The North Face’s DNA is rooted in nature. Its iconic logo—an homage to the granite Half Dome in Yosemite Natural Park—is considered a badge of honor to athletes like climber Alex Honnold, who famously scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes in the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo.
However, the 50-year-old company has been challenged by another phenomenon: massive urbanization.
At WWD’s Men’s Style event in New York City last week, Tim Bantle, The North Face global general manager of lifestyle, explained how the brand is stepping up to the challenge through nostalgic collections and designer collaborations.
“More people live in cities now,” he said. “And the ecosystems and environments of cities have become essentially worlds on their own—places for exploration, places for opportunity.”
As a result, urbanization has led The North Face to fine-tune its messaging to consumers. Rather than create all of its product stories around the outdoors, Bantle said The North Face is “threading the needle” between its DNA from the mountains and its growing city-dwelling consumer base by positioning the brand around exploration as a mindset more than just a physical activity.
“It’s more than going to the top of Everest,” he said. “It’s going to the biggest city in the world and engaging in a community.”
Thinking like a streetwear brand
Streetwear, and the category’s panache for nostalgic designs, serves as a roadmap for The North Face as it aims to connect with urbanites. And fortunately for The North Face, it has the archive and authenticity that the current throwback trend requires.
“We had things that have been essentially in the vault for 20 years that a whole generation has never seen,” Bantle said. “And we’ve made it new by building them with their original intention and relaunching them.”
In 2018, the brand launched The New Explorer collection, a millennial-focused line of outerwear based on pieces from the ’90s like the Nuptse puffer coat, the lightweight Thermoball jacket and the Apex Flex jacket. “In one year, this historic product that was in everyone’s closet, that everyone remembered so fondly from the ’90s, became our no. 1 product in the company after a 20-year hiatus,” Bantle said.
And as the brand gets more comfortable living in these two worlds—lifestyle and outdoor—The North Face is finding new opportunities through collaborations, including its long-time partnership with Supreme.
The North Face has “quietly” collaborated with the streetwear label for a decade, working on three drops a year, which Bantle pointed out sell out in 90 seconds. “There’s a collector’s mentality around this part of our business and that’s really powerful,” he said.
While a connection to Supreme arguably gives any brand instant streetwear credibility, The North Face has been strategically choosy about why it partners with another brand. “In a collaboration, we try to take one core piece of equity, work with a great designer and have it collide into something that didn’t exist before,” Bantle said.
Junya Watanabe for Comme de Garcons pulled this off when he completely reinvented The North Face’s Base Camp duffel bag into a jacket. The collaboration also brought The North Face to another type of new territory, Paris Fashion Week, which Bantle said was a monumental moment for the brand.
A collaboration with Sacai followed, resulting in a unisex fishtail long parka that allowed the brand to bend rules of gender identity in its designs. And soon thereafter, The North Face teamed the Japanese women’s brand Hyke, a move that Bentle said helped reinvigorate the brand’s women’s business.
“By being open to exploration on the men’s side of the business through collaboration, it has started to create opportunity for women’s that we didn’t really anticipate when we started but has been discovered along the way,” he explained.
Collaborations will continue to be important to The North Face’s brand-building strategy. However, Bantle said the company is reserving itself to three or four collaborations a year. He added, “Our goal is to never let them become such a meaningful part of the business that we can’t live without them.”