The Guardian breaks down the business practices and runaway success behind two of the world's most popular outdoor brands (and icons of dad steez): The North Face and Patagonia. Both brands have long, illustrious histories in the fields of mountaineering, hiking and climbing, thanks to their next-level, weather-beating tech. Those very same rugged sensibilities have made both brands highly popular in old-school streetwear circles — The North Face especially.
The flagship jackets for both companies are the product of decades of technological refinement to make them increasingly warm, durable, and light. The most advanced models today have been engineered to solve the problem of how to insulate the wearer against cold and wet while remaining “breathable” – so you don’t overheat while you’re scaling that cliff face. At Patagonia, there is the Nano-Air ($249; £180 in the UK), a quilted, but not very puffy, water resistant jacket that uses a trademarked synthetic insulation that the company described as “revolutionary” upon its release in 2014. The North Face Thermoball ($199; £150) has its own proprietary synthetic insulation, which uses clusters of fibre to trap heat in a manner that mimics down.
The Guardian also examines the interesting side-effect of all that technical innovation: The North Face and Patagonia make most of their money from affluent urban types who don't spend much time using their products for what they were designed for (i.e. scaling a freezing-cold mountain or trekking alongside an ice-cold river).
Both companies also understand that the largest market for their products is not explorers stocking up for Arctic expeditions. The real money comes from selling products designed for hardcore outdoor adventure to urban customers who lead relatively unadventurous lives. For the most part, people wear North Face and Patagonia gear while doing everyday things: cycling, shopping, walking the dog. “You can take a backpack to school but you feel like you’re in Yosemite just because it says North Face,” Dean Karnazes told me one afternoon in San Francisco.
Because of that, brands have built huge business empires off their high-spec outdoor wear. The North Face reports annual revenue of $2.3 billion, with 200 flagships around the globe, while Patagonia had sales of $800 million last year — twice what it made in 2010. Both brands practice ethical production wherever possible, and do everything they can to make their supply chains environmentally sustainable. However, those practices bring up another paradoxical situation: they still sells lots of product, which is never good for the environment.
But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration – ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff – and fills the world with more and more stuff.
The piece is full of other interesting tidbits. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and TNF co-founder Doug Tompkins were old friends, and regularly went on expeditions together, and Tompkins also founded Cali lifestyle label Esprit with his then-wife.
Head over to The Guardian to get the piece in full — FYI, it's a pretty hefty read. For something a little easier to digest, here's an interview with the Japanese mastermind behind the extremely rare, extremely dope THE NORTH FACE PURPLE LABEL.