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Dan English, a former Microsoft manager that willingly got pulled into the outdoor industry, can’t ignore his tech roots.
When he saw that many in the industry were jumping on the merino wool bandwagon, he noticed all the products were pretty much the same. Sure, there were different wool blends and designs here and there, but “no one was pushing the envelope” to advance wool technologically through new construction and blending methods.
Having just moved to heart of the San Juan Mountains in Pagosa Springs, Colo., English saw a need to evolve wool for the rigors of the backcountry — both in improving its strength and wicking performance without losing its thermal and anti-odor properties.
Enter his new apparel brand Voormi, which launched this year with a lineup of 100-percent domestically sourced wool baselayers and midlayers.
English partnered with Doug Lumb, formerly of Polartec, and other backcountry enthusiasts to help found the company. It currently employs 10 people in Pagosa Springs with numerous other partners across the country. He tells us what sets Voormi apart from a crowded field in the category.
How did Voormi get started?
Our story starts about three years ago in Salt Lake City. My business partner and I attended the Outdoor Retailer show to see the “latest and greatest” the industry had to offer.
I don’t remember a single specific product from that show, but I do remember seeing a lot of things that looked like other things. Coming from the tech industry, I was used to a rapid change of pace driven by small innovators doing their best to push the envelope. Additionally, I had just moved to the southwestern corner of Colorado, and was intrigued by the rise of the boutique ski industry across the state. From the Front Range to the Southern San Juans, the hard-goods industry was starting to look like the world I remembered, while at the same time apparel was continuing to consolidate to the same few brands working in the same few factories.
That’s when we decided to set out on a journey to make a dent in the landscape of the apparel space. Our goal, to revive the concept of the “local independent” in the world of apparel, and to do it with a fast paced approach to technology development.
SmartWool, Icebreaker, Ibex … there are already several major players in the merino wool category, and just about every other brand incorporates the natural fiber in their lineup. What sets Voormi apart?
We chose fine micron wool as the basic building block for the brand. Soft, strong, quick drying, and amazingly warm when it’s wet, it’s a perfect start to building the ultimate super-material.
Still, as good as it is, we felt there was room to make it better. Our theory at the time: If we could stack 21st century technology on top of an already good foundation, we could take wool to a completely new level. Wool that would be tough enough, protective enough, breathable enough, and move moisture fast enough to be a truly viable solution for out-of-bounds backcountry travel versus just comfortable resort wear.
What are some of those new technologies you’ve developed?
We have two basic technology platforms at the moment, (with more in development.) With our Dual Surface Precision Blended Wool base-layer fabrics, we introduce an ultra thin layer of performance wicking fibers on the inner surface of our wool to help drive moisture through the fabric. The basic idea here is to use a very small amount of wicking fibers to accelerate the movement of moisture in to the bulk surface of the wool, where the natural thermal properties of wool are free to do what they do best.
With our Surface Hardened Thermal Wool mid-layer fabrics, a strategic array of highly durable performance fibers is introduced to improve abrasion resistance on the outside of the garment. This makes the wool significantly more durable, and especially suitable to face the abrasive challenges of the backcountry (beacon harnesses, backpack straps, etc.). You’ll find this fabric in each piece of our High-E series.
There seems to be a popular trend of blending wool with synthetics today. But is there a point that the synthetics overpower the natural positives of wool? How do you balance it?
What we’ve found is that while most others are blending yarn for cost (i.e., 80/20 or 50/50 blends), and then working on figuring out how to tell the story, we’re taking pure yarns with no blends and blending the fibers/yarn within our unique construction processes with purpose first.
The trick lies in what we have termed “Precision Blending”, which is a fancy way to describe the idea of surgically putting yarns in very specific places, to do very specific things. That’s how you boost performance without losing the natural properties of wool. If you just take polyester and put it with wool in a blended yarn, then that garment will smell pretty quickly. In contrast, if you take wholly separate wicking yarns and blend them in the knitting process to create a strategic array of wicking fibers on just the inner fabric surface, you get a completely different result. That’s Doug’s specialty, and honestly one of our huge points of differentiation.
You’re other big point of differentiation is that that products are not only made in America, but also 100 percent sourced in America. What led to that decision?
Everybody told us we were crazy. Some days I think we are. Other days, I’m thrilled that we made the investment of time and energy. Today, our entire supply chain resides here in the States. From the wool we buy, to every step along the way (washing, combing, spinning, knitting/weaving, and garment production) everything is done domestically. While we have to be absolutely dialed to keep costs in check, it has opened up so many doors for us.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the entire process in the United States?
The most interesting benefit has come from sourcing wool from the very unique high elevation climate of the Rocky Mountain region. It’s stronger and more resilient than wool we’ve tested from the more mild maritime climates of the world. We think it makes for the ultimate answer to the demands of serious backcountry travel.
As for downsides, keeping costs in check requires us to be 100 percent dialed throughout the entire supply chain. Processing domestic wool to yield only the cleanest, softest and longest fibers takes a higher level of care and attention, but we think it’s worth it in the long run given all the benefits it provides.
Where will your product be available for its launch in fall 2013?
If we had to pick an appropriate analogy to describe our distribution strategy, it would most likely be that of the microbrewery. Our objective is to gain a strong local following, and then expand from there. In line with that, we’re focused on three primary channels:
- Voormi.com: As a singular location for consumers to “drink from the tap” and get the whole Voormi story.
- Specialty Retail: We are actively seeking local retailers interested in helping build and support our local Southern Colorado brand.
- Strategic E-tailers: To extend our geographical reach.
Due to our domestic manufacturing capability, we have the ability to work with orders even this late in the F13 cycle. We’d love the opportunity to fill in the fall 2013 buy for specialty retailers across the region and across the country.