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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.