Rob Walker | Essays

Pattern Recognition

Sometimes it's important to blend in. Let's say you're going hunting: sure you have a few advantages, like a weapon, and the ability to reason, but you'll also want to hide yourself from your prey, and for that you need camouflage. You might assume that camouflage is a generic pattern, like checkerboard. Visit an outdoor-sports-and-hunting-goods megastore like Bass Pro Shops, and you will see that you are wrong. Design innovation abounds. You may see something like the Realtree Hardwoods pattern, which uses trademarked ''High Definition'' technology. This is one of the recent breakthroughs in the camo field and has proved a huge hit with consumers, according to Katie Mitchell of Bass Pro Shops, which offers the pattern on a wide array of merchandise, like its popular RedHead Silent-Hide B.D.U. Pants or 16-inch Ultra Snake Boot for Men.

Realtree does not make products. It makes patterns and sells to others the right to put those patterns on products; it currently has about 1,000 licensees using Realtree patterns on 10,000 items. These licensees include makers of hunting gear, of course, but also Timex, General Motors (for a limited line of custom Avalanches and Suburbans at about $50,000 and up) and the Batesville Casket Company.

Before we get to the question of whom exactly the camouflage-lined-coffin occupant is hiding from, it's important to put Realtree Hardwoods High Definition into some kind of context. According to ''D.P.M. Disruptive Pattern Material,'' a 720-page encyclopedic visual history of camouflage published this month by Firefly Books, it was in the late 19th century that military uniforms switched from bright and bold (red was popular) to drably inconspicuous — a vital evolution given the importance of hiding from enemies with increasingly longer range guns. Hunters gradually picked up on this idea. Hunting-specific patterns, distinct from those worn by the military, started to appear in the 1970's.

Realtree and the other camouflage giant, Mossy Oak, have become major businesses catering to this market. Dodd Clifton, spokesman for Realtree, explains that while standard camouflage is olive green, black and a brown or two arranged in an abstract pattern, his company's High Definition offerings include a dozen or more colors, printed in multiple layers, with nearly photorealistic images of leaves and branches and even flowers. “They've evolved into larger pieces of artwork, with more elements and larger open areas that hold up better at a distance,'” he says.

While this artistry and science supposedly help the hunt, it is difficult to prove. “It was hard to come up with instances where the hunter actually needs that level of detail, given that many of the animals hunted are colorblind,” Hardy Blechman, the British designer who compiled “D.P.M.,” says dryly. Blechman made his name in the fashion industry by, among other things, using military surplus creatively in his designs. His book also delves into the use of camouflage as a source of pure graphic pleasure, by everyone from Andy Warhol to the street-fashion brand A Bathing Ape. (The book includes a camo pattern that incorporates skulls and information about PETA; Blechman is not a hunter.) While researching the section on hunting, he found “countless examples of guys on fishing boats, out at sea, wearing their camouflage — it has some other meaning to them.”

The creators of Realtree have no real quarrel with that last point. When Clifton talks about what his company's High Definition patterns offer, one thing he emphasizes is “shelf appeal.” This basically means that it's important for the camouflage to look cool. Realtree camo looks nothing like the patterns that have been co-opted as both high fashion and street fashion, but it does have meaning to those who know what it is. “It looks good to people,” Clifton says. “It looks like the outdoors.” One example might be the Realtree baseball cap that Larry the Cable Guy wears in promos for “Blue Collar TV,” the proudly Nascar-America comedy show that's doing well for the WB network. Another example would, of course, be the outdoorsman who chooses a Realtree lining for his coffin. In other words, for many consumers who buy the most technically advanced camouflage, the real point is not to blend in — they want a camo pattern that makes them stand out.

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.

Jobs | June 24