Outdoor Performance Apparel Slims Down, Techs Up and Goes Green.
By Courtney Holden
Next summer’s outdoor performance apparel is stretching the boundaries of the category’s definition. Versatility is vital whether the garment is constructed for fluctuating temperatures, varying precipitation conditions or a full range of active pursuits.
“The type of activity and the weather does not always sync with the product cycle at retail,” said Christine Westermark, Helly Hansen’s mountain category managing director. “Consumers may need a down jacket in May or a super-light softshell jacket in September. Rethinking assortments at retail against changing consumer needs is going to be key.”
As we’ve seen in other sectors outside the active-lifestyle industry, consumers are increasingly buying in the moment rather than preparing ahead for the season. Mobile apps such as Uber and Yelp have created expectations of instant availability and gratification.
As you wander the aisles of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, keep an eye out for new innovations in lightweight, barely-there materials and insulations that excel at both heat management and breathability. Performance apparel also takes a many-faceted approach, as companies manufacture garments adaptable for a wide range of environments. And then, of course, there’s the continued push for more earth-friendly fabrications and production processes.
“Consumers don’t necessarily want to know all of the minutiae,” said Jason Duncan, senior director of product for Outdoor Research. “They just want assurance that you are actively partnering with your supply chain to find sustainable solutions.”
The quest to minimize ounces is never-ending, and while durability is still a priority, consumers continue to gravitate toward thin and breezy styles that not only promote breathability but also bring an air of summer style.
“The consumer doesn’t want distraction. They want the gear to work with them,” said Jordan Wand, vice president of outdoor apparel and accessories, Under Armour. “They don’t want to feel like their gear is weighing them down.” This summer, the brand offers “stretch without excess” in its new Microthread fabric technology. Incorporating elasticity without water-absorbing fibers like spandex or lycra, the fabric is lighter with faster drying time.
Likewise, textile manufacturer Bemis introduced Flowfree technology, an adhesive with engineered perforations that is 21 percent lighter than traditional sewn waistbands — with an added bonus of 50 percent more stretch than solid film to promote increased airflow.
Notably, losing grams no longer comes at the cost of durability, thanks to heavy-duty yet ultra-lightweight fabrics like Pertex Endurance, Pertex Quantum and Toray Airstretch ripstop. Adidas Outdoor’s slim-fitting and barely-there men’s Terrex Agravic Short clocks in at just 2.3 ounces thanks to Pertex’s Equilibrium fabric. Terramar Sports’ Women’s Microcool Refresh Scoop Tee incorporates a flat yarn — which offers more surface area to draw heat away from the skin’s surface — embedded with nano-mineral particles to further enhance heat absorption and rated at UPF 50+.
Body-mapping, zoning or hybrid design (brands all have names for the process) also decreases overall weight by dispersing it selectively. For example, often heavyweight, waterproof material doesn’t have to run through the entire garment — a designer may strategically include it on top of the hood, in the shoulders or along the chest, leaving room for lighter, more breathable materials elsewhere in the garment.
Ready for Anything
More and more, technical apparel is expected to transcend the boundaries of function and perform effectively in a wide range of outdoor environments.
The trend is attributed to yoga pants. “Women started taking this great pant [outdoors],” said Under Armour’s Wand. “It was great for doing yoga, but [you] could do so much more with it. That’s where it started.”
This summer, brands are introducing sportswear equally equipped for trail running, mountain bike riding or bouldering. After all, consumers are participating in all of these activities, not just one. “Nobody is saying, ‘I’m a climber, or ‘I’m a trail runner.’ They’re doing everything,” Wand added. “There’s a lot of evidence that consumers are doing multiple things, and they’re not looking for gear that’s specialized in one end use.”
The trend is driven in part by practicality — there’s a financial burden, and arguably a waste of financial resources, to having multiple different items with the same core purpose.
There’s also a general movement toward having less. With 80 percent of the U.S. population residing in urban areas, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, many people are living in far less square footage, which translates to less storage space for gear. And then there’s the popularity of the “live simply” mindset. “People don’t want to look in their closet and feel like they’re overdoing it,” said Woody Blackford, vice president of design and innovation for Columbia.
And how are companies achieving these multi-purpose product lines? The look is less sport-specific; shoulders, elbows and knees have greater mobility and the garment is built for a wider range of weather conditions.
An extension of the movement toward apparel suitable for multi-sport athletes is the trail-to-town trend. “Styles need to look good all day to travel between everyone’s busy lives,” said Jennifer Zollars, Mountain Hardwear’s senior product line manager for men and women’s sportswear. “People are not changing ‘into’ a UPF wicking shirt for just camping and hiking. That shirt needs to go out to dinner and to the office as well.”
Brands achieve this dual look with simple, elegant designs and by adding aesthetic touches like ruching and metal snap buttons. Bright, primary colors often used in pure performance wear are toned down with subtle, heathered hues and herringbone fabrics. But don’t be fooled; technology hides beneath these refined silhouettes. “We use all the same technical fabrics, but a different aesthetic,” said Emelie Ortiz, global brand manager for Pearl Izumi. “They don’t look like the super racy singlet even though they have all of the same features.”
‘One Garment Nirvana’
If your consumers are heading west for a Rocky Mountain vacation, then there’s still room to talk insulation during the spring/summer months. The gist for these seasons? Garments that keep the user comfortably warm coming over the pass while also emphasizing breathability. As a result, “these insulated garments can be worn comfortably across a wide range of temperatures and conditions,” Outdoor Research’s Duncan said. “In the outdoor industry, we have tried to realize ‘one garment Nirvana’ for years. Our approach to active insulation is the closest we have ever been to delivering on that promise for our athletes.”
Originally designed for the U.S. Special Forces, Polartec Alpha shines in the active insulation category. “The whole idea was to make something … [with] maximum warmth, but to still let moisture vapor get out so you didn’t overheat when you were moving at high speed,” said Michael Cattanach, global product director at Polartec. “With Alpha, you’re able to evacuate excess heat and stay comfortable.”
Ventilation is key to preventing an uncomfortable internal environment that leaves an athlete wet and cold from perspiration. Jeff Blakely, general manager of Brooks Range Mountaineering, compared active insulation to a typical down jacket. “If you have that layer [of down] against your skin, it’s great when the wind is blowing and the air isn’t penetrating through it, but it also works the other way around. If you’re doing an activity with a lot of heat building up in that jacket, and you have this barrier of fabric, it’s not letting any heat get away from your body.”
The concept is ideal for active pursuits in the shoulder seasons (especially spring), as well as at high elevations during the summer months. The same theory applies to technical summer rainwear, such as Helly Hansen’s Vanir Heta Jacket, designed to be at home in variable conditions. The jacket features waterproof/windproof technology in key areas where protection from inclement weather is important, while using a highly breathable double-weave softshell fabric where breathability and stretch matter most.
The outdoor industry has spent the past few decades pushing for more eco-friendly fabric technology. In the ’90s, brands started using recycled plastic water bottles to manufacture fleece. Then there was the battle against cruelty to animals. And in the past few years, the active lifestyle industry has put durable water repellent in the crosshairs.
This summer, technical apparel brands are eliminating perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), increasing the amount of recycled content in their products and using plant-based rather than synthetic materials.
Take Columbia Sportswear, which introduced its OutDry Ex Eco Shell. Not only is the jacket’s main fabric made from 21 recycled bottles, it’s also not dyed, which reduces the amount of water used in the dyeing process by 80 percent. The real kicker, however, is that according to Columbia, this is the industry’s first “high-performance” rain jacket made without the use of PFCs. Unlike other PFC-free raincoats, Columbia’s version eliminates wet-out, leaving the wearer dry no matter the conditions.
“If you’re going to go out on any kind of adventure, you’re going to get into some rough weather. You can’t have a product that’s just eco-friendly,” Columbia’s Blackford said. “There’s a demand for having the cake and eating it too.”
Other brands have been pursuing eco-friendly technology as well. PrimaLoft presents its new Gold Insulation Eco, a premium synthetic insulation with 55 percent recycled content. Meanwhile, Bergans of Norway offers Ecodear, a 30 percent plant-based polyester co-developed with Toray. This windproof fabric reduces the amount of petroleum-based materials used in the brand’s apparel.
“The industry as a whole is focused on consumer demand for products made of sustainable materials [with] durability, keeping products out of the landfill for a longer period of time,” said Byron McCann, the brand’s U.S. marketing manager. “Bergans is wholeheartedly supporting that effort by increasing the amount of sustainable fabrics and hardware to reduce its environmental footprint.”
The push to go green and get techy with next year’s summer technical apparel is more than a trend. Rather, it represents a turning of the tide in how active brands think and design.
Photo courtesy Mountain Hardwear