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Apparel that used to be seen as functional with zero fashionable elements has quickly become the haute couture of the outdoor industry—also known as “Colorado business casual.” The Mountain Lifestyle category at The North Face is a prime example of how far the aesthetics of function have come. It features the kinds of clothes you want to wear all the time, not just on the mountain or at the bar. We asked Sumi Scott, who has been at The North Face since 2003, what goes into these clothes and why they’re suddenly all the rage.
1. How do you and your team come up with ideas for new products?
Ideas are coming from a mix of places, like problems we find or business objectives. I have such talented people on my team, and everyday we ask questions like, is there a new consumer we’re not addressing? There’s a downtrend in fleece right now, for example. The market isn’t really growing in a big way, and I think part of that is because the market has been inundated with lowbrow fleece. Old Navy is making them for $10. So we started looking for an alternative. We put together a couple of different panels of climbers and hikers and asked what their ideal fleece was, what features they were looking for. When we all came to the table as product directors, everyone was talking about the same things, like thermal regulation and the ability to breathe. For bouldering and mountaineering, they’re really important. So we focused on those two things and came up with the Mountain Sweatshirt.
2. How do you know a good product when you first see a design?
I think the best products are the ones that are born out of solving something and filling in a white space in the market. Or if there’s an emotional story behind it that people can understand. The more we can explain the story behind the creation process, the more likely that product makes it to market. We’re doing a program in spring ‘18 in the national parks, Trash to Tees, which makes clothing out of trash. We wanted a way to connect people with the trash they’re leaving in their parks.
3. What does the testing process look like for lifestyle apparel?
It’s lifestyle, so we’re not looking for the ultimate exposure. T-shirts don’t get tested the same way as pants. Sometimes, there are pieces that we just kind of wear. I was in Zion National Park recently with some girlfriends for a weekend, for example, and I did Angel’s Landing in my Mountain Sweatshirt. It was 70 degrees at the base, and much colder and windier at the top. I had the sweatshirt on and off and it was super-packable and light, and turned out to be the perfect layer. But we have a few ways of getting input on our team. We send everything to our athletes, and do panels and focus groups. Everything gets tested and worn, and we have lots of climbers in the office who are weekend warriors and going to Yosemite National Park every weekend.
4. Why is mountain lifestyle growing as a product category?
It’s interesting, because I think the biggest innovation in outdoor apparel right now is the lack of innovation. This younger consumer is more about experiences, and they’re less about the lightest and the fastest. Car camping has come around so fast, and so has #vanlife. Comfort in the outdoors is almost innovation, and people want to curate the experiences that they’re having. When you go camping, you’re inviting your friend who is a sommelier who’s going to bring the best wine. You want your clothes to work and feel normal, how you feel in your every day. It’s about breathability and UPF, and there’s nothing more breathable and comfortable than cotton. Even if you want something that’s durable, you still want that cotton look; you don’t want it to be techy and shiny.
5. Why do you think this is happening now? Why are we searching for fashionable clothes that function outdoors, rather than the other way around?
Comfort is pinnacle. So few people are wearing suits today, right? Maybe Wall Street people and lawyers, but not many others. So everybody is wearing this comfy/office hybrid thing. Obviously, yoga pants have been super-popular—though they’re now downtrending—but even if you’re going to wear denim jeans, it’s got to be the most comfortable pair. As the younger consumer is coming up in the outdoors, they’re more connected to the trends. We’re living in a time when people see Fashion Week in New York City. Everybody can see what the latest thing is; you don’t have to live in or go to New York to find out. It’s important to have brands you trust make those kinds of clothes for you.