Keeping it Real

The entire Montane Dart Collection of technical base layers is treated with Polygiene technology. Shown here is the Men’s Dart Lite T shirt.

When we think of the early days of the outdoor business, authentic textile performance was central to the growth of the industry. Newfangled functional fabrics engineered to improve protection from the elements allowed hardcore hikers, dedicated climbers and serious adventurers to stay outside longer and have a better experience while doing so. In recent years, as a focus on lifestyle product and sustainability-driven textile development took hold, the pursuit of innovative “pure” performance became muddled. Now, however, a shift is occurring. Today’s fresh focus on functionality is taking on new relevance in contemporary outdoor.

Many factors contribute to this trend. The sporadic nature of weather due to climate change is giving way to a “season-less” approach to wardrobe wearability featuring clothing that can adapt to variable conditions at a moment’s notice. The pandemic, not surprisingly, influenced change in how we dress. Lightweight, breathable fabrications with stretch and properties like temperature regulation and antimicrobial protection have all come to the fore. The Covid experience also highlighted, both individually and collectively, what is “essential,” sparking demand for goods made of durable, versatile, long-lasting textiles.  

Kelly Hill Shuptrine, chief product officer at the brand Stio, believes in the appeal of “timeless relevance,” and “making intentional choices to deliver longevity and thoughtful design.” Versatility is built into Stio’s company tenet of “one tool, many uses.” She explains that Stio keeps the performance, yet every piece must deliver with less. Shirts, for example, offer on-trend prints, with color and content that is contemporary, but its functionality is fundamental.

Brrr founder and CEO Mary-Cathryn Kolb explains, “Consumer psychology changed during Covid; people who shopped high-end were forced to buy basics at big box stores like Target and TJ Maxx and realized they could get away with a four dollar white tee rather than paying $78. Everyone pivoted to price-point and concluded that if they were going to pull out their wallet and pay up for something – a t-shirt or a button-down style – it had to perform.” According to Kolb, this trend put gasoline on the fire giving performance momentum in today’s market.  

Problem-solving textiles targeting elite athletes that originally sparked the industry’s trajectory, now extends to niche outdoor activities as well as a diverse recreational audience. “I think that in the end, when it comes to what’s relevant now, it’s people getting more attuned to new layering systems,” remarked Ryan Windus, founder of Senchi, a design and innovation studio based in Portland, OR, specializing in USA-made, highly functional fabric and simplified technical pieces.

This season,  innovations in midlayer breathability, membrane modification, and ingredient technologies are aligning with a modern, more personalized outlook on performance.  

The Modern Midlayer

Re-evaluating the midlayer category has been a focus of development with recent product introductions that blur the lines on traditional rules on layering for lightweight warmth.

PrimaLoft Active Evolve is a series of insulating fabrics, with no quilting restrictions, that can be used as a liner or a stand-alone piece. Active Evolve efficiently handles heat and moisture, creating better breathability, thus enhancing overall performance during intense activity.  (Active Evolve is not to be confused with PrimaLoft Active Insulations, which are batted, non-woven insulations. Both product series sit underneath the PrimaLoft Active umbrella.)

“We’ve been seeing this trend for more versatile pieces and increased functionality from our customers and consumers starting even pre-pandemic,” states Tara Maurer-Mackay, SVP product strategy, PrimaLoft. “Variable climate has brought about a desire for outerwear that “lives” beyond one season. Consumers want something that will work throughout the year.”

The hunting/fishing brand Sitka features PrimaLoft Active Evolve in its Ambient Collection Jacket. “Having Active Evolve insulating fabric reduces the need for another layer. It opens up breathability and levels up sustainability by reducing the amount of material needed to create the piece,” Maurer-Mackay explains. “In addition, Active Evolve holds its integrity without needing to be secured by quilting and as such is less restrictive in terms of design.”  

In the coming seasons, PrimaLoft will be releasing four new Active Evolve styles with different patterns and weights that feature stretch and recovery, as well as recycled content.

Polartec’s Alpha Direct is the cornerstone of Senchi ultralight, multi-functional fleece apparel.  

“It’s an incredible lightweight knit insulation that can turn a three-layer system into an effective two layer system,” states Windus. “Using Alpha Direct as a next to skin layer paired with a protective shell on the outside works well. Being able to pull those two systems apart gives the best benefit of each –  a lightweight rain layer and a lightweight breathable fleece that allows heat out and breeze in, making it easier to regulate temperature.”  

Participating in what Windus refers to as a subculture of the deepest ultralight nerds on Reddit, serves as inspiration. “People who really understand layering because they are very intentional about what gear they pack; everything needs to be essential in terms of what is the simplest, most effective garment,” states Windus. Individuals hiking the Pacific Coast trail were early adopters of Senchi designs.

Alpha comes in three different weights: Alpha Direct 60, the lightest, is highly breathable and suitable for high-intensity activities where ventilation is crucial; Alpha Direct 90 is a versatile mid-weight suitable for a wide range of activities and conditions; and Alpha Direct 120 is a heavier weight highly insulated, material best for colder conditions and activities where warmth is a priority.

Growth has been a slow organic, iterative process according to Windus and Senchi designs partner Alayna Rasile, who has a textile background and helps with operations. “We started by doing little drops of 10 units on Reddit which sold out immediately; Now drops of 1500 units are the norm.” Bike packing has become a big market, but Senchi hoodies, half-zips and crewneck midlayers have also caught the attention of ultralight hunters, back-country skiers and marathoners.  

While the ultralight community appreciates the lightweight and peak functionality of Alpha Direct, Senchi apparel designs are useful for people doing many other activities. Reviewers on Senchi’s website note that the apparel is great for airplane travel and a favorite garment to wear while having morning coffee on a chilly day.

Function for All

Technical functionality that is revered in one community but also fills a need in another is also key to success when it comes to ingredient brand offerings. Sean Tindale, CMO at Polygiene calls this “a democratization of technology.” He explains, “We strive to offer technologies that are not only relevant, but promote easy and sensible solutions that we can prove, and have an impact on consumers to change consumables to durables.”

Polygiene sticks to a clear message of Wear More, Wash Less, that results in savings of water, energy, chemical and detergent usage. “If we can offer a technology that encourages changing human behavior in a small way that has a macro impact, that’s significant,” Tindale shares.

Polygiene recently did a Life Cycle Assessment of an average 120gsm polyester/elastane tech tee worn 3 days a week over 365 days, during 156 training sessions, for the life of 150 washes. Thirty two impact categories were measured for three different shirt scenarios:  1) not treated; 2) treated with Polygiene StayFresh but washed 156 times; 3) treated with Polygiene StayFresh but skipped every other wash.  A 35 percent reduction of environmental impact resulted by skipping one of two washings of the garment over its life of the shirt  treated with Polygiene StayFresh technology.

Polygiene brand partners range from Cali surf company O’Neill to big name fashion firms Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. “The tech can engage both worlds of performance and urban lifestyle,” observes Tindale.  

Polygiene recommends brands use odor-control StayFresh for next-to-skin applications and  the company’s Odor Crunch for odor absorption. For example, the inside of a down jacket would use StayFresh to stop odor but an outer layer treated with Odor Crunch would disperse odors that accumulate while standing around a campfire.

“What’s key is that the tech is relevant, it’s simple, it’s democratic and it works,” Tindale surmises.

Filling a Membrane Gap

“Maintaining performance is our goal in this category,” said Chad Kelly, eVent fabrics president. The company’s new Alpine ST leans into tech with a high-performance membrane designed for cold and extreme weather conditions. The Alpine ST modified membrane is PFAS-free yet offers a product with a high water column, a good hand and lightweight construction that fills the gap in the marketplace for hardcore applications.

“Our intention with Alpine ST was to service dedicated alpinists. Historically eVent is a PTFE company and we know from all the different tech out there, that the sustainable solutions available so far, that performance-wise they just don’t meet the level of our performance standards for harder core users,” said Kelly. “If you want the high water level column protection something has to give.” Kelly notes that “in our give and take analysis, we made sure we didn’t leave that pinnacle product unattended while we were focused on our BIO product, which works great but is more general for multi-use applications with stretch and comfort.” (eVentBIO launched in 2020.)

As the conversation in the industry has been less about tech and more about the laminate package, focus on highly functional product has become diluted. But Kelly believes customers are looking for all solutions and not resigned to giving up technical functionality because their brands are heavily tied to performance.  

eVent’s Alpine ST has a 20 meter water column. Where that number becomes relevant, according to Kelly, is that if you start high, and over five years use that garment often in tough conditions it will retain reliable waterproofness, better than if you start at a lower point. This ties back to sustainability. “Sustainable products out now are very good, and we believe in our eVentBIO as waterproof for most applications, but if you’re on an extended hike or climb or whatever and waterproof protection is critical, that’s where we aim.”

Senchi designs Merlin Alpha 120 Hoodie with zipper and pocket.

Cool It

It’s a fact that every company needs a sustainability story in 2023. And every active/outdoor brand today needs a sustainability story to sell. The hitch, according to Kolb, is that consumers today are not necessarily willing to pay for brands being good stewards of the earth. “However, technology is a different story,” says Kolb. “Technology is something consumers can feel, touch and experience. That’s when consumers will open their wallets.”

“Consumers are willing to pay for functionality when it really makes a difference.” Kolb adds.

Brrr’s cooling fabrications are finding traction in the market and with investors. In June the Atlanta-based company closed a $6.3M round of Series B capital. The transaction includes a strategic investment from renowned designer and former founder of Nautica, David Chu, who will join the brrr Board of Directors and will partner with brrr to create new fabrics.  

Kolb describes this new relationship and investment as a “global launch pad.” She explains, “brrr has grown the most in the U.S. and to some extent the same in Europe, this investment and partnership will benefit brrr globally by penetrating new regions that are in David’s wheelhouse.”

Chu will take brrr’s bread and butter fabrics to his manufacturing division in China and produce a line of co-branded fabric created for the Asia Pacific region under the label Nobitek/brrr. Kolb hopes to have Nobitek/brrr fabrics to show at the Functional Fabric Fair in New York City this summer.

Kolb states, “David recognized brrr’s potential as having an authentic technology for today’s marketplace. He saw the opportunity as cooling as a modern solution for contemporary performance.”