Driving Innovation with Marketing Ingenuity
"It has been a pretty exciting ride,” says David Parkes about his 50-year career in textiles. What has fueled that excitement is Parkes' enduring passion to drive new ideas that bring to market new product for brands and consumers, which helps the industry to grow and prosper. It’s not done by physical development of the garment, but rather by Parkes’ unique ability to identify a particular fabric that is practical, functional and makes a difference by enhancing the user experience.
With a degree in marketing, not textiles, Parkes’ first exposure in the industry was with UK-based Borg Textiles and the earliest launch of sliver knits (pile, sherpa, faux fur), in the 1960s, an experience Parkes believes ensured that innovation would be central to his professional DNA. Following success in the European market, the firm transferred Parkes to the U.S in 1973, where a few short years later he was hired by Malden Mills. Initially charged with market planning, in 1981 Parkes was appointed sales director for the launch of what would become a game-changing, and now iconic, outdoor fabric — Polar Fleece. (Malden Mills became Polartec in 2007.)
Recognizing the potential of a then young, but vibrant outdoor industry, in 1983 Parkes founded Concept III, a domestic textile resource. The “III” in the company name stood for service, styling and sales — and still does. “It has worked well over the years and we’ll stay with what we’re good at,” comments Parkes.
We caught up with Parkes following his return from exhibiting at the Performance Days fair in Munich. Here’s an edited version of our lively conversation with key talking points:
On Innovation: Parkes is a firm believer in how textiles drive innovation. “Innovation, not refinement, is needed to prosper, and lead as an industry. Innovation takes time, takes commitment from the fiber mills to the brands, and takes creative marketing. Polar Fleece by Malden came about as they were trying to achieve a mohair/alpaca look that was popular with Malden Mills’ 7th Ave customer base at that time. What emerged was a magical fabric, but we weren’t sure what to make of it. It had a great look, a great hand, but pilled like crazy! However, the focus on bringing newness to market was such that we continued to develop it, worked on the pilling problem and it became a universal product that a handful of brands — Patagonia, TNF, Lands End, and LL Bean — brought to market all working together.” In the 90s the same approach to innovation — clever marketing and team effort — Concept III was instrumental in ushering in another standout textile development for outdoor, high pile Berber fabrics.
On Sustainability: “The industry has made strides in sustainability, and there is no doubt sustainability advances were necessary. However, this hasn’t resulted in a game changer product with consumers. Is the consumer going to be excited by saving water? Is that feature enough to make a purchase of a performance garment? Are consumers going to think, ‘I want to buy that jacket because it uses less H20 in the manufacturing process?’ If a consumer is shopping online for a jacket, they are looking for style, color, function with the added benefit of a sustainability story. While we respect compliance that comes with sustainability and performance and responsibility of manufacturing, there is a new level of compliance over the past 10 years that requires a constant need for data and testing for supply chain information that may be taking time away from innovation. Textile engineering and lab specialists now are spending more time on compliance requirements than playing around with new concepts.”
On Supply Chain: “When outdoor was growing and finding its groove it was a U.S. market, you were a phone call or a fax away from your supply chain partners. The upheaval to Asia left a big void, and the years from 1998 to 2002-03 was a very challenging period. With a global economy taking shape, we expanded Concept III from a domestic resource to an international one during the 90s when we began looking overseas for new partnerships. The advent of today’s supply chain, with so much done in Asia, has changed things. With a focus on volume and a price-driven strategy, there is less adventure in today’s supply chain to inspire outdoor textile innovation.”
On What’s Next: “There’s been more going on in athleisure and urban wear recently, than in traditional outdoor. But I sense we might be turning a corner. Workwear is growing rapidly and mid-layer is a category to watch. I see an extension of fleece or sherpa and growth in performance knits — something between midlayer shirts and a lightweight sweatshirt jersey. There’s lots of passion in the industry, but also fear of taking a risk, and that a garment might ‘fail.’ However, I feel optimistic as long as companies find collaboration and unity in development of new innovative product and good marketing to support it.”
Succeeding In Business With Style & Savvy
To go from fashion model to CEO of a multi-million dollar textile company is an impressive leap, but Amber Brookman has always been up for a challenge. She’s made strides as a woman executive, a business leader, a fabric innovator and an experienced hiker, having summited Mt Rainier twice, all the while carving a path forward for her successful U.S.-based textile converter and finishing company. “You’ve got to take chances,” says Brookman. “I run at life with my arms open wide and I’m not afraid of anything.”
Brookman’s fabric interest began when she joined nylon producer Allied Chemical, now AlliedSignal, in 1975 working as a Fashion Design Coordinator. At the time it was a newly created position in the marketing department of the firm’s fiber division, a job that involved covering several high-fashion events including the Paris Collections. Brookman quickly moved up to the role of Merchandising Manager – Outdoor and began marketing a new Allied yarn, a 430 denier nylon, to a nascent outdoor community of startups and adventure enthusiasts. Her responsibilities grew as the outdoor industry started to boom and within a few years Brookman was leading marketing campaigns for Mt. Everest Assaults with climbers outfitted with gear that featured performance nylons introduced by Brookman.
In 1984 Brookman launched her own division — Amber Brookman Fabrics — at Coated Sales, a small NYC-based converter, and Allied customer, which under Brookman’s leadership shifted from an industrial focus to find solid growth within the outdoor sector.
However, a few years later, when Coated Sales began experiencing financial difficulties, Brookman, the newly- appointed COO, was tasked with taking the company through, and out of, bankruptcy. When the company was sold, the former assets of Coated Sales became Brookwood Companies, where she served as president and CEO.
In the following 30+ years, Brookman managed the company’s five marketing division groups, and manufacturing groups as a leading supplier of nylon products to the United States military and a major textile force in the outdoor sector. Not bad for someone who prior to her career in textiles thought nylon came from sheep!
Here, a few takeaways from a recent in-person conversation with Brookman:
Early Days: “I remember when I met the people in the outdoor industry. It was my first assignment selling yarn for the backpack market to Jansport and Wilderness Experience and others. These were not businessmen in suits working in structured, hierarchical companies. They were an entrepreneurial-spirited bunch who cared about what they were doing and the people doing it. I found people like me and I loved them. I also fell in love with the role of the converter, which like outdoor had an entrepreneurial culture, based on a casual first-name type approach to business, that was very different from the culture of the mills at that time. The outdoor community and converter business were well suited to each other.”
Fashion Focus: “My fashion background helped my success in textiles by seeing a wider perspective. I could envision new ideas that I had about ‘outdoor fashion,’ which nobody was doing 40 years ago. I always saw outdoor as a lifestyle, with parkas worn as streetwear and fleece vests as everyday wear. I would do presentations that showed looks from Paris collections and talked about color and trends and outdoor brands were very receptive to it. I was doing trend reports on a regular basis as early as 1985. I believe that now outdoor has to look at fashion to engage with today’s younger consumers — like what snowboard did for ski.”
Made In America: “Military, which accounts for the majority of Brookwood business, was built little by little. I saw the writing on the wall when the U.S. textile industry began moving offshore. My strategy was to stay, strive and ultimately thrive domestically. We capitalized on industry liquidation, replacing key equipment along with implementing state of the art technology, hired talented people, focused on fabric development and continued growth. Military helped put Brookwood on the map financially. After outdoor, if you asked me my favorite market, it would be military.”
Then & Now: “Right now there are dynamics in motion that are creating change. Outdoor has stayed in its lane, products are technically different, but stylistically the same. A parka is a parka. You can’t innovate in isolation; designers working independently is a big loss. We need to assemble. Innovation needs creative collaboration and community. Outdoor has to look at what fashion is doing, in terms of new looks, but not what it’s doing in terms of disposable clothing. I call it garbage bag clothing. We need an infrastructure to meet this new system of sustainability. The whole chain of distribution has to be repurposed. If we really believe in sustainability and the environment and the outdoor industry position in it, then we need a structure where everyone can participate without costing a fortune. I think OR should be reinvented with the idea that the small guy matters. That was the strength and the beauty of it in the beginning. Now we need for people to feel they want to be part of this sustainability movement that brings together the new innovators. Today is about keeping a healthy attitude about the world and at the same time growing the business. It’s a matter of vision. This isn’t easy, if it were easy somebody would have done it!”