Patagonia and The North Face: saving the world- one puffer jacket at a time

The Long Read: The retail giants are not only vying to sell outdoor gear the objective is rivals in the tournament to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the urban masses

On the night of his 30 th birthday, after a few drinks, Dean Karnazes decided that he would celebrate by running all the route from San Francisco down the coast to the town of Half Moon Bay, a distance of 30 miles. So began a career as an endurance runner. He has operated 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days in all 50 nations, and taken part in such extreme competitors as a marathon to the South Pole and a 135 -mile race through Death Valley, one of the most wonderful places on Earth. Karnazes once ran 350 miles in 81 hours and 44 minutes, without stopping to sleep. His account of his accomplishments of distance running, Ultramarathon Man, is a bestseller. Karnazess superhuman exertions are sponsored by The North Face, the company that construct the kit he wears in his coaching videos.

The North Face, a Bay Area-based outdoor clothing manufacturer, sells garments and gear for climbing, backpacking, operating, and skiing. Its stores are decorated with huge photographs of people climbing icy peaks and running through grasslands. Central to the brands ethos are the professional athletes it sponsors, people not widely known but celebrated in their fields names such as Karnazes and Pete Athans, who has climbed Everest seven days. The North Face sells the idea of escapade of pushing limits whether operating long distances, climbing an untried rockface, or sleeping outside at sub-zero temperatures. Its tagline is never stop exploring.( We have actually been approached with partnerships about spacesuits to Mars and things like that, one publicist told me lately .)

This canny marketing of adventure has stimulated The North Face the dominant player in a booming outdoor-wear marketplace a$ 4bn industry in the US alone. And its closest rival in the competition to sell the thrill of the wilderness to the masses may be a company whose origins and history are tightly intertwined with its own: Patagonia.

If The North Face aims to appeal to the overachieving weekend warrior, Patagonia is for the slightly more mellow soul who wants to soak up the fresh air and enjoy the view as he ascends a craggy mountain. The companys ethos is encapsulated in Let My People Go Surfing, the memoir-cum-management classic about Patagonia, by the companys founder Yvon Chouinard reissued last year in a 10 th-anniversary edition, with a new introduction by Naomi Klein. The volume contains lavish colour pictures of people in genial communion with nature. To browse the book is to dive into a world of life-affirming outdoor accomplishments followed by nights around the fire, swapping heroic tales.

Unlike other billion-dollar athletics brands, neither company sells balls or at-bats. They do not cater to squad sports. They are, above all, selling the allure of the great outdoors, offering their clients technically advanced gear for running off into the wilds with a friend or two.( Or, if “youd prefer”, alone: the cover of the winter 2016 Patagonia catalogue features a man on a motorbike carrying a pair of skis under one limb smiling at a squirrel as it intersects the road .)

Both companies understand that the appeal of endurance athletics has something to do with acquiring kit that boasts the most advanced technology. For genuine escapade, their marketing connotes, you need top-quality gear. And top-quality gear designed to withstand the harshest conditions and last a lifetime does not is cheap. You can buy an Inferno sleeping bag from The North Face that will, for $729( 593 ), keep you warm in temperatures as cold as -4 0C. For $529( 430 ), you can get a neoprene-free, natural rubber, hooded wetsuit from Patagonia for use in water temperatures down to 0C.

Both companies also understand that the largest market for their products is not explorers stocking up for Arctic expeditions. The real fund comes from selling products designed for hardcore outdoor escapade to urban those clients who result relatively unadventurous lives. For the most component, people wear North Face and Patagonia gear while doing everyday things: cycling, shopping, strolling the dog. You can take a backpack to school but you feel like youre in Yosemite merely because it tells North Face, Dean Karnazes told me one afternoon in San Francisco. I think that aspirational component is really big.

Its a sales pitch that has yielded big gains. The North Face reported annual revenue of $2.3 bn last year, with 200 stores around the world. Patagonia is smaller, but growing more rapidly. The company had sales of $800 m in 2016, twice as much as in 2010, and has 29 standalone stores in the US, 23 in Japan, and others in places such as Chamonix, the French ski resort.

While The North Face sells $5,500( 4,480) two-metre tents and Patagonia sells $629 waders for fly angling, many of the more popular products for both companies are everyday wear: waterproofed anoraks, leggings, fleeces, and, most important of all, puffer jackets. Everyone is trying to reinvent and reinterpret the black puffy coat, said Jeff Crook, the chief product policeman at Mountain Equipment Co-Op, an outdoor department store that has 20 stores across Canada, whether it spends most of such time on the mountain peak or at the bus stop.

The flagship coats for both companies are the product of decades of technological refinement to induce them increasingly warm, durable, and light. The most advanced models today have been engineered to solve the problem of how to insulate the wearer against cold and wet while remaining breathable so you dont overheat while youre scaling that cliff face. At Patagonia, there is the Nano-Air ($ 249; 180 in the UK ), a quilted, but not very puffy, water resistant jacket that uses a trademarked synthetic insulation that the company described as revolutionary upon its release in 2014. The North Face Thermoball ($ 199; 150) has its own proprietary synthetic insulation, which use clusters of fibre to trap heat in a manner that mimics down. Both coats are fit for a mountaineering expedition, but are each more likely to be bought to keep warm while taking the kids to the park.

Neither company regards the other as a rival at the least not publicly. But aside from the fact they sell the same various kinds of stuff to the same kind of customers( urban, affluent ), the two companies have quite a bit of shared history. Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face, and Yvon Chouinard were lifelong friends and friends in adventure. Both humen started out making their own specialist equipment; both went on to observed companies selling outdoor wear; both felt distinctly uncomfortable doing office tasks, and still more uncomfortable running companies.

Ive been a businessman for nearly 60 years, Chouinard writes in the introduction to Let My People Go Surfing. Its as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit being an alcoholic or lawyer. And together, while promoting the glories of exploring the unspoiled wilderness, both men have been central to the mass popularisation of outdoor activities such as hiking and climbing, which may, in turn, construct nature a little less unspoiled.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intent of using it professionally isnt exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah dont use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than simply being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, escapade, exploration ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your fund and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, the objective is selling a lot more jackets. In other terms, both companies are selling stuff in part by looks a lot like theyre not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff and fills the world with more and more stuff.

You might call this the authenticity problem. And for all their similarities, the two companies are taking radically different approaches to solving it.


Doug Tompkins and Yvon Choiunar d were the kind of outcast teens who found a home in the great outdoors. Both humen became passionate about climbing and surfing in the American west in the middle of the last century. Back in the 1950 s and 60 s, climbing was an unusual athletic with just a small group of renegades who were, you know, misfits, said Rick Ridgeway, an accomplished mountaineer and adventurer.( Rolling Stone magazine once called him The Real Indiana Jones .) An old friend of both Tompkins and Choiunard, he is now vice president for public involvement at Patagonia.

Both The North Face and Patagonia have their roots in investigating the sort of remote places about which guidebooks had not been written. In those days, getting back to uncorrupted nature and read Thoreau by the campfire slotted in well with the nascent counterculture. We took special pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value in society, Chouinard wrote in Let My People Go Surfing.

Tompkins opened the first The North Face retail store selling mountaineering equipment in the North Beach neighbourhood of San Francisco in 1966. The Grateful Dead played during the opening, and there was a style reveal featuring Joan Baez and her sister, the late vocalist and activist Mimi Faria.

In Southern California, Chouinard, who was among the innovators of what has since become known as the golden age of Yosemite climbing, had begun making his own equipment in the late 1950 s. At first, he created and forged reusable steel pitons that were hammered into stone faces and then removed. Then, to help preserve climbing routes from disfigurement, Chouinard changed to aluminium chocks that could be wedged in by hand and did not leave a trace behind. The aspiration at the time was to do as little injury as possible as the Sierra climber Doug Robinson set it: Organic climbing for the natural man.

The two men met in the mid-6 0s when Tompkins began to distribute Chouinards equipment through The North Face. Early in their friendship, a white-water kayaking journey together in California conclude with Chouinard getting 15 sews in his face. And in 1968 the two drove a Ford Econoline van from Ventura, California, to the remote region of Chile and Argentina named Patagonia.

That same year, Tompkins sold his stake in The North Face for $50,000, and with his then spouse, Susie, founded the San Francisco-based casualwear brand Esprit, whose hip version of sportswear became synonymous with 1980 s style. After reading Bill Devalls environmental call to limbs Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered in the 1980 s, Tompkins decided to leave the apparel business and devote himself full time to saving the environment. By the time Esprit was sold in 1990, its annual marketings were estimated to be$ 1bn.

The
The opening of the first North Face store in San Francisco, 1966. Photograph: Suki HIll/ The North Face

Chouinard had also branched out from mountaineering equipment. He had begun to import climbing wear, for sale, and in 1973, founded a new company named Patagonia. One of his earliest employees was Kris McDivitt, a downhill ski-racer. She became general manager and then CEO of Patagonia, before she met Doug Tompkins, who was then divorced.They married in 1993, trade union organizations of sorts between the two companies. Together the couple eventually bought 2.2 m acres in Patagonia to conserve and live on full-time. They planned to protect this tract of wilderness, use the fortune he made from fuelling people ambitions to explore the outdoors.

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If Tompkinss response to his dawning realisation that the apparel industry was injury the environment was to sell his business and take direct action to save the Earth, then Chouinard, by contrast, decided to keep his company in private hands and run it in a way that might minimise environmental damage a nearly impossible undertaking that seems to weigh very heavily on him. Evil always wins if we do nothing, he writes in Let My People Go Surfing.

The challenge of taking the moral high ground while still making and selling things is something that Rick Ridgeway also thinks about a great deal. Our mission is to build the best product, causing no unnecessary harm, then that second part of our mission is basically saying that weve got to do less bad, he said. Were going to make our product with the smallest footprint possible, but it is a footprint.

For both men who would not disagree with the radical environmentalist Edward Abbeys famous statement that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell operating an ethical business is an almost impossible challenge, if not a contradiction. Populating the world with more stuff that will eventually get thrown away is bad for the planet; the popularising of outdoor culture of all sorts is bad for specific places of natural beauty, which risk being overrun with people; and finally and most difficult the entire ethos of growth and profit and consumption is unsustainable for human beings and the health of the planet.

Jill Dumain, the director of environment strategy, who has been at Patagonia for more than 27 years, can easily listing all the ways the company is trying to do the right thing, among them government decisions, in the 1990 s, to use merely organic cotton, and in 2013 to switch to torture-free goose down.( The North Face made the same move in 2014.) It has tried to replace as many of its synthetic materials as possible with recycled ones, although find recycled zippers and buttons has been a struggle. Socially, it is committed to fair trade in its furnish chain, in the mills and sewing mills it works with. This has led to the company splitting up with suppliers who were not willing or able to build the changes it demanded. These are the sorts of the issues that Patagonia has chosen to explore to an virtually obsessive degree. The notion of businesses being transparent is wholly overused but, in Patagonias case, it is fitting.

Over time, Chouinard and Ridgeway ripened into their roles as aging renegades: they appear as delightfully cranky old friends in a 2010 documentary, 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless, which follows a young writer and photographer as he attempts to retrace their now-legendary 1968 journey from California to Chile.

Their adventures continued into December of 2015, when Chouinard, Ridgeway, Tompkins, and three other friends went on a apparently gentle five-day kayaking trip to southern Chile. Ridgeway, who is 67, and Tompkins, 72, shared a kayak and it capsized in heavy waves in 4C water. The six humen were rescued via patrol boat and helicopter but Tompkins suffered from severe hypothermia. He died in a hospital that night.

Doug had a visceral aversion for authority and always relished breaking the rules, Chouinard wrote. It was a heartfelt tribute to his old friend. In his book, Chouinard comes off as a grumpy, seasoned old-timer, constantly bemoaning the lack of credibility in everyone, everywhere. Yvon calls himself the biggest pessimist in the world, tells Dumain.

Doug
Doug Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face. Photograph: Reuters

Chouinard and his wife Malinda divide their time between Ventura and their long-time home in Jackson Hole, a mountain resort town in Wyoming now known as a playground for the super-rich Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock and Dick Cheney all have homes there.

Patagonia employees talk about Chouinard with the love usually reserved for cult leaders, but with a tone that suggests that they also view him as a somewhat mercurial genius. He expends a lot of time outdoors like he always has, tells Rose Marciano, Patagonias CEO, a lot of time angling, or teaching kids how to fish. When I called, he was always off somewhere; no one seemed to know quite where.

By maintaining Patagonia as a privately owned business, Chouinard has been able to run it in such a way that stays true to his values .( Patagonia is organised as a for-profit company, known as a B-Corp, with certification for its social and ecological commitment .) When the company becomes the fatted calf, its selling off a profit, and its resources and considers are often ravaged and broken apart, leading to the disruption of household ties and the long-term health of local economies, he writes in Let My People Go Surfing. When you get away from the idea that a company is produced to be sold to the highest bidder in the shortest quantity of hour, all future decisions in the company are affected.

Patagonias challengers, The North Face included, are largely public companies driven by shareholders. The mission and the values of Patagonia have never been really about that, tells Marciano. Theyve been about how much influence we can have on preserving and conserving the wild places that we love and play in, and how much influence we are capable of have as a business to help change the model.

But, while Tompkins left business altogether to save the wilderness, Chouinard seems like a man who will never stop being conflicted about what operating a successful business necessitates. Patagonia will never are totally socially responsible, he has written. It will never make a totally sustainable non-damaging product. But it is committed to trying.


Patagonias headquarters are in Ventura, a small beach town in Southern California in between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. The builds occupy a 5.5 -acre campus and are painted in a signature buttery ochre colour used in most of the Patagonia retail stores around the world. Theres a large playground for the onsite creche an employee benefit so rare in the US that Patagonia published a book last summer about its child-friendly philosophy. The company prides itself in hiring relatively few people but looking after them all.

There is something about being on the Patagonia campus that feels like being in a Scandinavian country albeit one with banana plants, blooming agaves and jacaranda trees. There are solar panels, heaps of surfboards for employees to use, and a auto with a licence plate that reads BUMKIN. Offices have bean bags and stability balls to sit on, and the canteen serves organic kale blackberry salad. Then theres the shed that originally housed Chouinards blacksmithing workshop, where he made climbing gear. It now feels a bit like a museum piece, frozen in the 1970 s, but apparently Chouinard still tinkers around in it from time to time.

The campus is the defining for many ostentatious efforts to do good. One day I was strolling down the steps and there were pieces of newspaper all over the sidewalks, and they all had arrows[ on them] and said, Careful. Watch out. Butterfly chrysalis, Dean Carter, the vice president of human resources, told me.

If this conspicuous altruism is grating to some people, they do not work at Patagonia. Still, the company says that it does not only recruit environmentally conscious do-gooders. If we picked people who fit a specific mould, it could feel really culty, Carter told. But were just looking for threads; were not looking for the entire quilt. Were go looking for threads of caring for the environment, threads of caring about the outdoors, and threads of caring about families, collaborating, working.

In a not-necessarily-cultish style, a lot of Patagonia employees go on to marry other Patagonia employees, and family members often work there too. Carters own daughter is a receptionist.

Yvon
Yvon Chouinard in his workshop at the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California. Photo: Victoria Sayer Pearson/ AP

Companies wishing to improve their public image declined by to see if a little ethical stardust will rub off on them. Coca-Cola flew in a team from South Africa. There was even a visit from Chick-Fil-A, the US fast food chain famous for taking a public stance against same-sex wedding in 2012. I registered my amaze. Exactly! And I have a partner. So they asked me if they could come. I was kind of like, Are you sure? Carter tells. And obviously we dont share their values. But they have their very concrete culture that theyre living. And they were really sweet and kind.

When Neil Blumenthal, co-founder of the fashionable eyewear startup Warby Parker, came to visit, he was impressed by how much work went into research and developing he mentioned the route Patagonia tests its raincoats with waters of various alkalinity to mimic rain in all parts of the world. But what really struck him, he told, was the venue for his meeting with two Patagonia executives: Instead of taking the session in a conference room, we took a stroll to the beach. For me it was pretty special; for them it was quite ordinary.

Ridgeway whose job as vice president of public involvement is to represent the company, whether at conferences or universities, or to executives who come to the Ventura headquarters described the process of fulfilling guests: They go on a tour, we walk around and talk about the values and how we live the values. Usually we get some local organically grown food and we answer questions and share a tale, Ridgeway told me. And then we are curious what their tale is.

Ridgeway can sometimes voiced a little weary at having to explain to foreigners a way of life that comes quite naturally to him. We dont want to hold ourselves up in some arrogant exclusivity, Ridgeway said, but then described the kind of customer that Patagonia does not necessarily want to invite under our umbrella. Namely, people who want to climb Mount Everest for bragging rights the kind of affluent adventurers, drew attention to climbing in part by Patagonia, whose impact Chouinard now regrets so much. Person who has paid $100,000 for a guided climbing where the sherpas set the road in and risked “peoples lives” fixing the lines and carried all your stuff up for you and positioned your oxygen balls so you could go up and come back and say you climbed Everest. That doesnt work for us, Ridgeway tells. And we dont mind saying it publicly.

In its pursuit of authenticity, Patagonia tries to avoid malls, and only takes over spaces that mean something to the community.( One of its four Manhattan stores is located on the Bowery, next to the former location of the punk club CBGB, which is now a John Varvatos boutique .) It prides itself on pushing up against the limits of how ethical a company can be while actually still selling things: quality goods, ethical labour and manufacturing , no debt, even a taxation strategy, according to Chouinards book, to pay our fair share and not a penny more.

The company is hyper-aware of these contradictions, perhaps to the point of tying itself in knots. In 2011, on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year in the US, Patagonia ran an ad featuring a photo of a plush blue fleece, and copy that read DONT BUY THIS JACKET. The advert invited customers to make a commitment to reduce what they buy, repair their gear and recycle the stuff they no longer require.( Patagonias campus in Reno, Nevada houses the largest garment mend facility in North America .) But it had the opposite impact: Patagonias Black Friday sales increased by 30% over the previous year. The anti-sales message, as they might have expected, stimulated consumers feel better about buying more.

Patagonias
Patagonias Dont Buy This Jacket advert. Photograph: PR

The companys attempts to expand into new marketplaces have a similar blend of moral commitment and financial savvy. In 2013, it launched a venture money to invest in environmentally and socially responsible for-profit startups. In 2012, the company launched a food line named Patagonia Provisions, which includes buffalo jerky, smoked wild Sockeye salmon and, beginning last October, a brew constructed with a grain called kernza, which can be grown year-round. The target marketplace is concerned mamas that wishes to make sure theyre devoting their kids organic , non-GMO food, Rose Marciano told me. The new food division, she added, has won the company a whole new set of customers.


At the headquarters of The North Face in Alameda only across the bay from San Francisco there is a similar preoccupation with being green and avoiding trash. During a visit last summertime, I had a lunch of sustainably created salmon with Todd Spaletto, who became president of the company in 2011. The building where we dined was insulated with recycled blue jeans, and there were composting bins, solar panels and free charging stations for electric cars. One house housed a vast region dedicated to repairing clothes under the companys lifetime warranty. As we eat, a team out on the lawn was testing out the set-up of a large, complicated-looking hexagonal tent.

A visitor to The North Face campus encounters the same sporty feeling as at Patagonia HQ but instead of Patagonias crunchy soul surfer vibe, here there is an edge of upper-class athleticism, whether in the form of employees doing bootcamp workouts and agility drills in the well-equipped gym, or a casual mention that Dean Karnazes was there simply the other day, resulting a group run along the water.

One of my first weeks on the job, I was talking to somebody and they were like, What are you doing this weekend? Spaletto recalled, smiling. I was like, Im pretty excited, Im running a half-marathon. And they were like and here he adopted a tone set aside for motivating small children Thats great, you gotta start somewhere!

Lately The North Face has been focusing more and more on a younger, casual client whose main interest in hiking is the part where they get to drink beer around a campfire. Why does the youthful millennial consumer go outdoors? Spaletto asked. They value one thing above all else. Its this whole idea of these genuine experiential moments that you share with your friends.

These youthful consumers may even choose they can afford to skip the hike and go straight to the beer. But as The North Face positions itself as a way brand as much as an outdoor wear company, a new dilemma develops. The casual customer is describe both to style and to the authenticity of owning real technical gear but if the gear itself announces its technical utility too loudly, it ceases to be fashionable.

The outdoor industry has prided itself on showing the technology on the outside seams sealed, zippers videotapeed. That is very much core to this industry, everybody does it, told Sumie Scott, the senior product director for mountain culture at The North Face. But the more youthful consumer wants hidden technology. So thats current challenges, how do you get them to know that technology exists?

What The North Face tries to push is this high, high performance extremity, said Cathy Begien, who worked in visual merchandising at The North Face a decade ago, and had now been gone on to work at Prada, Opening Ceremony, and Warby Parker. They would say, Cathy use Everest imagery or rock climbing. But Im in a mall and people are pushing strollers around at 8am. I dont think they care about whether an alpinist would want this, or an ultra-marathoner, Begien remembered. Holiday season was the only period I didnt have to talk about mountain climbing or water rafting and could just indicate a bunch of jackets in a way the typical mall consumer can understand: this one is gonna keep you warm, this one is gonna maintain you warmer, this one is gonna maintain you warmest.

The high cost of North Face gear generates high expectations: You get a fairly affluent client who expects meticulous service. You have to behave as though youre working at a Vuitton or a Gucci, said Caitlin Kelly, a journalist who took a chore at a North Face outlet in suburban New York after losing her reporting task during the 2008 recession, and wrote a volume, titled Malled, about the experience. It was a long, narrow store. And when you walked in, half the store was manner, half was Lets climb Everest. It was massively confusing to the shopper.

The North Face wants to do style and adventure. It has collaborated on slippers and puffer jackets with Supreme, the skateboarding brand with a cult following.( Drake wore a coat from the collection in the video for his 2011 single The Motto .) The tendency among makers of serious technical gear is for designs that dont look like you are about to climb to Camp 4 on Everest while at the same time, couture designers are increasingly showing items inspired by authentic outdoor gear. Patrik Ervell, Steven Alan and Louis Vuitton have all designed fleece jackets that appear to be a riff on Patagonias Retro-X; puffer jackets have started to appear on the coverings of style magazines, thanks in part to Balenciagas $3,000 parkas.

The desire to broadcast a sense of escapade all there is looking good may have something to do with the biggest tendency in athletic gear in recent years: the rise of athleisure clothes that indicate, rather than insist on, performance, designed to transition from workout to sofa. Leggings whether made byThe Gap or Alexander Wang are the most popular kind of sporting loungewear( or is it lounging sportswear ), having replaced denim as the preferred casual wear for women. The UK sportswear marketplace will outstrip 8bn by 2020, fuelled by the rise of athleisure. In addition to gear for high-altitude camping and open-water diving, both The North Face and Patagonia sell leggings and sweatpants and T-shirts and all manner of gear best suited for hanging out.

But for The North Face, exerting feels like an urban moral imperative, much as recycling does at Patagonia a duty to care for oneself in tandem with caring about nature. While The North Face nominally shares the same ethos as Patagonia in terms of protecting the planet, its status as a publicly traded company means it has to maximise gains, which goes with the companys type-A branding you are not going to see any North Face slow-growth manifesto or Dont Buy This Jacket ads. In fact, after The North Face announced in October that its third-quarter revenue had fallen 1 %, Spaletto, my summertime lunch companion, softly departed the company.

If the risk for Patagonia is to be seen just like any other company one that cares as much about gains as the environment then the comparable danger for The North Face is to be associated with suburban parents and college students whose greatest trek is across the quad, rather than trailrunners, mountain climbers and the occasional well-dressed rapper. It has to remain authentic enough to represent authenticity for the casual customer, without being so authentic that those people stop buying.


North Face has the calamity of being east-coast prep-school girls wearing black puffers and Uggs, says Matt Langer a cyclist, New Mexico resident and Patagonia customer. Hes a friend of a friend whose Instagram looks like a real-life recreation of the Patagonia catalogue, complete with fly-fishing, long-distance mountain biking, an adorable dog and waterfalls. Patagonias marketing is place on, he tells, a bit sheepishly. I am a bearded white guy drinking beer around the campfire.

For the committed outdoorsman who styles himself a rugged individualist, untouched by the whims of manner theres an ambivalence at being so accurately cast. That stereotype, tells Josh Contois, who I fulfilled on a group hiking trip in California last year, is to be a dirtbag and live frugally and also wear a $250 jacket.( Outside Magazine once called Chouinard King of the Dirtbags .) Both Contois and Langer wear Patagonia in a way that would construct Chouinard smile, even though much of their actual equipment comes from niche brands. For the real dirtbag, who now regards The North Face somewhat like McDonalds or Wal-Mart, even Patagonia has mostly sold out to the urban yuppie.

The true adventurer instead buys even more expensive, precious, and specialized gear from tiny companies owned and operated by fellow mountaineers in outdoor meccas such as Boulder, Colorado or Bend, Oregon.

Lets be honest, Patagonia appeals to I dont wishes to sound like a smartass but people driving Range Rover who shop at Whole Foods, said Doug Heinrich, an executive at the Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment Chouinards original climbing equipment company, which was renamed after he sold it to an employee in the 1980 s. That doesnt mean they dont appeal to core climbers, but were going to appeal to that hardcore climber more than Patagonia would.

On the other aim of the spectrum, there is another crop of companies who appeal to the super-rich( or design fetishists) by trying to out-fancy Patagonia and The North Face on both technological sophistication and price. The small Canadian brand Arcteryx creates a high-end line called Veilance, which promises minimalist style with total performance, and appears as if Prada constructed high-tech outdoor gear, with costs to match. Canada Goose, whose Arctic luxury apparel is worn by scientists at the South Pole, offers a Kensington Parka priced at 850.

There is something undeniably alluring about the lengthy descriptions of the technological merits of all this cutting-edge gear: the insulation that traps air for reduced heat loss and increased warmth, the underarm vents, the wrist accessory pocket, the reminder that your jacket is coming with a lifetime warranty, even if it isnt destined to leave the borough of Manhattan. That, after all, was always the bedrock of high fashion people justified the prices of a cashmere sweater or a leather coat because what they bought was well constructed, beautifully crafted, and lasted for ever.

This may be what appeals to such customers as the man who lately came into the San Francisco North Face store and bought a Himalayan suit, which is filled with goose down and costs $1,000.

The marketings copy describes the item thus: Technical, insulated full-body suit for climbing 8,000 -metre peaks, the Himalayan Suit is a necessity for athletes aiming to reach the top of the world. It looks like a yellow and black sleeping bag with arms and legs and, according to the catalogue, includes critical features based on Conrad Ankers feedback and proven on Mount Everest, where the athlete squad successfully reached summit. The staff at The North Face store asked the customer where he was planning on going with his Himalayan suit. Nowhere, he said. He was just buying it because it was cool.

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