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Hidden in Plain Sight

Profit from the ever-changing ways of the camo clothing marketplace.

By Christopher Bernat, Contributing Writer

Massive social-media growth through platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have enabled everyone to show off their fashion statements from high-fashion markets to rural clothing trends.

July 23, 2019

Camouflage is in the middle of a cultural renaissance. At no time in the past has it enjoyed more growth and diversity in the apparel and fashion marketplaces than now. It is benefiting from social-media popularity, the economic rise of country music in the traditional media, and the sun-protection and wicking fabrics actively sought in the fishing and coastal-lifestyle markets.

From the pages of Garden & Gun in Charleston, South Carolina to the Mood Fabrics store on New York’s 37th Street, camo is carving out more market share than ever.

Industry trade events, such as Surf Expo, ICAST and SHOT Show, have nurtured this trend and invested in it heavily.

Camo 101
Camouflage has been around for a long time. Its first-known reference comes from the Gallic Wars in 56 B.C., when it was used to hide distant ships. It has been part of combat ever since.

Fast-forward to the 18th century and camo began to enter the realm of military uniforms and clothing. The development of long-range rifles and other weaponry served as the primary motivation for armed forces to develop clothing that made it hard to be seen.

By World War I, only French soldiers still donned vibrant colors on the battlefield. By World War II, there were a multitude of camouflage patterns designed to help soldiers evade the enemy in jungles, deserts and at sea.

The Birth of Fashion Camo
In the West, the Vietnam War was the point at which camo crossed over into fashion. Spanning a 20-year stretch, from November 1955 to April 1975, the war dominated American politics, media and mainstream culture.

The antiwar movement became a pivotal battlefront in the counterculture movement. Many of the first protesters were soldiers returning from Vietnam. Known simply as “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” they wore fatigues at protests covered by the media. Hollywood and other cultural epicenters began embracing the patterns as part of their militant antiwar positions.

Iconic movies, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” (1986), helped keep the camo connection going into the 1980s. In fact, you may remember Bill Murray talking about selling his camo fatigues in New York City’s Garment District for high dollars in the 1981 comedy, “Stripes.”

In the 1990s, hip-hop culture and the streetwear scene grabbed at the camo trend and left a permanent impact on its popularity going forward. Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G. and brands like A Bathing Ape pulled camo into the world of MTV and many trend-making magazines. At this point, there was no turning back.

Camo has held its place in the fashion world and shows no signs of letting go. In fact, it is changing and expanding to include styles and patterns that look nothing like the clothing from the 1960s or even the 1980s.

What’s Trendy Now?
Camo’s latest popularity run is benefiting from several long-range trends — both social and cultural — that have resulted in more exposure, thus generating more dollars.

The Country Music Revolution: At no time have country music and Southern culture enjoyed more of the national musical mind share than right now. The crossover fame of many top artists; resurgence of Nashville, Tennessee, as a cultural center; and the blending of all popular music trends has caused more camouflage to enter the market. This has caused classic hunting camo brands, such as Mossy Oak and RealTree, to enter the fashion world.

These music trends also coincided with massive social-media growth. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook have enabled end users to show off their fashion statements; rural clothing trends got a boost from this.

Fish On, Camo: Perhaps the largest trend in the camo space is occurring in the fishing category. In the past several years, sublimation printing and camo have aggressively entered this market. Seen frequently at retail, this is an area where today’s digital decorators can grow their businesses.

Several brands have emerged to capture the consumer’s attention in this fast-growing space. Retail brands, such as Mossy Oak, Costa del Mar, Huk and Aquaflage, have been catalysts in the “coastal camo” trend that is taking over beaches, flying bridges and dockside grills.

“[Camouflage is] popular with anglers, tourists and the surfing crowd all at the same time,” says Aaron Moyer, president and founder of Aquaflage, St. Augustine, Florida. In addition to working with coastal specialty retailers, Aquaflage works with local resorts and tourist destinations to screen print their styles with custom graphics and name drops.

“We see demand for more of our aquatic camouflage from the trade,” Moyer adds. “Look for several new styles from us focused on the coastal and surf marketplace. Florida is at the nexus of both of these markets like few other places in the U.S.”

Camo’s changes haven’t been just on the water. Valerie Schopmann, marketing operations manager, LAT Apparel, has seen the camo changes first hand.

“Camo in the market has made a very large shift in the last few years,” she says. “In the past, licensed camo brands stood at the forefront of this category. Primarily, [they were] utilized by the hunters and outdoor markets, but that is no longer the case. As camouflage progresses, we are seeing more of a heavy fashion spin across all apparel markets. Whether it is a more streetwear vibe or a more muted camo palette on a trendy fabric and/or silhouette, it’s all about being on trend vs. the authenticity of the camouflage pattern now. We are also seeing camo in all age and gender categories, in different color palettes, utilized in color blocking and as a staple pattern for any wardrobe.”

Camo also has significantly benefited from the rising popularity of wicking and performance fabrics, as well as sublimation printing. The technology of fabrics that are engineered to moderate temperature and protect wearers from the sun’s harmful rays have made camo’s utilitarian side more valuable than ever. This — coupled with the intense detail and vibrant color for which sublimation is famous — has caused significant growth for this category.

Performance blanks featuring well-known camo patterns are increasingly available in the market today. While camo’s fashion trends have expanded, so have the fabric types and features that helped foster growth in the hunting and outdoor markets where its origins lie.

Make no mistake; you still will see plenty of camo in the woods and on the side of the road for hunting season. However, you also may see more companies, organizations and groups requesting such garments to be embellished with their graphics and images. Mossy Oak and RealTree will continue to drive innovation in this area, as seen in the “Elements” collection from Mossy Oak. Several brands have licensed this and other patterns to integrate into their lines and connect with a new layer of customers.

As you evaluate your decorating business, consider these trends and how they can help you expand options for your customers. Corporate accounts also are interested in being attached to the lifestyle that many of these patterns represent.

Companies in the outdoor market want to extend their reach while being different. To ensure you’re not left out of the mix, present your customers with options to help them get their camo fix.

Christopher Bernat is chief revenue officer and co-founder of Vapor Apparel. He speaks on sublimation and apparel topics for the Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS), Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), FESPA and other events, and serves on the executive board of directors for SGIA. For more information or to comment on this article, email Chris at