The modern retail era has been defined by a disruptive group of direct-to-consumer upstarts. But in the age of COVID-19, longstanding heritage brands with a firm grasp on their consumer bases may be having a moment of their own.
Outdoor label 66°North is a household name in its home market of Iceland, where it was founded 94 years ago. With rugged and durable staples ranging from parkas to ski bibs, mid-layers and accessories, the brand has long found an audience with consumers who live to brave the elements.
“In Iceland, you have a culture that loves to be outside and explore and be active, but then you have one of the least hospitable climates in the world,” 66°North president Matthew Woolsey told Sourcing Journal. “We think of ourselves as the ones who need to solve that challenge.”
The company began as an outfitter to the country’s fisherman, who regularly tackled squalls in the North Atlantic ocean, and then caught on with search-and-rescue teams. With a foundation serving the toughest of the tough, 66°North came to be known for quality and longevity.
“To do everyday activities in Iceland, you need world-class technical gear,” Woolsey said, adding that the company evolved to produce outerwear for the masses soon after it got its start.
The brand still produces some of its products in Iceland where research and development takes place, but the bulk of manufacturing happens in Latvia, according to CEO Helgi Runar Oskarsson, who said the company bought its first factory there in 1999 due to rising labor costs.
Some original Icelandic employees migrated to man the operation when it opened, bringing with them the technical expertise and quality control acumen needed to advance the brand’s mission. Now, 66°North owns several factories in Latvia, which Oskarsson said is convenient to other European markets where products are popular. It’s also much closer to some of the brand’s material and input manufacturers, lessening its overall carbon footprint.
66°North considers itself a carbon-neutral brand, Woolsey said, both because of its efforts to reduce the transport of parts and pieces across the globe, and its commitment to buying carbon offsets for the emissions its operations produce. “Our approach is to both buy the credits, but also make business commitments rather than just paying penance after the fact,” he said. “We want to make sure our footprint is small, and it informs how we think about the movement of goods.”
Latvia serves as the company’s international logistics center, where garments are cut, sewn and dispatched to customers. While the company works with Gore-Tex and Polartec, whose milling operations are in Asia and North America, Woolsey said 66°North aims to work as closely as possible to the bulk of its supply chain.
The company has also been working to incorporate recycled or naturally biodegradable materials into its line, Woolsey said, citing a partnership with ocean plastics upcycler Seaqual. Recycled polyesters and nylons have also made appearances across the collection, though Oskarsson said it’s been a challenge to find sustainable fabrics and components that live up to the brand’s commitments to durability and performance.
One eco-friendly material that Oskarsson was particularly proud to tout is the brand’s down, which comes from Iceland’s eider ducks. The birds build their nests using their own soft feathers, and once the nests are abandoned by their inhabitants, their feathers are harvested. The process eliminates the need for cruel live-plucking practices—though it comes with a hefty price tag. A custom parka made with eider down can cost up to $15,000, Oskarsson said. Most of the brand’s jackets, however, are made with synthetic, sustainable down alternatives like Primaloft and are much more accessibly priced.
“If you’re creating products for Icelanders, you’re selling to your friends and neighbors,” Woolsey said, adding that the brand boasts a 96 percent household penetration in its home country. Iceland’s limited yet loyal consumer base needs gear that stands up to challenging conditions, and they expect them to last. “That has informed our perspective on durability and customer service,” he said. “We’ve been guaranteeing our products since 1926, and we have a lifetime repair service for any garment we’ve ever made.”
“For us, that’s been a really important aspect of thinking about sustainability,” he added. “It is our hope that when our garments are purchased that people keep them for decades.”
While some of the goods the brand was expecting for July won’t reach its shops until late August or early September, the supply chain delays have only reinforced 66°North’s purposeful approach to design.
Product development can range from 18 months to two years, from conception to in-store, Woolsey explained, and products are only brought to market if they have staying power. “We believe the products will be just as relevant next year as they would be this year,” he said. “We’re on the extreme end of slow fashion, and in times like this it’s actually a blessing.”
Woolsey is also hopeful that the pandemic pause has afforded shoppers around the globe some thoughtful moments to convene with nature, as their Icelandic counterparts do on the daily.
“We’re increasingly optimistic because people are using outdoors experiences to social distance,” he said. “We’ll see if it’s a temporary shift, but we’re hoping that it’s one of the positives that comes out of this situation.”