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Feathers Fly: Sierra Designs, DownTek scuffle over water-resistant down technology at Outdoor Retailer

Here comes the water-repellent down war and it’s not a pillow fight. Get the inside story on how two outdoor brands began working together on the technology, then split apart. The breakup hasn’t been pretty.

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. 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.

This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:

Here comes the water-repellent down war and it’s not a pillow fight.

Three companies are now supplying the game-changing technology that treats down with water-shedding “nano chemicals,” defying the downside of damp feathers.

The first-to-market with the innovation is ruffling feathers as it touts its product’s downy dominance. American Rec’s proprietary DriDown technology is now available in its Sierra Designs sleeping bags and puffy jackets and by 2013 will be in all of the company’s down products.

Down Decor’s DownTek is in L.L. Bean, Brooks-Range, Nemo and Big Agnes sleeping bags, plus proprietary versions being used by Sea to Summit and Mountain Hardwear, and next month arrives in EMS stores.

And in late July, Allied Feather and Down, which bills itself as “the world leader” in down manufacturing, announced its Allied Resist Down, promising “a compelling product demonstration” on the Outdoor Retailer show floor.

Sierra Designs worked for more than two years with DownTek but both unveiled different water-resistant down products at the Winter Market 2012 in February. Their relationship ended the previous June.

“We were working with them early on but judged their technology inferior,” said Frank Kvietok, director of advanced development for American Rec. “Ours is a different technology. What it does to down may be similar but how it does it, at a chemical level, is not the same.”

Sierra Designs’ five DriDown sleeping bags have been on shelves since this June, debuting with REI. The company’s puffy jackets arrive in stores next week. Being first to market matters for Sierra Designs, and company officials aren’t mincing words.

“They are still just talking about it,” Kvietok said. “Why wait for an inferior product?”

DownTek’s owners admit they were delayed in 2011 as they moved their treated down from the laboratory to bulk manufacturing. The bulk down supplier expects to provide about 25,000 kilograms — more than 55,000 pounds — of DownTek this year to their partner brands.

Down Decor Principal Andrew Payne said Sierra Designs last year asked him for an exclusive deal on the new DownTek feathers, roughly a year after the company signed an exclusive contract with the Belgian lab that develops DownTek. He declined.

“We couldn’t do that. We have too many big brands and what are we are supposed to say to them, ‘Sorry?’” Payne said. “We spent more than two-and-a-half years with Sierra Designs and I knew their quantities. They weren’t even close to big enough for an exclusive deal.”

Sierra Designs began the trash talking last month, claiming that its DriDown “slays the competition,” citing studies by California’s Down and Feather Testing Lab. The press release touted its DriDown as “outperforming the leading hydrophobic down competitor” by staying 2.5 times drier and retaining more loft when exposed to moisture. The company’s ad in the Aug. 2 Outdoor Retailer Daily repeated the lab’s results, warning readers to “beware the imitators.”The company said it is working with several feather-testing labs to create methodologies and standards for gauging the performance of waterproof down.

The unexpected “inferior” and “imitator” hardball pitch by Sierra Designs — a rarity in an industry where competitors rarely muckrake — leaves Down Decor owners befuddled.

“I don’t understand why they are saying that. We have gone out of our way to not say anything negative and if we went through the true history of what happened with our product and Sierra Designs, well, we don’t want to go there,” said Payne while his team courted retailers by shaking bottles of DownTek feathers in water in a conference room at the Marriott across from the Salt Palace. “They didn’t do anything illegal, they did do stuff that was very much unethical. We are taking the high road on this.”

Lofty claims?

As attendees flooded the Outdoor Retailer show floor in Salt Lake City early Aug. 2, Sierra Designs’ Matt Wilson clicked on a glass-encased gizmo that was shaking three bottles of gray goose feathers and water. One was DriDown. One was untreated down. The last was labeled “a leading competitor.” The counter rolled to 144 shakes in the first 30 minutes. DriDown was downy, standing tall on the surface of the water. The untreated feathers were soggy. The “leading competitor” was somewhere in between: damp. Wilson readily admitted it was DownTek. Half a gram. 600 fill.

“They sent it to us,” said Wilson, the company’s prototype testing technician.

But Down Decor officials say they don’t make a 600 fill DownTek. “We are very curious where they are getting their samples,” said Down Décor principal Andrew Payne. “I don’t mind comparisons being made between DownTek and DriDown. I encourage it. I just think it should be done by an independent source,” he said. “I think an independent party needs to go buy the product at retail and then do the comparisons and testing.”

Big Agnes Co-owner and President Bill Gamber strolled by the Sierra Designs display and shook his head.

“That’s not our down,” Gamber said of the Sierra Designs’ display. “You see their ad in the Daily? They say they don’t want to get into a pissing match but that’s what they are doing. OK, let’s get in a pissing match. Big Agnes is the hottest brand going and … we are kicking their ass in sales. DownTek will be the next Gore-Tex brand. Just wait.” This summer Big Agnes will stock REI shelves with its $200 15-degree Bellyache Mountain bag, packed with DownTek.

Gordon Damant’s Down and Feather Testing Laboratory in Sacramento, Calif., is one of two down performance testing labs in the U.S., along with Salt Lake City’s International Down and Feather Testing Laboratory. While declining to discuss specific clients, he has been testing water-resistant down made in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

“I can’t make any comments about different people’s results,” said the lab owner, citing confidentiality agreements. “I can basically say there are some fairly big differences in treatment that are available. They are not all equivalent. In respect to who is the best, I cannot give out that information.”

Damant spent Thursday morning meeting with other testers and water-resistant down makers to begin creating a universal set of standards and protocols for testing down. He plans to reach out to “many other people” to include as many players as possible in formulating a standard for testing down.

“The problem right now is that there are no standardized protocols. The lab in Salt Lake City is testing based on their own protocols. Our lab has been testing on protocols we developed and we have done some testing using Sierra Designs’ protocols. A number of different companies are using their own protocols and they are all different,” Damant said. “There is not really any consistency and that is what we need at this point. It is all very new and it takes time to resolve some of these issues.”

The new down, which is a relatively inexpensive technology, could sweep the industry, providing a sort of insurance thwarting the age-old edict to never wet your down. Gary Schaezlein, who founded California’s all-down Western Mountaineering in 1970, said the impact of treated down is being overblown.

“If it gets wet, you still have to dry it out,” he said, noting that the quality of feathers and the outer shell play a more important role than coating feathers with water-shedding chemicals. “I don’t think this is end-all, be-all for down.”

New kid on the block

The newest player offering treated down is Allied Feather and Down, one of the largest bulk providers of down in the world. The company’s new Allied Resist down has been undergoing lab tests in recent months as owners worked to quantify the performance of the new down. The new water-resistant down was unveiled this week.

“We are not making any grandiose claims and that’s intentional. We are at the point where it needs to be quantifiable. Water resistant needs to mean something,” said Allied’s general counsel Daniel Uretsky.

Allied’s chemicals are Bluesign approved, meaning it meets environmental standards for air, water, consumer and worker safety and resource protection. The company has yet to name brands that will be using Allied Resist, but Uretsky said the list will include “some substantial names.”

–Jason Blevins