The promise of technical apparel is pure human advancement. No matter who you are, or what you’re doing, the magic of good design can push you higher. Inside the industry, however, it’s a different story. “There is 0 percent representation compared to the size of the business and the industry,” says Damon Morris, Senior Development Manager of Off-Mountain and Collabs at The North Face.
Fashion, admittedly, has a race problem. Within one of its buzziest segments — the broad-yet-recognizable area of function-focused labels — that problem is perhaps at its most glaring. “I just started asking around this trade show,” recalls Jamicah Dawes, owner of SlimPickins Outfitters, the first Black-run outdoors shop. “Just point blank: ‘Hey, are there any more Black people here?’”
What began as a mission to highlight Black-owned technical apparel brands soon became much more. After finding only a handful of brands, let alone retailers, we changed course. We spoke to Black designers and retailers in the technical wear industry to hear their stories and bring to light an issue that’s gone unheard for too long: Technical apparel — and the ecosystem of brands, events, and sports that it serves — appears to be systemically anti-Black.
Spinning An Old Yarn
As names like Arc’teryx, Stone Island, and Patagonia take a headlining place in culture, the racial disparity inside the world they belong is just now being acknowledged. So why is technical apparel — a sprawling, multi-billion dollar industry with a proper place in streetwear — 0 percent Black? And why has the industry neither questioned nor publicly corrected it before?
The classical answer concerned lack of Black participation in the things technical apparel was originally built to function for: sports like skiing and activities like camping and cycling. This is but an extension of another classical answer, one repeated thousands of times by everyone from late-night comics to the best-intentioned nonprofits.
As the blunt logic goes, because Black kids tend to live further from nature and come from lower socioeconomic strata, they aren’t exposed to things like mountain sports, which require hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in travel and gear fees to do. Increase access by removing those barriers, and all would be solved.
From speaking with Black designers and retailers, as the industry sees it, that logic — a participation gap (only 7.3 percent of skiiers and a shocking 1.5 percent of climbers are Black) stemming purely from resources and real estate — explains the lack of Black representation in the brands themselves. It’s a Reaganesque “trickle down” argument, appealing for its simplicity and the comfort it provides to those supposedly doing the trickling.
“That’s just crazy to me,” comments Christopher Bevans, Creative Director of DYNE, a luxury technical apparel brand that has shown at New York Fashion Week. “We’re outdoors people who love to fish, hike, snowboard, everything.” The real answer concerns the industry itself.
Technical apparel is insulated by cost and accessibility issues that make new entry (the de facto option for groups not already there) all but impossible. On the cost side, technical materials are more expensive than their traditional counterparts, like cotton jersey. That becomes especially punishing for newer brands, who often need to build their business on cost-effective staples before making the investment in more experimental garments.
“You can scale your business easily with cotton, denim, all that, but to make a dope tech shell, it’s much more difficult,” says Bevans. Past pure materials cost, technical wear is also just plain harder to make. Taped seams, hybrid constructions, and waterproof zippers demand specialized (read: expensive) machines to sample, let alone produce.
“It’s a very difficult business,” comments T-Michael, co-founder of the luxury outerwear label Norwegian Rain, whose $1,200 rain coats are stocked in boutiques like Tokyo’s Y.&Sons. “It’s not something you can sit in your studio and stitch out. You’ve got to get out and find a company to work with you.“
Outside of sparse maker spaces like Portland’s Studio 317, the means to making technical apparel are seemingly out of reach to any upstart. And yet, new entrants led by white and non-Black POC founders are numerous.
In the lifestyle space, names like Mack Weldon, Coldsmoke, and Outdoor Voices (whose special flavor of whiteness was the subject of a scathing 2019 New Yorker profile) have leapt from the ether. In outdoors and performance, brands like Roark, Rhone, and Aztech Mountain have exploded onto the scene.
From the experiences of Black designers and founders, this gap is the result of a simple tragedy: with the deck stacked against new Black entrants, the industry — and the activities it enables — has grown comfortable with the idea of implicit exclusion.
“In the sneaker and skate industry, I saw people that looked like me,” says Dawes. “I saw Black people in the outdoors, so my points of reference led me to think this would also be representative of its customer base. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a middle-aged white man’s industry.”
Everyone interviewed for this article had similar stories about feeling excluded in industry settings, both at the office and at events like trade shows and fashion weeks.
“This is not a bluntly unwelcoming industry, but it is systematically unwelcoming,” says Dawes. “There’s not many Black women or Black men out there in the midst of our world,” comments T-Michael. “It’s very difficult for our designers to make it — to get a chance, to gain experience in a job.”
To be certain, racism exists in the industry and in the outdoors more broadly. “I was so into the work that I sometimes didn’t notice things popping up,” recalls Morris. “Where I really noticed it straight away was at Columbia. Not to put them on blast — but I was told on separate occasions that it’s ‘refreshing’ to see ‘someone like me’ walking the halls.”
Christopher Bevans enjoys snowboarding on Mt. Hood. He remembers getting called the N-word on the lift one time, “by a dude wearing a Black man’s Seahawks jersey.” But by and large, the experience of being Black in technical apparel is less about outright vile behavior and exclusion and more one punctuated by microaggressions and Black individuals having to excel exponentially more than their non-Black colleagues just to secure similar footing career-wise.
“To tell the truth, the reason we were able to nail this is that we started in the middle of the recession,” shares T-Michael. “The factory we chose didn’t have any orders at that time since all orders were canceled. They spent years on us getting product right because that door had opened for us.”
So what would it take to change the dynamics within technical apparel? First, it’d take an industry-wide acknowledgement that real change starts with bringing young Black talent into the business side.
“I want to bring people into the business with internships and mentorships, not just take some kids up to the mountains to ski or snowboard and then they never do it again,” says Morris. “It’s about bringing kids into the office first, showing them the inner workings, and being the example that they see.”
It’d also take an industry-wide effort to help Black-owned brands get started. This means different things for designers and retailers, but generally, it means incumbents lending a hand — and not just through donations, either. “Patagonia says they’re for us. Ok, Patagonia — what are you doing for us?” asks Dawes. “What Black-owned businesses are you supporting? What’s your hiring process like?”
“Corporations need to get into the community,” says Bevans. “I love what The Shoe Surgeon did with a building a school, and what Pensole does with Foot Locker. Every industry needs that.”
Finally, it’d also take a moment of soul-searching within the technical apparel industry itself. A diversifying, urbanizing world has added a whole new context to outdoors and technical apparel. The kids wearing these clothes today are different than the ones who wore them 30 years ago — and they’re certainly different than the adults those kids grew into.
Brands that recognize this — and genuinely embrace the culture that’s sprung out of this cross-pollination — are winning. The North Face is on track to become a $4 billion brand (approximately twice the size of its closest competitors). Nike dominates everything south of alpine equipment. The gap between them and the rest is only growing more noticeable.
“This industry started to support the hobbies and passions of middle-aged white men,” says Dawes. “But it’s not just them anymore. So let’s show that.”