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Outdoor Retailer Proves Collaboration Will Be Key to Innovation

At the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market last week, the commitment to collaboration was evident as brands showcased their new product.

Roughly 22,000 buyers, designers and innovators met and mingled with 1,060 exhibiting brands at the Salt Lake City, Utah show to review the latest innovations intended to propel the industry forward for next winter and beyond.

Performance denim goes outdoors

Denim is making a comeback—but not as we know it. The new denims have been developed hand-in-hand with specialty fiber suppliers like Unifi, CoolVisions polypropylene, and high-tenacity Cordura and Dyneema, offering stretch, moisture wicking, thermal regulation, odor control, abrasion resistance—anything and everything we have grown to expect from outdoor performance apparel.

“Denim will be a huge investment going forward,” Cindy McNaull, global brand director for Cordura, said. “It works in almost every segment we’re involved in—outdoor to lifestyle to commuter.”

Wool at the top of its game

Wool continued as the fiber of choice across base layer lines and moved into technical and heritage-inspired wovens. Terramar’s thermal regulating Thermawool base layer featured a blend of wool/poly with a brushed back. Duckworth continued to elevate its American merino wool and wool-blend base and mid layers, adding a bi-ply construction with hydrophobic polyester on the inside and new sweaters knit in Brooklyn, New York.

Sustainable brand Nau introduced a collection of alpaca wool sweaters, as well as technical wool outerwear with a two-layer laminate and DWR coating. A new brand called Kora turned silky, 18.3µ yak fiber into a base layer collection.

Colorado-based Voormi’s proprietary wool fabrics included a plaited wool and polyester base layer; a wool/nylon mid layer with a DWR finish; and a game-changing waterproof breathable Core Construction wool fabric with the membrane knitted in.

Wool tweeds and flannels, long a staple of the British country set, showed up in hats and bags at Stormy Kromer, as well as in footwear, lifestyle and heritage brands, where it’s beginning to replace the industry’s ubiquitous plaids.

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Insulation gets adaptive

Unsurprisingly, the focus at OR was on outerwear and insulation. The juxtaposition of 2015’s unprecedented outerwear sales with the challenges of a changing climate had outerwear product developers working overtime.

Despite the incredible success (and prices) of Canada Goose, down has been somewhat upstaged of late by the performance attributes of synthetic and wool insulations. As a result, down prices have fallen.

Down suppliers have responded to the challenge with hydrophobic down, created with non-fluorcarbon DWR finishes, such as Downlite’s collaboration with Nikwax. Allied Feather & Down is working collaboratively with textile mills to develop additional adaptive down solutions, according to creative director Matthew Betcher.

Tracking and certification of sustainable down continues to grow, with The North Face announcing the implementation of the Responsible Down Standard across its entire Fall 2016 line.

Superlight, breathable, adaptive insulation systems are the way forward. “It’s not hard to make a warm jacket, it’s more difficult to make it comfortable and functional,” said Joe Di Gerolamo, U.S. sales manager for Thermore. The company’s Thermal Booster smart insulation uses specialized polymers which stiffen when the temperature drops, closing out cold air.

Adidas Outdoor used superlight, breathable, non-migrating Polartec Alpha insulation in its Terrex Radical jackets, while urban brand STIO cut a proper Alpha-lined blazer, and technical bike/run brand Sugoi featured Alpha in its Hybrid jackets.

PrimaLoft’s newest entry in the adaptive insulation category, Gold Insulation Active with four-way stretch, was introduced in products from Marmot, L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer and Filson. Featuring a proprietary finish and manufacturing process that prevents fibers from migrating through fabrics, Gold Insulation Active allows the use of more breathable, open weave and stretch materials.

Under Armour’s Cold Gear Reactor technology combined several different fibers within its insulation, resulting in higher loft with greater breathability and better moisture transport. Built in a pattern of vertical waves, the insulation stays in place to allow for creative baffle designs.

What’s on the outside

Innovative baffle technology and shell fabrics are also critical. Columbia’s Outdry Extreme Diamond insulated jackets utilized the company’s waterproof, breathable membrane as the outside shell. The fabric is woven of a proprietary, high-density polymer in an abrasion-resistant diamond texture, with baffles that are heat-sealed rather than sewn. The technology eliminates DWR finishes and seam taping, making for a more durable product.

“Putting the membrane on the outside isn’t hard, making it durable is the hard part,” Scott Trepanier, PR and communications director at Columbia, said.

Gore-Tex Active products with a permanent beading surface also put the membrane on the outside, eliminating the need to use a DWR finish. Said to be the lightest and most breathable Gore-Tex products available, the technology is positioned as an adaptable product for runners and cyclers.

Performance fabric brand Pertex’s latest ultra-light shell fabrics featured the company’s CS10 technology, employing diamond-shaped filaments that nestle together to provide abrasion resistance and improved water-beading properties.

At The North Face, a shell with baffles woven into the fabric reduced the weight of the company’s Morph and Premonition down jackets by 4 ounces, eliminating the cold air and moisture leaking resulting from sewn baffles. The Adidas Outdoor Climaheat jacket employed a system of differential baffling to reduce cold spots at the garment’s seams.

With all the emphasis on waterproof, breathable performance, Bemis Sewfree offered new bonding solutions which included a wicking, water-repellent seam reinforcement tape called DriSeam, and a light-weight, stretchable film called FlowFlex which featured breathable perforations.

It was a very good year

With sales of $18.8 billion, a 6.7% year-on-year increase (as of October 2015, according to NPD), there’s no question that the outdoor industry is coming off of a great year. In comparison, fashion apparel showed a 1.1% drop in sales in 2015.

But there are challenges ahead, with several exhibitors reporting a slowdown in orders over the past two months, citing unseasonable weather and overflowing inventories at a number of key retailers. The industry will need to think differently about product, retail, and the consumer in order to navigate the economy, according to NPD’s Julia Clark Day.

“Our industry’s challenge is to collaborate, not on innovation for its own sake, but to solve a problem,” Day told attendees at one of the show’s seminars. “Collaboration changes the energy.”