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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.
They’re layering it. They’re blending it. They’re zone-maping it.
Manufacturers have arrived at Winter Market 2014 with various ideas on how to save on goose down as demand and prices of the natural insulation continue to soar — as much as 30 percent in the past three years.
By introducing a handful of new down/synthetic mixes that take advantage of nature and science, the goal is to keep prices steady and, manufactures claim, improve performance. The question is: Will retailers and consumers accept a synthetic invasion into so-called down products?
Down insulation products already garnered a synthetic boost from last year’s introduction of water-resistant down. The technology allows products to remain 100 percent down, yet quells fears of down’s biggest weakness — loosing loft when wet. It’s been widely successful, adding protection for negligible weight and price, while maintaining, and in some cases, improving loft.
Adding synthetic fibers to the down insulation mix could be seen as another step down’s evolution process, but more likely is creating an entirely new race of hybrid products.
Among the down/synthetic constructions and fills to explore on the show floor, are introductions from PrimaLoft, Columbia, Polartec/Marmot and Allied Feather and Down.
With PrimaLoft’s new Performance Down Blends, the ingredient brand gets into the down game by blending its synthetic, water-repellent, ultra-fine short-staple fibers with natural down in two new fill offerings tagged Gold and Silver. The Gold version is a 70/30 down-to-synthetic mix, while is Silver is 60/40.
By blending down and synthetics into a lose fill, brands can keep the softness, flexibility and loft of regular down, PrimaLoft officials said. The Gold blend is equivalent to 750 fill-power down, retains 95 percent warmth when wet and dries four times as fast versus regular down, the company claims.
Black Diamond fills its Convergent Down Hoody (MSRP $499) with PrimaLoft Gold Down Blend in a fully Gore Windstopper softshell that’s been tape-seamed. “We’re looking for spaces in between spaces,” Black Diamond Director of Apparel Tim Bantle said. “It’s the piece you want when it’s not pouring rain, but you want more protection than a softshell, and more breathability than a hardshell.”
Helly Hansengoes all-in on the Supreme Jacket (MSRP $900), also with PrimaLoft Gold, and promotes another fast-rising trend — stretchable insulation pieces. Its lightweight “360-degree” stretch shell gives skiers more flex, and the body-mapped, laser-cut ventilation points provide breathability.Adidas Outdoor’s Climaheat Ice Jacket (MSRP $350) couples the PrimaLoft Gold insulation with a 37.5 (formerly Cocona) moisture- and odor-moving lining with stretch panels. Westcomb employs the Gold fill in its new SubZero collection, including mid-,hip- and knee-length designs for men and women.
Didn’t brand officials say that these new insulation mixes were supposed to provide greater affordability? Along those lines, check out Sherpa’s PrimaLoft Gold filled Nangpala Hooded Down Jacket (MSRP $259).
Columbia takes a layering approach to its new down/synthetic mix, called Turbo Down. The construction places a continuous-filament synthetic layer closest to the body to provide structure and moisture management, while the down is placed on the exterior for loft. It’s all sandwiched between two layers of Columbia’s silver-dotted OmniHeat liner to reflect and keep heat inside. There are three different versions — Gold (550 fill down plus its synthetic 100-gram Omni-Heat Thermal insulation), Platinum (800 fill down plus 60-gram of its synthetic) and Diamond (850 fill down plus 40-gram of its synthetic).
Columbia Director of Product Marketing Blaine Perrin said the brand experimented with several different kinds of mixes, eventually finding that layering led to the best insulation and durability results — it kept down from clumping — at a more affordable price. MSRPs for the 2014/15 Turbo Down jackets range from $149 to $325, the latter being the hooded Tubro Down Diamond Jacket (MSRP $325).
“Anyone can make an 800 fill-power down jacket,” Perrin said. “The hard part is to make a jacket for less than $200 that will perform like that 800-fill jacket.”
Another down/synthetic layering, in addition to body mapping, comes from Marmotin its Megawatt Jacket (MSRP $300), featuring the brand’s 800-fill, water-resistant Down Defender mixed with Polartec’s synthetic Alpha insulation. Targeted for cold-weather aerobic uses (see sidebar for more on this trend) the piece relies on the warm down/synthetic layering in the core and hood, while employing just the highly breathable Alpha insulation everywhere else.
Back to blends, Allied Feather & Down debuts a natural down/synthetic insulation blend called FX Down that maintains loft, reduces ingredient costs, and was designed to be more easily washed for use in heavily-used hiking garments and camping equipment.
The strategy of mixes and blends is reminiscent of what’s happening with merino wool — another popular natural material in the outdoor world. It’s increasingly being mixed with synthetics in the name of performance, but particularly when the wool content drops below 50 percent (we’ve seen as low as 5 percent on the show floor), there is question of whether any benefit of the natural material remains.
There are certainly cases to be made that synthetic additions improve performance, increase durability and reduce price, but some say outdoor brands may find themselves walking a fine line of trust with consumers by mixing in too many synthetics, especially if marketers are highlighting the product as a “wool” baselayer or “down” jacket.
Manufacturers admit that the industry will need to develop new tests and standards for naming, measurement and comparisons. “This product is a hybrid, where the product nature outpaces traditional testing,” said PrimaLoft CEO Mike Joyce, of the brand’s new down blends. “Since the PrimaLoft [synthetic] fibers are similar denier to down,” for now, the company uses comparison down fill power figures. At Columbia, officials indicate the fill-power of down used, plus the gram amount of synthetic insulation to come up with its “Turbo Down” rating.
Despite the wave of mixes, solely down or synthetic insulation products will remain.
Sierra Designssticks to its water-resistant DriDown in all of its insulation pieces. To boost warmth and save fill, jackets like the men’s and women’s DriDown Hoody (MSRP $199) rely on a light PU coating to block wind and down leakage, yet still allow for breathability and moisture management. Targeted toward backpackers and hikers, the jacket forgoes the awkwardly large helmet-compatible hood for a “hat-compatible” hood with no toggles or cords, using the jacket’s center zip to cinch and provide the right fit.
Mountain Hardwear shows that synthetic insulation layering alone — no down needed — also can boost performance. Instead of using the standard 100-gram insulation, it quilted together its Thermal Q.Elite 40-gram layer with a 60-gram layer to create a baffle-like construction with no stitch-through seams, yielding virtual 130-gram insulation results at a fraction of the weight in its Super Compressor Jacket (MSRP $295).
And speaking of wool, earlier, the natural fiber is playing a larger role in the insulation fill category as it is spun and fluffed to create loft. See examples in Icebreaker’s Men’s Helix LS Zip Hood (MSRP $285), which employs salvaged merino for the baffled fill behind a water-repellent, recycled polyester shell. Be sure stop by wool insulation newcomer RamTect, co-founded by Doug Hoschek, of Polarfleece fame, and Carey Hobbs, of Hobbs Bonded Fibers. The pair shows off a new American wool fabric insulation, crafted to resist compression, retain loft and insulation and require no baffling or quilting.
The other big trend in the category … active insulation, for higher-intensity winter pursuits. See more on that trend here.