of consumption habits – and that’s a goal as comforting as your latest fleecy find.
These fleecy finds capture the versatility of the trending textile
Toronto-based brand Good For Sunday tweaks the more traditional look of a fleece pullover with the use of prismatic colour blocking. This style’s fabric is made with recycled materials, too.
Good For Sunday pullover, $145 through goodforsunday.com.
London’s Chopova Lowena brings bright blooms into the drearier months of the year with a vest crafted from a sunflower-print fleece.
Chopova Lowena gilet, US$537 through matchesfashion.com.
A staple of the nineties, the crop top, gets a cozy update to lend it versatility as a layering garment.
Reebok Classic Wardrobe Essentials top, $79 at Hudson’s Bay (thebay.com).
Cargo pants have been a key look of late thanks to fashion’s pendulum shift toward pragmatic pieces. A pair done in fleece adds to the functional flair.
Skin pants, US$160 through net-a-porter.com.
Part of the appeal of fleece is its ability to morph into a desired texture, weight or motif; the ability to be used reversibly is also a plus.
Bomber jacket, $585 at Ba&sh (bas-sh.com).
No longer just for wilderness treks, tailored versions of fleece outerwear can be dressed up or down for more urban locales.
Coat, $790 at Ellie Mae (elliemaestudios.com).
A statement-making lid that offers maximum protection from the elements sounds quite good to us.
Ruslan Baginskiy hat, $440 at Holt Renfrew (holtrenfrew.com).