Acronym casts a long shadow over cyberpunk fashion
Like most kids in the ’90s, my ideas about futuristic fashion were primarily driven by the self-lacing Nike Air Mags in Back to the Future 2. As I got older, I started reading William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, whose sartorial visions of cyberpunk were filled with selective minimalism, practical jackets, and mirrorshades. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson’s protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is “literally, allergic to fashion” thanks to her work as a coolhunting brand researcher, and she sticks to plain basics. Her armor to withstand a world of inescapable logos: an MA-1 bomber jacket from Buzz Rickson, a niche Japanese company that re-creates U.S. military flight jackets (and that worked on a collection with Gibson).
This no-frills philosophy seems in opposition to the business of video games — an industry dominated by relentless marketing, brand sponsorships, and (often) flashy merchandise that translates into easily identifiable fan allegiances. But the Cayce Pollard school of thought is alive and well in games that lean into literary cyberpunk’s fixation on military apparel, as well as the almost cosplay-like qualities of performance techwear that is almost certainly over-engineered for everyday use.
In the heart of this Venn diagram is Canadian designer Errolson Hugh, who briefly appears in Death Stranding as Bridges employee Alex Weatherstone. Hugh is the co-founder of the exclusive Berlin-based techwear brand Acronym. His work spans decades and has devoted celebrity fans, like John Mayer, Henry Golding, Jason Statham, the late Robin Williams, Kojima Productions art director Yoji Shinkawa, and naturally, William Gibson. (Hugh, whose style is often described as part-ninja, part-cyberpunk, was a huge fan of Neuromancer as a teen.) On more than one occasion, he has been described as the “the final boss of fashion,” and wields critical influence on the relationship between real-life techwear and widespread concepts of dystopian video game armor and clothing.
Hugh and Michaela Sachenbacher started Acronym as a freelance design agency in 1994, consulting for performance-focused athletic brands like Burton and Nike, going on to make a name for themselves with impossibly cool tech-driven threads that seemed to exist with one foot in the present and another in the future. The label came into being a few years later. Through its quiet cultivation of “techwear,” Acronym has become a critically influential part of video game clothing and armor design, inviting us to examine our relationship with both in-game and real-life environments, as well as who gets to embody this particular vision of the future.
Acronym garb is a (mostly) monochromatic arsenal of armor-like drop-crotch pants, utilitarian straps, milspec sweatpants, signature “gravity pockets,” and space-age Gore-Tex creations with subtle asymmetries and adjustable hems. Every product has a self-serious, military-style classification code name, like “J96-GT” or “P30A-DSKR-BKS.” The Death Stranding version of the J1A-GT jacket sold out almost instantly at $1,900. Acronym even produced a gaming laptop for Asus’ ROG line, a carbon-black “Reality Modelling Tool” covered in special etchings and paint. Hugh is always seen in his own clothes, which is the closest thing to marketing that the label has. You see his influence not just on screen, but on city streets, where he’s acutely aware that his clothes invite certain assumptions about their wearers’ lifestyles and interests.
The first time I really took a gamelike approach to evaluating my own outerwear was during the 2006 Nor’easter that dumped record-breaking snow on New York. If clothes are a form of armor, I was fighting the elements as a starting-level Deprived without a club. But this was long before I knew about Acronym, and I certainly didn’t have the budget for even half a jacket. In spring, when innocuous sidewalk puddles concealed deep abysses of sewer water, I imagined myself in a low-budget survival game with janky evasion mechanics and unpleasant real-life consequences. It was because I treated my clothes — sturdy boots, well-pocketed jackets with hoods — like binding pieces of armor that could withstand the violent spontaneity of being young, broke, and making reckless decisions.
Acronym’s focus on looking badass and optimizing human range of motion in clothes — not to mention helping its wearer be prepared for all sorts of environments — aligns beautifully with the aspirational immersiveness of an RPG. Hugh, a longtime practitioner of martial arts, is known for testing how well he can kick in his own pants. “All of my understanding of clothing, and what it could and couldn’t do, comes from martial arts,” he said on the Warrior Collective podcast, pointing to the freedom of his karate gi as a source of inspiration. It boils down to maximizing the physics of the clothes. “Our whole practice the entire time has been about exploring that idea. That control — you, an autonomous being, in an environment that is potentially hostile, definitely changing, giving you as much agency as possible,” he said in a 2020 interview.
If Acronym seeks to mediate the relationship between body and environment, empowering us to kick our way through the day while fending off rain and comfortably carrying 14 pockets’ worth of “inventory,” it’s no wonder that gamers are drawn to its clothes. YouTuber Antwon of This Is Antwon was one of the first people to start making videos about techwear “around 2015, 2016” and, as a gamer, also touches on techwear and gaming. On a Zoom call for this story, he trots out his Acronym Death Stranding jacket to show a small issue with the velcro-enabled sleeve hitches that allow you to hike up the arms. “[The jacket] is made of Gore-Tex. It’s a really crunchy material, so it barely works,” he says, holding up the sleeve to illustrate his point about the psychological allure of functionality. “That feature, I think, was introduced when this jacket used a different material, and there, I’m sure it works better. But in this version, they just kind of thought, Yeah, keep it, why not. […] Do many people use it? I very much doubt it.” I briefly imagine Sam Porter Bridges hitching up his sleeves in a downpour of timefall, his forearms instantly withering into sinew. Yes, he could do it, but he probably wouldn’t.
Techwear is naturally a playground of inspiration for game designers working on military or cyberpunk-like games where characters need to exude intimidating couture shinobi energy as well as be ready for shooting, parkouring, and hacking. There is no better moodboard material for this than Acronym. Hugh’s appearance Death Stranding wasn’t planned — in 2017, Acronym fan Yoji Shinkawa informally invited him to visit the Kojima Productions office, where he ended up getting a 3D body scan for the game. Shinkawa had already designed most of the outfits, but Acronym provided two at his request — Sam’s undergarments, and a cape based on their now-defunct CP2-S vest/cape hybrid.
Of course, not everyone works directly with Acronym. “There was an art book that came out for [Battlefield 2042], and in there, there are some early prototype composite images of how they wanted the soldiers to look,” says Antwon. “Some of those were literally Acronym product shots, and they put some extra armor and stuff over the top.” Because Acronym is such a lodestar for techwear, even a search for aesthetically similar brands that lean on cyberpunk classics (like this ROSEN-X Mir Bomber that emulates William Gibson’s beloved MA-1 jacket) inevitably reveals its presence. Today, you can still find knockoff copies of Adam Jensen’s black trenchcoat from 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which Hugh was invited to design for Square Enix. The jacket was similar to the one in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but Acronym’s changes — mostly functional ones, like including magnets and adaptable sleeves — made it feel like something that could realistically be used in action; in fact, Hugh and his team actually made a wearable prototype for the project.
Besides its practical benefits, techwear has performative ones, too — for starters, its aspirational aesthetic that has an almost talismanic appeal to sci-fi and military RPG fans. Social anthropologist Jay Owens, an avant-garde fashion fan who’s also an avid hiker/mountaineer, believes performance techwear can imbue its wearers with main-character energy. “It’s a way of fantasizing yourself as a protagonist in the world, not just an NPC,” she says. “The phrase ‘performance fabrics’ supposedly refers to their technical properties […] but it carries a metaphorical freight beyond this,” she continues, pointing to Acronym’s relationship with martial arts. “Gaming is obviously all about performance, and so gamers seek out a performance aesthetic, even if the only place they are ninja-ing is on screen. It creates a sense of cogence, a feeling that your values and style is clear and unified — which helps people affirm their identity.”
If the techwear user’s fantasy is to take control of the environment, it’s a fantasy intrinsically linked to the idea of performance. In discussing who is allowed to embody the future, or at least can fit into the confines of traditional fashion, “athleticism” is a foundational part of that role. There’s an unignorable connection to the very physical idea of performance in the real world and the kind of performance expected in games like Ghostrunner and Cyberpunk 2077 — there are of course different builds that use hacking or non-combative ways to solve certain problems, but there’s a baseline sense of physical adeptness required to make the world (and the player’s sense of immersion) believable. Death Stranding, ostensibly the world’s most over-engineered hiking simulator, follows a very traditional postapocalyptic path when it comes to the physical expectations of what it takes to survive a hostile environment.
“In games and films a protagonist might need to have all kinds of skills and capabilities, many of these technical or charismatic and nothing to do with athletic ability,” says Owens. “And yet the idea endures: Being ‘high performance’ as a character is presumed to entail being high performance physically as well — and physical performance is narrowly equated with leanness.”
Owens believes the main barrier to Acronym and its ilk isn’t sizing, but price, and that mainstream fashion has mostly provided for this: “Core performance brands like Nike launched plus sizes in 2017, and Uniqlo, makers of the definitive budget techwear jacket, the Blocktech, [which] runs up to 3XL in womenswear and XXL in menswear.”
It sounds good on paper, but as someone who has fluctuated between a US10-18 over the years, lived in bitterly cold places, and enjoyed snowboarding until my early 30s, I know from experience that Uniqlo’s 3XL pants are not cut to the same standards as regular U.S. sizing. The extended sizing for Nike still skews slim, as do Columbia’s extended size technical jackets. Acronym, which adheres to the same size standards as the rest of the industry, has “regular” sizes that go up to a men’s XL (comparing pant sizes, this is the tight end of a Burton XXL), albeit with some jackets in a “wide” cut. Still, I cannot imagine myself fitting snugly into Acronym’s SAC-J6010, a unisex hooded trench dress made in collaboration with legendary Japanese brand Sacai. The techwear aesthetic is simply not designed for people who fall slightly outside the usual off-the-rack sizes, much less fat people, in the same way you’ll never see a fat action protagonist in a game; again, linked to the idea of performance.
In games, size limitations are rarely an issue — RPG avatars can be made to appear “thicker,” of course, but they’re never fat. This is perhaps the idea that surviving dystopia is akin to being on an involuntary diet and mandatory exercise, a tedious and highly perplexing way to think about bigger bodies. Techwear has taken on a cosplay-like significance in my mind, alongside my own fantastical projections of futuristic cyberpunk garb in games. To live vicariously through being able to survive in the most chaotic environmental conditions in gear that would, in the real world, never be designed for a woman over a US12-14.
Acronym and its brethren are also extremely expensive — there’s an aspirational synergy in the way the clothes are presented, as functional armor for real people, as gamelike outerwear to protect your body, as something rare and unique that’s hard to get. Acronym’s clothing and accessories are made in Europe and the U.S., using pricey materials like schoeller dryskin (a Swiss performance fabric) or milspec materials. There’s the perception that the brand works on artificial scarcity, only making small batches of clothes to hike up demand. Hugh has said, in previous interviews, that it’s because they’re difficult to make, and only certain factories meet the company’s technical criteria.
The result is the same — the small artisanal-style manufacturing and price point only add to the desirability. If you’re broke and can’t afford Acronym, it’s possible to cultivate that same visual techwear identity, but at the cost of having clothes that might fall apart after one wash. Both Owens and Antwon mention that AliExpress offers the full gamut of affordable cyberpunk looks, like this knockoff MA-1 style jacket or these drop-crotch waterproof pants (or “harem joggers”). That is to say, if you’re broke you can still pretend to look the part, but you won’t be able to enjoy or afford the actual technical benefits of designer techwear. Style over substance is, after all, the Cyberpunk 2077 mantra.
For all of Acronym’s self-aware sci-fi aesthetics, its status as a de facto vision of cyberpunk fashion is comically removed from the material conditions that define cyberpunk in literature. It’s a vastly different animal to the aesthetics described in the books that fueled Hugh’s and my own imaginations. In his book Virtual Light, Gibson’s scruffy, punkish bike messenger Chevette Washington is broke, lives in a shantytown on the Bay Bridge, and spends most of the text running from a powerful megacorporation. All the hallmarks of a cyberpunk story. She rocks an old secondhand horsehair jacket and has stupidly powerful legs from pedaling the hills of San Francisco. The most high-tech object in the book — a pair of tech-enabled glasses — is something she steals off a man at a party, for fun.
“From a fashion perspective, all of that’s kind of forgotten,” Anton says of the idea that techwear has supplanted the necessary reality of what people would be wearing in a cyberpunk dystopia, which frankly is already here. “It’s turned into the opposite of like, Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to wear this jacket that’s made of other jackets, and then the price is marked up accordingly.” He believes that most of the people who go for this look are kidding themselves if they think they’re actually going to use all the features of an Acronym jacket just to cycle to work in the rain. And still, even being aware of all of these things, despite living on the equator, I yearn for a J104-GTPL. I want the P39-PR with eight pockets, even though they will absolutely not sit well on my hips. Perhaps if this metaverse business works out, I will finally be able to buy and comfortably fit into an Acronym jacket. But what would be the point in buying “real” digital techwear if it isn’t even in a functioning action game?
Ultimately, Acronym has never described itself as cyberpunk — it’s simply allowed us to project our desires and neuroses onto it. Though if you’re making clothes that exemplify everything exciting and cool about playing a main character in a cyberpunk game, you know that comparison will come. Acronym knows exactly what it’s doing in working with gaming laptops and Kojima Productions. “I think a lot of people who wear [Acronym-style techwear] — something that [Hugh] has talked about — there is still a costume element in there,” says Antwon. Techwear’s detail-oriented nerdery and emphasis on performance is at once insidiously influential on player mentality — yes, you may need space for 50 clips of ammo — and overtly gamelike in the way it appeals to people who like to gamify the experience of navigating their surroundings. But depicting a future where clothes are an integral part of improving performance is, in our currently decaying world, an inherently romantic, exclusive, expensive endeavor.
“There’s like a meme of someone talking about cyberpunk and all of the different problems associated with it, like wealth inequality and authoritarian regimes,” Antwon says. “And there’s a person looking at a robot and avoiding all of that other stuff just being like, ‘Wow, cool future.’ It’s exactly that kind of thing, but the fashion equivalent.”