Retro looks at Columbia included anoraks and shackets

Retro looks at Columbia included anoraks and shackets

The outdoor industry is pausing to take a hard look at what it stands for, judging by the products and presentations at the recent Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City. There was as much emphasis on politics, policies and sustainability issues as there was on product at the show, writes Debra Cobb.

The Emerald Expositions show, whose title sponsor is the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) in the US, had an estimated 20,000 attendees with 1,075 exhibitors over its three days.

Hampered by changing consumer habits, retail rationalisation, unpredictable weather and an uncertain political climate, outdoor industry sales in the US totalled US$18.8bn for the 12 months through October 2016, a drop of (1.5%) according to the NPD Group.

Changing priorities

There was as much emphasis on politics and policies as there was on product at the show. A debate over the use of Utah's public lands brought letters from the well-respected founders of Patagonia and Black Diamond, Yves Chouinard and Peter Metcalf, threatening to boycott Outdoor Retailer (OR) in its present location.

"Politicians in the state don't seem to get that the outdoor industry – and their own state economy – depend on access to public lands for recreation," wrote Chouinard.

The industry is also paying more attention to sustainability issues. While sustainable fibres and fabrics continue to make an impact, Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, told a packed audience at the OIA opening breakfast: "Most sustainable attributes are not products."

Makower spoke of the risks involved in ignoring the true costs of natural resources, or illicit materials and labour. He also encouraged brands to do a better job communicating their sustainable values.

"Sustainability storytelling is incredibly complex," he noted. "Most of what companies are doing is not being talked about."

A prime example is down supplier Downlite's new wastewater recovery system that allows Downlite to recycle and reuse up to 99% of the water used to clean and sanitize its down and feather fills.

"We use up to 120,000 gallons of water per day when our three giant washers are in use to ensure high-quality cleaning," revealed Kevin Borgquist, Downlite director of processing/sourcing. "Since the system was installed in October, we've saved about eight million gallons of water."

Downlite to slash water use by millions of gallons

Heritage meets innovation

While there was certainly innovation to be found at the show, the avalanche of new technologies has slowed. The silhouettes, colours and fabrics of the 1980s/90s inspired a resurgence of "shackets" (shirt jackets), anoraks, and snowsport looks – updated with sustainable or performance fibres.

For example, Cordura, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the brand, collaborated with heritage brand Woolrich on its Wool-Dura collection of hunting-inspired apparel; and with Cone Denim to create Cordura selvage denim woven at Cone's historic White Oak mill.

"Cordura brand represents the past, present, and future of outdoor gear – heritage meets innovation," commented Cindy McNaull, global brand and marketing director.

At Polartec, pullovers made from the its iconic PolarFleece were being custom designed and sewn on the show floor, trialling a model for retail customisation that savvy brands will incorporate. Knit from Unifi's Repreve recycled polyester, the PolarFleece reissue paid homage to the 1981 original.

With the phasing out of fluorinated durable water repellents (DWRs), renewable wax finishes on natural fibres are also seeing a comeback, according to Jimmy Campbell, managing director of waxed fabric specialist Halley Stevensons in Dundee, UK. Swedish apparel brand Fjällräven focused on its Greenland wax story for fabrics such as G-1000, a tightly woven canvas of recycled polyester and organic cotton.

At brand level, old school flannel plaids, performance denims, boiled wool knits, brushed fleeces, and structured wools from the likes of Marmot, Toad & Co, Nau, Mountain Khakis and Fjällräven incorporated performance or recycled fibres.

At Columbia Sportswear, colour-blocked anoraks and hybrid jackets combined an 80s vibe with current Columbia technologies such as Omni-Heat thermal reflective.

Pinnacle products

Despite the plethora of lifestyle offerings, a number of highly technical outdoor collections proved that the industry has not lost its focus. With indoor "social climbing" the gateway to the mountain, participation in climbing is up 15.9%, according to NPD.

Brands such as Adidas Terrex, Fjällräven, Blackyak, and newbie MtnLogic offered system dressing from base layer to extreme weather gear, using best-in-class fabrics.

Created by and for mountain guides, MtnLogic is a top-of-the-mountain apparel system using Polartec fabrics. "MtnLogic was developed by guides to first solve their apparel problems, with commercial considerations secondary. It shows how a product-first approach with Polartec can enable the most authentic product creation," said Polartec CEO Gary Smith.

Polartec brings back PolarFleece and launches MtnLogic

Designed by mountaineers, Korean-based Blackyak opened European headquarters in 2014. The award-winning international brand has found success with its juxtaposition of unique design and hard-core performance fabrics, including high-tenacity Cordura nylon, Polartec Alpha, and PrimaLoft Gold Active insulation.

Similarly, Olympic snowboarder Freddie Ansara developed FA Design to meet his needs as an athlete. Made in Canada, the line of snowsport apparel represents "a big jump in innovation," according to Ansara. Using exclusive Japanese face fabric and eVent DValpine waterproof breathable membrane, his sleek Subsonic jacket has articulation, form, and function built into its DNA.

Breathable insulation for active outdoor pursuits is a growing category, including PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Active, with four-way stretch, and 45% post-consumer recycled content; and Polartec's dyeable Alpha Direct, intended for use without a backer.

A positive outlook

The outdoor industry is leading a change in the way that apparel brands relate to consumers; and while this year's journey has been bumpy, most outdoor executives are positive about the industry's trajectory.

"There is always energy when the industry comes together," said Chris Ann Goddard, president at CGPR, a consumer active lifestyle agency working with clients that intersect between outdoor and fashion. "Collectively, we need to shake things up, really engage – we are making progress, and recognise that things need to change – it is an entire mindset that needs a makeover.

What will never change is the heart and soul of where this industry came from – few industries can match that."

OR will expand to three shows in 2018 (January, June and November) as it seeks to align with the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance (GOA) Connect show for specialty retailers, which will move to nearby Sandy, Utah in 2018.