When Holden Outerwear was founded in 2002 by professional snowboarder Mikey LeBlanc and apparel designer Scott Zergebel, the two knew they wanted to create an outdoor brand that stood for something different, both aesthetically and environmentally.
Where most brands in the space were highlighting performance-ready technical features, the founders saw a gap in the market for artfully designed, eco-friendly apparel meant to keep wearers warm in the snow and on the streets.
Eighteen years after the brand launched its first collection out of Oregon’s largest city of Portland, the concept doesn’t seem revelatory. But at the time, Holden’s ethos was an anomaly, Zergebel, the brand’s creative director, told Sourcing Journal.
“Now there’s this marriage between fashion and function,” he said. “In 2002, there wasn’t much of an overlap.”
The brand found its footing with in-the-know outdoor enthusiasts who were looking for warmth and versatility, but dreaded looking like gear heads. The brand flirted with mass-market success, but stopped short of becoming household name.
“Even though there was a lot of interest, the retailers were struggling with where to put us, and e-commerce wasn’t what it is today,” Zergebel said. “We had a pretty quiet existence.”
Following the 2008 recession and the torturous retail landscape that emerged in its wake, Zergebel and LeBlanc sold the company in 2012 to a Seattle investment group. Holden’s new proprietors attempted to push the brand deeper into the outdoor space, solidifying its performance play.
But in a crowded field dominated by stalwarts like The North Face and Patagonia, the new identity failed to gain traction. An infusion of capital meant to propel the brand forward ended up only broadening—and flattening—its once unique line.
Rather than allowing Holden to fade into obscurity, the investors approached Zergebel with an offer.
“They called me one day and said, ‘Do you guys want to buy this thing back?’” he said. Keen to resurrect the original vision, Zergebel and LeBlanc decided to give their brainchild another shot.
“We were interested in getting it back, and we were going to do what we originally intended to do,” Zergebel said. “We decided to put it through a rebirth.”
In the four years since Zergebel tightened his grip on the reins, the brand has undergone a metamorphosis, emerging on the other side with a clearer vision than ever before. In 2020, there’s a renewed focus on the artistic elements that set Holden apart in the first place, Zergebel said.
“This is the year,” he continued, “that we’re really taking a leap of faith.”
At brand’s headquarters located on hip Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice, where the brand has operated for the past eight years, Zergebel thumbed through racks of down jackets, shearling coats, wool sweaters and tunics.
From a design perspective, each piece is a masterwork. Sharp, dramatic lines are juxtaposed against organic textures and soft draping techniques. Pieces that look cleanly tailored—even plain—are actually laden with performance-enhancing details.
“We’re focusing a lot on proportion with this new fall collection,” Zergebel said, speaking of the line that will debut later this year. “Oversized, unique shapes really stand out in the outdoor industry, where there’s not as much variety in that sense.”
And there’s a new focus on women’s wear, which Zergebel said comprises about 70 percent of sales. In a category largely dominated by rugged, masculine styling, the brand has found an audience in female shoppers looking for form as well as function.
Many of the brand’s silhouettes embody a Japanese design sensibility, which Zergebel said stems from both a cultural and material influence. Holden manufactures a number of its styles and sources some of its most unique textiles, like a pebble-textured boiled wool, from the country.
“Our collections have always been inspired by Japanese design, along with Scandinavian minimalism,” Zergebel said.
When asked about the line’s hero products, Zergebel defaults to down. A far cry from the bloated, Michelin-man silhouettes that seem to dominate the space, Holden’s autumn-winter 2020 offerings can be worn as performance-enhancing mid-layers under technical shells, or as stylish standalone streetwear.
“The collection is made utilizing the softest and most comfortable materials we could find so that you’re warm without feeling constricted or weighted down,” Zergebel said. The garments are made with a combination of 700 fill-power trackable down and Polartec Power Stretch Pro to achieve this unique balance, he added.
Holden will also debut a capsule collection of seamless knitwear, crafted using Japan-made WholeGarment knitting machines, this fall. Zergebel equated the technology to “3D printers for garments.” The array of knits are manufactured in Japan from a range of merino wool, cashmere and bluefox yarns.
In addition to providing speedy and efficient production (each sweater is finished in less than 85 minutes), the WholeGarment machines also eliminate 30 percent of the waste usually associated with knit production.
“There’s no cutting or sewing in the process,” Zergebel said, and no scraps left over on the factory floor. Because the garments are knitted in one piece, there are no seams to chafe against skin or rip under strain.
Investing in material and production technologies will be a priority as the brand moves forward. Holden will make these advancements with an eye toward smart, efficient design—not extreme performance.
“The tech has always been there for us, but we’ve always wanted to make it more wearable, rather than make it so that you could climb Mount Everest,” Zergebel said.
“An opportunity exists for us outside of the core outdoor gear market. You need technical clothes just for traveling, or to walk around New York and stay dry,” he added. “We have all this expertise, and we want to make those products in a fashionable way.”
The outdoor sector has always manned the front lines when it comes to pushing for a more sustainable future for the apparel industry. The arena’s brand owners and product developers espouse a desire to preserve the ecosystems around which their businesses have been built.
“Sales drives everything in a business, but if you have a winter-focused brand that’s contending with global warming and less snow, it doesn’t surprise me that brands [that] are dependent on seasonality are doing more to lead the way,” company president Adam Shiffman said.
Still, the performance qualities required to brave the elements safely and comfortably lead to some damaging formulations.
“Traditionally outdoor products utilize a lot of toxic chemicals,” Zergebel said, citing water-repelling agents, laminations and the micro-plastic particulates that are shed from popular fabrics like fleece.
That’s an inconvenient truth that’s needled him since he and snowboarder LeBlanc decided to jump into the business nearly two decades ago.
“When you couple the understanding of the damage with people who love the outdoors,” Zergebel added, “you get a lot of enthusiasts whose intentions are to clean this industry up.”
Zergebel has made it a point to work with material innovators like Polartec and Schoeller, which are building out sustainability-driven product lines based in recycled and recyclable materials. Holden uses materials that are Global Recycle Standard (GRS) and Bluesign certified whenever possible, he said.
He’s also worked closely with mills to develop his own fabrics over the years, and is constantly on the lookout for technology—like the WholeGarment knitting machines—that could help reduce waste in the company’s supply chain.
Both Zergebel and Shiffman are hopeful that certain advancements will become table stakes for brands across the board.
“People will continue to create more sustainable solutions, and some will become commonplace,” Shiffman said. “At a certain point, the mills will need to take on the standpoint of only selling recycled or organic materials, and not making new runs of nylon and things like that anymore.”
Brands like Holden and its contemporaries must be willing to opt into that mentality, even if the materials are pricier on the front end. Consumers are only becoming more invested in those solutions, Zergebel said, and are voting with their wallets.
“We never planted a hard flag in the ground as a sustainable brand, but it was personal to us to try and make responsible decisions—so we have, from the beginning,” he said.
“Consumers are more savvy than ever,” he added. “They have more at their fingertips now with online, and you have to have an identity, and substance, to engage them.”