Patagonia Makes High-Performance Gear for Climbers and Surfers. How’d It Catch on With the Rest of Us?

The language of style.
March 15 2012 7:00 AM

Where Fashion Is the F-Word

Patagonia makes gear for demanding climbers and itinerant surfers. How’d it catch on with the rest of us?

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This may sound like little more than sophisticated green-washing to a cynic, but spend time talking to people at the company, or reading Chouinard (he’ll publish The Responsible Company in May, in which he and colleague Vincent Stanley encourage other companies to follow Patagonia’s lead in embracing environmentally responsible business practices; here’s his recent Harvard Business Review paper on “The Sustainable Economy”) and you quickly realize this is not opportunistic posturing; environmentalism is woven into the company’s microfibers. In 2005, it launched the Common Threads Initiative, which asks its customers to pledge not to buy Patagonias they don’t need. Customers not persuaded to put away their wallets are pointed to an Ebay store, where they can buy a used jacket instead of a new one. It’s a commitment to sustainability bordering on corporate self-abnegation.

Ironically, it’s Patagonia’s aversion to fashion that may have won the brand its current trendiness. Jennifer Ellsworth, who was vice president of product development from 1987 to 1991 and is now a professor of business at Adrian College, told me she teaches her students to distinguish between product-driven companies and market-driven companies. Patagonia is clearly in the former category, designing clothing for its core constituency while largely ignoring the vicissitudes of the market. Yet in recent years, the market has come to appreciate what Patagonia stands for—both its commitment to performance and to environmental responsibility. Patagonia didn’t set out looking for the dog walkers; the dog walkers found Patagonia.

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Though Chouinard is allergic to fashion, he’s obsessed with the principles of good design. Back when he was still making pitons, he adopted an approach based on a passage by the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupery:

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

An ethos of simplicity proved a smart one when constructing a product line for extreme sportsmen: Bells and whistles just add unnecessary weight to your pack. Because weight—and warmth and water-resistance—are of paramount concern to the climber or hiker or backcountry skier, Patagonia has always been on the forefront of fabric development as well. The company introduced pile fleece to the U.S. market, an insulating layer that was warmer and quicker to dry than cotton or wool. The original models, from the mid-’70s, were made from material salvaged from toilet covers. Today’s considerably less nappy version is made of recycled soda bottles.

Simplicity combined with cutting-edge technology is an alluring combination to the contemporary consumer. Imre Molnar, who was design director at Patagonia in the early aughts and is now the dean of the College for Creative Studies, compares Patagonia to Audi, another company whose product is “totally contemporary yet totally classical”—and has seen its popularity spike in the recent past. A Patagonia may not have the drape of a Prada, just as an Audi doesn’t have the lines of a Ferrari, but both have a sleekness that bespeaks sound engineering and form-follows-function design.  

Like an Audi, a Patagonia doesn’t come cheap. All that fabric research and field testing is expensive, as are the company’s responsible business practices, and those costs are passed on to the consumer. (Will Ferrell’s DAS Parka set him back $299, unless he had the good sense to stop at the outlet in Salt Lake on his way to Park City.) Patagonia may not aspire to high fashion, but its prices approach those of its couture cousins, which has earned the company its nickname among aficionados: Patagucci.

Yet because its products are so durable, you can convince yourself you’re buying an investment piece, a wise purchase even in austere times. Patagonia also stands behind its product with one of the industry’s strongest guarantees: They’ll repair or replace anything, at any time, for any reason. During a trip to Patagonia’s Soho store last week, a clerk told me that a customer had recently come in to return a pair of surf shorts dating back to 1995—because he was no longer satisfied with the fit. One suspects the problem lay more with the customer than the product. But the man left the store with a new pair of trunks.

I should note that my visit to the Soho store wasn’t purely reportorial in nature. I’m something of an aficionado myself, though I’m trying not to make any new acquisitions. In gross contravention of the Common Threads pledge, I own a closet full of Patagonias, none of which, strictly speaking, do I need. I’m the worst kind of dog walker: I don’t even have a dog. Last year, when Hurricane Irene skirted New York City, I lamented the missed opportunity to don the foul weather gear I purchased years ago from Patagonia’s now-defunct nautical line.

I caught the Patagonia bug in the early 1990s, at prep school, where a well-worn fleece was a shibboleth announcing your familiarity with NOLS trips, the finer Green Mountain ski areas, and the need for reliable wind-protection during the Head of the Charles. (I was familiar with none of these things, but hid my ignorance under the Synchilla Snap-T I begged my mom to buy me.) My feelings about the brand are thus tinged with nostalgia for the halcyon days when I would pore over the catalog, debating with dorm-mates the finer points of the Nitro and the Storm Jackets, then the top of the line outer layers.

Technology has improved since then, allowing for better-gusseted, more intuitively-pocketed jackets. I’ve added some new pieces to my collection in recent years, including an ultra-light Nano Puff that I’ve found indispensable in this disconcertingly mild winter. But my favorite items remain my oldest ones. Clad in my ’92 Reversible Glissade, with its shaggy pile fleece, I can look down my nose at the arriviste alpinists on the subway, happy in the knowledge that though I may not be a dirt bag, at least I was wearing Patagonia before it was cool.

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