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Remembering the history of the outdoor industry, its individuals, its products and its companies, is very important we believe. There is strength in history and heritage. SNEWS® has been covering the outdoor industry since 1983, and a number of our team have been members of the industry since well before that. Realizing that no other industry publication is better suited to remembering and documenting, correctly, the history of our still relatively young industry, SNEWS® is committed to building the definitive historical archives with this first in a regular series — SNEWS® Looks Back.
There is little debate that the outdoor industry’s first best seller and iconic product was Sierra Designs’ 60/40 Mountain Parka. A masterful blend of form and function, the parka’s origins are, oddly enough, in motorcycling.
“I was doing a lot of motorcycling at the time,” Sierra Design co-founder Bob Swanson told SNEWS®. “And fellow riders kept saying that Sierra Designs should do some motorcycle apparel.
“I explained that it really wasn’t what we did, but I got interested in the idea and had Reba McWhorter (SD’s first seamstress) make me a version of the then popular oiled cotton British Barbour suit jacket to test. The one she created had four pockets for gear and looked smart.”
McWhorter’s creation was a short jacket and was made from a new material Swanson and fellow company co-founder George Marks had been shown by fabric supplier Arthur Kahn.
“The fabric was something like a 58-percent cotton/42-percent nylon blend,” Marks recalled, “and Bob eventually rounded off the percentages to 60/40.”
Swanson put his new jacket to a long distance riding test and fell in love with it. “One day I said, ‘Hey, this basic design and fabrication would make a great mountain parka.'”
Enter Doug Tompkins, the former CEO of the Esprit fashion apparel empire and current South American conservationist. At the time, Tompkins operated The North Face store on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco. The very same store whose opening party featured a then unknown local rock group called The Grateful Dead. Members of the Hell’s Angels provided event security. But we digress.
“Doug really wanted anything we made and pushed us to make the jacket for his store,” Swanson said.
And so, in 1968, the 60/40 Mountain parka came into being. It didn’t take long for the distinctive look to become the de facto all-purpose outdoor and around-town parka preferred by college students, corporate professionals and adventurers around the world.
What made the 60/40 parka so special? First and foremost was the parka’s styling. It was cut sufficiently long, so it covered well down onto the upper thighs. The long cut gave it a rugged yet sophisticated, urban look.
Then, there were its pockets: two bellows pockets at the breast and two cargo/handwarmer pockets below the waist. All its pockets had something very new and exciting at the time — Velcro closures.
There was also a back pocket, which Swanson says wasn’t in the original design but he and Marks were urged by Tompkins to add. Other key features included a drawcord at the waist, gusseted cuffs, a hood and a high collar that could be flipped up when the hood was not in use.
Henry Gruchacz, now of Erickson Outdoors, but then running production at Sierra Designs, recalled that the breast pockets had an interesting story themselves. “The Barbour Suit had a military fold pocket with the flat fold on the outside and the crease inside. Reba copied the pocket put it on backward, and voila, a signature SD pocket was born.”
Marks added, “There was another distinctive touch in the little tab up at the top of the zipper. People had complained that the zipper slider was too cold when the parka was zipped up tight against the chin. The simple tab took care of that, and it subsequently became some kind of mark that this was true Sierra Designs inspiration.”
Seemingly minor design inspirations to be sure, but ones that fueled much imitation. “The 60/40 was the first outdoor apparel product to spawn numerous knock-offs,” Marks told SNEWS®. “The imitators came and went, but consumers always wanted the original 60/40.”
Sales of the 60/40 stayed strong for over 25 years, and even when sales faded in the U.S. market, the parka continued to sell well in Japan.
Today, the 60/40 is looked back on as an iconic product, and one of the products that helped the small outdoor industry of the ’60s make a name for itself with consumers in the ’70s and beyond.