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?

Yvon Chouinard
Gone fishin’: Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard practicing his MBA philosophy: management by absence. Lago Fagnaro, Tierra del Fuego.

Photograph by Doug Tompkins. Courtesy Patagonia.

For nearly 40 years, Patagonia has prided itself on selling high-quality, high-performance outdoor apparel to dirt bags. Dirt bag is a term used affectionately around the company offices. It describes the kind of person who might organize an impromptu game of hacky sack in the middle of an El Capitan ascent, casually enjoy a bottle of beer while free soloing a sheer face on Mount Arapiles, or hitchhike outside Tahoe holding a cardboard sign reading Will belay for food!!! These are all scenes captured over the years in the Patagonia catalog, which, in addition to displaying the company’s wares, documents the dirt-bag lifestyle in vibrant action photography. Sometimes the dirt bags are clad in Patagonia gear, sometimes they’re playing the bongos topless by a bonfire on the banks of the Colorado River.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

Though Patagonia caters to dirt bags, the company’s success—it will clear more than $500 million in sales this year—has for many years depended on a different kind of customer: the dog walker. The dog walker buys gear designed for the mountains and puts it to use in the canyons of midtown, the office park, the tree-lined streets of suburbia. He may aspire to the dirt-bag lifestyle, or even have lived it in the years before career or children intervened, but now he wears his fleece to keep warm during Spot’s evening constitutional. The dog walker takes comfort in knowing his Super Pluma Jacket is designed for the harshest conditions, but he’ll never rely on its gusseted underarm panels or harness-compatible pockets. He does, however, think those things look cool.

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This state of affairs is not necessarily pleasing to Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard. “We outgrew our loyal customer base and increasingly were selling to yuppies, posers, and wanna-bes,” he told Inc. back in 1992. “These people don’t need this shit to get in their Jeep Cherokees and drive to Connecticut for the weekend.”

They didn’t need it, but they wanted it—and they still do, more than ever. On a recent subway ride from Slate’s Manhattan offices to my Brooklyn apartment, I spotted a black Super Cell jacket, an opalescent Nano Puff, a red Slingshot Vest, and a guy wearing a backward baseball cap embroidered with the skyline of Monte Fitz Roy, in the Andes—better known to dog walkers as the Patagonia logo. Fashion power couple Isabel and Ruben Toledo are admirers—they wear Patagonias when riding their bikes. Out West, a suspiciously pristine Patagonia has become an après-screening staple for celebrities making the rounds at Sundance. Here’s Will Ferrell in a DAS Parka, the warmest of Patagonia’s belay pieces. Here's Drake—a Canadian, but no outdoorsman—in a blaze orange Down Sweater and, on a separate occasion, catching up with Quincy Jones in a snowflake-patterned Synchilla Snap-T. Urban ubiquity, high-profile adopters: Patagonia is fashionable.

Much to Patagonia’s chagrin. Fashion is referred to as the F-word at the company. A few years ago, when L.L. Bean noticed its duck boots and chamois shirts gaining popularity among city-dwellers affecting a studied rusticity, the venerable Maine retailer exploited its newfound currency by launching a higher-end “Signature” line, a collaboration with designer Alex Carleton of the label Rogues Gallery. Patagonia, by contrast, has never been comfortable chasing trends. While the company does sell sportswear—a smattering of organic cotton jeans and moisture-wicking dresses—Chouinard still cares first and foremost about the dirt bag, the end-user who prizes performance over style. “All our customers are not equal in our eyes,” he writes in his memoir, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. “There are indeed some we favor more than others. These are our core customers, those for whom we actually design our clothes.” So how exactly did a company obsessed with serving wild-eyed climbers, itinerant surfers, and nymph-tying anglers catch on with the rest of us?

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Chouinard comes by his commitment to dirt bags honestly: He’s a dirt bag himself. He got his start in the ’50s making alpine hardware— pitons, caribiners—hoping to earn just enough from his start-up smithy to support his own climbing habit. In his memoir, he proudly notes that his first equipment catalog, a mimeographed piece of paper, warned customers not to expect swift delivery from May to November—climbing season. (He also relates that he managed to keep his food bill down one year by subsisting on a case of canned food he got at a discount because the cans were dented. And because it was cat food.) Chouinard got into the outerwear business more or less by accident. During a climbing trip to Scotland, he discovered a rugged garment he believed was ideally suited to the rigors of climbing—the rugby shirt. Before long, he was importing striped jerseys from England and pressing them on American climbers. They would be Patagonia’s first hit.

Now 73 years old, the owner of a thriving global enterprise, and the frequent subject of admiring profiles in the financial press, Chouinard remains an avid sportsman, as likely to be found surfing a break as presiding over a meeting. He’s fond of bragging about his MBA—that is, his philosophy of “management by absence.” He’ll disappear into the backcountry for months at a time, returning with ideas for how to improve the Patagonia products he brought along. Martijn Linden, Patagonia’s design director, told me he frequently finds Chouinard buttonholing one of the company’s designers, requesting tweaks to his wetsuit.

Patagonia’s stout commitment to customers cut from the same jib as its indefatigable founder would seem to preclude wide popularity in any manner of ways. For starters, what’s convenient for the climber is often a hassle for the commuter. Consider the Down Sweater that Drake was wearing at Sundance: Wanda Weller, design director when that item was introduced, noted that the first generation version of that jacket didn’t have pockets, which would have gotten in the way of a climber’s harness. Concessions to those of us who carry car keys and a Kleenex travel pack only came later.

And because Patagonia is so serious about performance , its production process is deliberate: Innovations need to be researched, developed, then tested in the field. Patagonia maintains a network of so-called ambassadors who take prototypes into the wild and report back with detailed notes and refinements. Unlike a typical apparel company, which can spot a trend and react to it in a matter of months, Patagonia has a comparatively long gestation period for new products. “Every time we try to chase fashion we end up six months or a year too late,” writes Chouinard. “And we look stupid.”

There’s a philosophical objection to fashion as well. Fashion tends to be disposable: What’s in this season is likely to be out the next. Patagonia has a longstanding commitment to sustainability. Since 1985, the company has tithed 1 percent of its sales to environmental causes. Alongside all those photos of merry dirt baggery, the catalog publishes essays calling on customers to do their part to save the whales, the trees, the rivers. (Chouinard’s first crusade was saving the rocks: When he realized pitons were disfiguring climbing faces, he stopped making them—and replaced them with a lower-impact chock.) The company’s latest project is a system that will eventually allow customers to scan a garment’s price tag with a smartphone and pull up a complete account of the environmental impact of its production.

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