Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '06: Summertime technical apparel

Next season the technical apparel market will not be marked by any radical new technology or buzzwords. There are lots of refinements coming, and certainly some cool new products, but nothing that will significantly shake up the status quo. The line between technical and casual summer outdoor apparel is becoming increasingly blurred. Of course, this isn't a new trend -- it's been in the making for years now -- but it continues to grow. While many brands sport outdoor lifestyle collections, it's increasingly difficult to tell the difference between performance apparel designed purely for active outdoor pursuits and town wear. Our complete coverage of trends and new products in the summertime technical apparel category continues here...

Our writers are continuing to burn midnight oil, paging through mounds of notes made while trying to hunt down booths that had moved and trends that were moving even faster. What follows, then, is a very select summary of product that caught our wandering editors’ eyes and it is by no means complete! So if you’re not mentioned, we were either too hyped up on Kinetic Koffee shots to see you, too tired to care from wandering for miles up and down aisles, didn’t think your product was trend-setting, or we were just plain clueless — you pick one. With that in mind, here’s our take on trends and new products for summertime technical apparel:

Next season the technical apparel market will not be marked by any radical new technology or buzzwords. There are lots of refinements coming, and certainly some cool new products, but nothing that will significantly shake up the status quo.

The line between technical and casual summer outdoor apparel is becoming increasingly blurred. Of course, this isn’t a new trend — it’s been in the making for years now — but it continues to grow. While many brands sport outdoor lifestyle collections (see our coverage of this category a few weeks ago by clicking here ), it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between performance apparel designed purely for active outdoor pursuits and town wear.

For example, Patagonia has rolled its technical Rhythm collection of climbing apparel into its “Lifestyle” collection. While ostensibly distinct from the “Sportswear” collection, the average consumer will have no idea that there’s a difference, and we doubt many retail staff will either. Another brand with an identity crisis is Marmot, which makes three sportswear collections (Performance, Signature and Bamboo) that have so much overlap it’s hard to tell them apart without a cheat sheet.

Significant advances in fabric technology in recent years are providing the major driving force behind this increase in “fashionable tech” apparel and blending of tech-only and fashion-only genres. While style and function used to be mutually exclusive concepts, now the new fabrications are so comfortable and come in such a wide array of colors, that designers are no longer as constrained as they once were. Welding and seamless technology are beginning to bridge the gap from pure tech-weenie appeal to the fashionable side of the design spectrum, though the gap is still too wide to call it an all-out trend.

Going natural
The old stand-by natural fibers, cotton and wool, are now getting more sophisticated thanks to better processing and treatments and can no longer be written off as non-technical. Add in a plethora of natural fibers, such as bamboo and hemp, which are gaining in popularity and are both antibacterial and antifungal. Then mix in coconut (Cocona) or bamboo (Dry Web) charcoal to polyester for “natural” odor absorbency. And what you get is a line-up of naturally based fabrics stepping confidently into the performance domain that was once considered exclusive to the petrochemical industry.

Of course, what this also means is that while consumers now have many more options on what to wear while climbing, hiking, paddling and cycling, it’s also far more confusing when it comes time to decide what to wear for what activity. Let’s see…is this too technical for today since I have to run errands on the way home? Maybe it isn’t technical enough if the weather changes? Does this shell go with my blue suede rock shoes?

Questionable taste in pursuit of, well, we think function
Which brings us to “man-pris,” a male version of the capris marketed toward metrosexual men, which keep clinging to life here in the United States. Patagonia gave up on them, but Mountain Hardwear apparently feels there’s a missing gap in its technical line. It will make an attempt to capture the market with the Basin ¾ Pant and Silcox ¾ Pants, in addition to the company’s Mountain Kilt (man skirt) for the man who can’t decide if he should hike in shorts, a skirt or long pants. Arc’Teryx too will grab for a piece of the market (is there really one?) with the Alibi Cropper, which is best defined as something that is neither short nor pant, presented in a technical fabric. Oy vey!

Since old looks have a way of coming back, there should be little surprise that track suits, aka warm-up suits, are experiencing a resurgence. Numerous booths throughout Summer Market showed off modern renditions of the classic warm-ups, often with a yoga flair thrown in for good measure. With the new fabrics available, some of these are approaching what appears to be a hybrid of fleece and soft shell (fleece shell?? Acck!)

Skirting out to a run
In the same vein, there are also now more than enough companies bringing out running skirts to call it a quirk, although we suppose the style could still be called quirky. We’re not sure yet if we like it or not. Some make us – the women among us – wonder why we’d want to wear an extra layer of material on a warm day while others make us feel like we’re off to a round of tennis at the club followed by a mint julep on the deck. Still, there is something to be said about a skirt so if someone wants, she can go from a run to the coffee shop or store without feeling as if, well, to put it bluntly, her butt is kinda hanging out there in tights or short shorts. The look IS kinda cute. Mind you, we are not talking skorts, where the back still looks like pants and in our opinion still hasn’t found a way to not look a bit dorky. We saw four running skirts at the show — Brooks, GoLite, New Balance and Terry. We suppose you could say that’s an increase of 400 percent, since Terry was around before (don’t you love statistics?). Heck, the leader in the category (Skirt Sports aka Triks, which is skirt spelled backward and ain’t that tricky) wasn’t even there. We think there will be some teeth to this trend.

And although having nothing necessarily to do with skirts, the trend continues as companies that have an emphasis on pure running or biking lines use OR Summer Market as a showcase. Brooks, Cannondale, CW-X, Hind, Moving Comfort, New Balance, Sugoi and Terry are a few that are never-fail and seem to be booked from start to finish. Notably missing from this lineup (as well as from general outdoor tech) was adidas, which showed its line at the OutDoor show in Germany but said nix to Outdoor Retailer despite a fight from some segment managers we were told.

Price-point soft shells
Summer-weight soft shells in the $100 price range continue to grow in popularity. At first, these were no-frills budget shells that lacked the design refinements of more expensive products. Now consumers are getting good cuts, nice detailing and decent fabric for a bargain price. Examples include the new Marmot Approach (men’s, five colors) and Escape (women’s, eight colors) that retail for $120. Another is the Outdoor Research Logic Jacket (men’s, three colors), which retails for $99 — and proved so popular, the company told SNEWS® it is adding a women’s version (the Insight Jacket) next season. Yet another is The North Face Apex Elixir ($99, men’s and women’s), which returns next season in new colors and styling.

Waterproof/breathable competition heating up
While Event has been generating low-level buzz around the outdoor industry for years now, this waterproof/breathable fabric is at last beginning to pick up momentum, thanks in large part to GE putting its shoulders behind increased marketing and R&D. While Gore continues to offer the major brands significant incentives to stay true to Gore-Tex branded goods, some of the smaller niche brands are in a better position to experiment.

High-end lines, such as Ground and Westcomb, and core climbing brands, such as Integral Designs and Wild Things, are offering Event shells that those companies claim compare favorably (and perhaps outperform) all the PacLite and XCR offerings of the powerhouses. And Event, at least, has better brand recognition than all the proprietary fabrics that each and every company continues to insist on developing and marketing.

Of course, the folks at Gore aren’t sitting around watching their market share slip away either. The company’s R&D team is working in high gear and we caught a glimpse of some new items in the pipeline that look to be very cool. In the meantime, the pricing on some of the PacLite shells is getting much more competitive and will continue to drive sales in that category. For example, the new GoLite Phantasm Jacket (men’s and women’s) will retail for $180, while the new Mountain Hardwear Typhoon Jacket (men’s and women’s) will run $199.

Since prices at the low end of decent waterproof/breathable shells have bottomed out at around $100, the thing to do is add more colors. For example, The North Face Venture Jacket comes in 12 colors for men and six for women. And the Marmot PreCip Jacket will soon come in a staggering 14 colors for men and 16 colors for women. The Sierra Designs Isotope Jacket ($89, men’s and women’s) continues as a great value that is also super lightweight and compact with a dozen color choices.

Standout Products
What follows is a by-no-means-complete highlight of products we felt stood out in addition those mentioned above as we made our way through and around the hundreds of booths in pursuit of new, cool, trendy, exciting and innovative products:

Arc’Teryx Trail Pullovers — The new Accelero Pullover ($100, men’s and women’s) is another example of new fabric technology combining natural and synthetic materials. In this case, the Dry Web polyester fabric is knitted with bamboo charcoal on the inner surface to absorb odors. The Accelero is designed for active sports on cool days, so it is quick-drying and has reflective piping for visibility.

Blurr Track Jackets — A prime example of the crossover between technical and casual clothing is the Reactor Jacket ($75, men’s and women’s). These are reminiscent of track jackets from the ’70s but are now made with a polyester fabric (instead of nylon) for greater water repellency and have a sophisticated cut for freedom of movement. The women’s version has a hood and the accents make it downright cute.

Cloudveil Proprietary Soft Shell — Last season, the brand that got started with Schoeller fabrics began to dabble with material from other vendors. This year, there isn’t a speck of Swiss fabric in the line. The Inertia Peak Jacket ($145, men’s and women’s) is a more stylish version of the old Prospector that has now become Cloudveil’s pinnacle soft shell. Also, no more $200 jackets in the summer line.

GoLite Trinity Shells — The first thing customers will notice about this new series of waterproof soft shells is the silky smooth hand that made us melt — it’s some of the nicest feeling fabric on the market. The next thing they’ll notice is the incredibly low price, just $100 for the no-frills Gamut Jacket and $150 for the well-appointed Paradigm Jacket. While we can’t vouch for performance yet, these Trinity shells (there’s also a hoodless pullover and a pant) could be the next thing to rival Marmot PreCip. This is where we also saw a running skirt that made us sit up and say, OK, I’ll take that for a spin. The Calamity Jane Skirt (MSR $55) has an extremely lightweight outer shell, which seems it could add the flirty skirt look without a lot of extra insulation.

Ibex Seamless Intimates — There’s a good reason seamless underwear has become a must-have for many consumers — sheer comfort. But the only option for outdoor athletes has been synthetic fabrics. The new 17.5 Seamless Merino collection (with a bit of Lycra) includes a sport bra, sport top (with shelf bra), runner shorts (for men and women), briefs (for men and women), women’s thong and men’s boxer. Priced between $22.50 and $49, and in some attractive colors, this cozy underwear is going to be hot.

Icebreaker Superfine 140 — Even the diehard wool skeptics will be forced to admit this incredibly light merino base layer is amazingly comfortable. Sure, other companies (Ibex, Patagonia, SmartWool) offer 150 gm/m2 merino so this fabric is only a smidgeon (10 gm/m2) lighter, but it’s a noticeable difference when wearing the Tech T on warmer days. At $55 retail, in men’s and women’s, this is likely to be very popular. (For those of you scratching your heads over gm/m2, the basic definition is grams per square meter.)

Integral Event Shells — Long known for its high-end tents and sleeping bags, the new rain gear made with Event fabric is a major addition for this brand. The Rain Jacket ($220, men’s only) is a no-frills design that actually has cuffs that work when climbing or paddling (unlike most other “extreme wet weather” shells on the market). The fashion-sense is nonexistent, but the functionality of these products is high.

Isis Rain Coat — While it may not meet some people’s definition of a “technical product,” the new women’s waterproof/breathable Drench Coat ($125) is likely to find its way onto hiking trails in wetter parts of the country. Cut about 6 inches longer than a typical jacket (but 12 inches shorter than its popular Cloud Duster), this lightweight rain shell gives greater protection without getting in the way. And, six attractive colors with a good cut help make it attractive and get it packed into suitcases for an everyday look too.

JanSport Livewire Clothing — Love it or hate it, the iPod has infiltrated the outdoor industry. While some ski wear has offered external controls, it has been priced to keep the riff-raff out and was poorly designed to boot. The Power Jacket ($154) and Power Hoodie are men’s and women’s soft shells with a keypad on the chest to allow full music control and a headphone port to reduce dangling wires. The Harlequin (women’s) and Lightning (men’s) offer the same technology in waterproof breathable shells. Any retailers near a college campus should be stocking these.

MontBell Wind Shells — These days, virtually every outdoor brand offers a simple wind shirt made of super light fabric, typically a 20-denier material in some boring colors. The new UL Wind Jacket ($84, men’s and women’s) uses 15-denier nylon, so it stuffs to almost nothing and it comes in six colors that are blocked to add some style.

Mountain Hardwear Welded Clothes — Give me a Z! Mountain Hardwear has patented its zWeld welded mock-felled seam. Using two layers of glue to join the four surfaces of two pieces of fabric (the two face surfaces and the two back surfaces), the waterproof seam provides a durable, double-strength bond. Because it doesn’t require tape, there is no restriction of stretch within the seam. The seam is extremely strong, low profile and can be done with all fabric types. Consumers will feel the obvious tangible benefit of the zWeld in the new Cooper (men’s) and Rowena (women’s) shorts. These $60 stretch nylon shorts use welded seams at the hem to prevent chaffing while hiking, climbing or whatever. The Ascent Pack Shirt (men’s) also features welded seams, but the $130 price tag definitely limits it to upscale hikers and travelers.

Salomon Welded Soft Shell — Now billing itself as “the Softshell Specialist” in an already crowded market, Salomon has to deliver on the promise. The Sonic Skin WS Jacket ($200, men’s and women’s) is certainly one of the sleeker shells we’ve seen due to welded seams and an athletic design. The Gore Windstopper fabric combined with a proprietary material should offer the performance to justify the price tag.