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Synthetic insulations on the rise at Winter Market

Synthetic insulation brands debuted new innovations at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market looking to deflect the rising popularity of natural materials such as merino and down, plus make up for declining military orders.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. 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.

Synthetic insulation brands debuted new innovations at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market looking to deflect the rising popularity of natural materials such as merino and down, plus make up for declining military orders. Find out how reinvented polyester fills and fleece are looking to make a comeback through several stories we covered on the topic at the trade show.

Taking on new forms
While much of the recent insulation buzz has revolved around the emergence of water-resistant down, it’d be a mistake to miss the innovations that are taking shape on the synthetic side of the insulation world.

In an ongoing effort to maximize warmth, breathability and responsible production, companies are utilizing post-consumer materials, treating their fibers with water-resistant coatings and, in several cases, changing the shape of the synthetic insulation that fills your customers’ jackets.

“We’re looking to replace down by providing its warmth and packability with a product that provides it in variable conditions,” said Nick Martin, product marketing associate at PrimaLoft. New from PrimaLoft this show is its 4Flex Technology, which adds four-way stretch to the insulation itself so it can flex along with an increasing crop of stretching exterior fabrics.

Polartec focuses on breathability with its new Alpha insulation, claiming it’s better for high-endurance activities than existing puffies. Competing down or fibrous polyester insulation products require a solid jacket lining — blocking breathability — company officials argue. Alpha insulation comes in the form of a single sheet of lofty yet perforated polyester instead of the loose fibers and down feathers. This allows jackets like Marmot’s (#34037) Isotherm Hoodie (MSRP $199) to provide warmth to users when static, yet also breathability when mobile.

Helly Hansen’s
Mission Jacket (MSRP $400) jacket utilizes empty space to eliminate excess heat. A solid sheet of insulation in the jackets interior is polka-dotted with holes, giving the jacket’s interior a polka-dot motif. “The holes create a negative space that traps the warm air,” said Oliver Flaser, Global Category Manager at Helly Hansen. “And when you want to evacuate that air, that’s where the venting systems come into play.” Since the hot air isn’t trapped between down or smaller air pockets, the wearer’s movement creates a bellows effect that purges excess heat faster than a denser synthetic insulation.

Primaloft teamed up with The North Face to make Thermoball insulation, TNF’s synthetic answer to down’s loft and packability. Polyester fibers are formed into clusters of balls designed to mimic the feel and insulating properties of down insulation, but with the water-resistance for which synthetic insulation is known. 3M is sticking with the traditional fibrous approach to synthetic insulation, but it has siliconized the fibers of its new Platinum Insulation product, giving it a silky feel and boosting its ability to shed water and maintain loft. Partnering with Burton and Spyder for their insulated outerwear, the Platinum Insulationis available in weights ranging from 40 to 250 grams.

Utilized in both fashion (Cole Haan, Armani Exchange) and sporting brands (Adidas, Nike, Outdoor Research), Thermore is focusing its newer lines on using recycled materials that are environmentally friendly. Half of the fibers of Thermore Pro insulation are made with post-consumer water bottles that are 100 percent PFOA and PFOS free, while its Rinnova line is made of 100 percent post-consumer water bottles.

–Billy Brown

New CEOs at PrimaLoft and Polartec signal expansions, innovation
Two of the outdoor industry’s top insulation and fabric brands, Polartec and PrimaLoft, introduced new leadership at Winter Market.

At Polartec, new CEO Gary Smith is no stranger to the industry — from 2002 to 2008 he led Timberland’s Outdoor Group.

At PrimaLoft, company veteran Michael Joyce stepped up to the brand’s newly created position of CEO after it spun off from Albany International.

SNEWS spoke to both men on the show floor to gauge their overview of the synthetic insulation and performance fabric category, and we heard similar stories. Both companies plan to grow beyond their roots to present outdoor brands with a full spectrum of options.

Polartec decided to take on the giants in the waterproof-breathable category two years ago with NeoShell, and at this year’s Winter Market, it’s firing a shot at the ever-popular down puffy with its new synthetic Polartec Alpha insulation that claims to be more breathable for high-endurance, cold-weather pursuits.

PrimaLoft recently expanded beyond insulation into performance fabrics, creating a line of supple and soft materials that can be used for baselayers, midlayers and linings. This show, PrimaLoft showed some innovation, introducing its 4Flex Technology, which allows insulation to stretch with the user.

All the expansion efforts from these two brands, and likely the leadership changes, are no coincidence. Synthetic insulation and fabrics are under pressure on an array of fronts, including declining orders from the military and the rising popularity of natural materials such as down and merino wool. Even synthetic’s greatest asset — staying warm when wet — is under attack from the advent of water-resistant down.
But trends come and go, and both Joyce and Smith said they see the tide turning with more inventiveness coming from their side of the market.

“Puffies cannibalized fleece, but to a large degree it’s been a fashion trend,” Smith said. Fleece still outperforms puffies on breathability, he noted. And with slimmer silhouettes regaining favor on the fashion side, the puffies (at least the Michelin Man look) seem to be on their way out, he said.

At PrimaLoft, Joyce said the company is shifting its attention back to outdoor as military orders decline. At one time, the military accounted for more than half the business, he said. Now, it represents just 16 to 18 percent.

And just because PrimaLoft is known for synthetics, that won’t prevent it from experimenting with natural materials like merino or down, Joyce said. There could be some interesting blends in the works.

The other area of future opportunity, both CEOs noted, was the emerging field of responsive textiles — those that are able to alter their insulation or breathability depending on conditions.

“Think of fibers that stand up [for lofted insulation] or lay down [for cooling] like an animal’s fur,” Smith said.

–David Clucas

Return of the Muppet: Fleece looks to make a comeback

Look around the show floor, and we’d wager there’s an insulated midlayer somewhere within spitting distance.

It’s common knowledge at this point that down puffies and synthetic zip-ups and pullovers have taken over in the last five years, monopolizing the midlayer catego
ry. That begs the question: Where does the fleece stand? Remember all those fuzzy, high-pile jackets? Can they even compete?

Brands throughout the show have pulled out their toolboxes and are reinventing the fleece with new technologies and approaches that will make them more relevant than ever. There are improvements in weight, mobility, weatherproofing and breathability across the fleecy show floor.

“When customers are wondering what’s new in fleece, they turn to us.” said Allon Cohne, global director of marketing at Polartec. Credit the brand’s 32-year history with the category, born with the Patagonia Synchilla. This year, its Muppet-like high-loft fleece, seen for example on The North Face Radium (MSRP $170), is lined with airy seams every inch or so, allowing it to shed some ounces and increase breathability significantly.

Icebreaker launched its RealFleece collection in 2010, offering a natural-fiber midlayer option straight off the sheep’s back. This year, Icebreaker partnered with Schoeller to create a more water-repellant option. And because the water- and stain-repelling Nanotechnology attaches to the fiber during a wash cycle, it doesn’t compromise weight or breathability. While you can get the RealFleece with Schoeller technology in a basic midweight midlayer, like the Arctic Zip (MSRP $249), it’s also available in a hybrid option (with softshell in the arms, shoulders, and hood) in the Cascade Plus Hood (MSRP $249) and a lightweight, less bulky basic, the Cascade Zip (MSRP $179).

SmartWool is also on board with hybrid concoctions of fabrics in its apparel, like its PhD HiFi line, which offers soft, odor-resistant, moisture-evaporating merino wool against the skin with more durable nylon face fabric in a vest, full-zip and hoody options (from MSRPs $160). We’ll see the same from Hot Chillys (#21027) on its Prado fleece (MSRP $70) — the lightest weight midlayer option from the brand yet — with baselayer fabric under the arms and its proprietary Moisture Transfer Fibers fabric everywhere else.

Patagonia’s Regulator fabric from Polartec has been a go-to for the outdoor industry for years. This year, Patagonia ramps the fleece up by focusing on things like patterning, to make it more comfortable, and details, like what they’re calling a “kissing chin flap,” which blocks the zipper from scratching the chin. Its R3 Hoody (MSRP $199) pairs R3 high-loft fleece with Polartec ThermalPro for maximum breathability and movement.

— Ali Carr Troxell