Gear trends: 2015/16 Insulation outerwear

Insulation gets active: New fills let brands tailor every part of a jacket to match the user’s activity level. See what's ahead for retail in 2015/16.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 20 – 24. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

It’s time to sendyour local meteorologist a gift basket.

Despite often misusing the term “polar vortex” these past two winters, the repeated utterance of the term has undoubtedly helped ring cash registers across the country for outdoor specialty retailers selling insulation apparel.

Plus — scientific or not — it was darn cold for much of the country these past two seasons (minus the West Coast), and consumers flocked to stores looking for that next best “warm jacket.”

While it used to be: “Oooh, I’ll take that nice big, puffy jacket and be on my way, ” the customer’s needs are a bit more complex these days and so are the products.

For starters, no jacket is inherently warm. Minus the human body (or any independent electric heat), if you throw any jacket out in the cold, none of them will be warm. It’s the body that provides the heat … it’s the jacket that insulates and manages that heat.

That fact opens a wide playing field for the best insulation piece to send the customer out the door with. And at Winter Market 2015, brands are offering their largest scope of solutions yet.

Often, the best question for customers isn’t about how cold will it get. Rather, it’s about how active they will be in that jacket. How much heat are their bodies going to produce?

Lately, the answer has been “quite a bit.” Consumers are becoming more aerobic during the winter months, preferring to head out for shorter, higher-intensity workouts — a winter run or some Nordic skiing in the park — versus a full-day hike or resort skiing. For these more active pursuits, they’re looking for lighter and stretchier insulation that breathes and wicks better when sweat starts rolling inside. A big complaint of the standard puffy is that the shell’s material needs to be down proof, which also then blocks moisture from escaping.

The demand has created the “active-insulation” category, which doesn’t just reduce the amount of insulation in a piece, but effectively caters the product to the user’s need, whether that be through new insulations, shell and lining materials, or the overall construction.

While water-resistant down continues to be a big hit with consumers, the race to create the best “synthetic down” continues. For 2015-16, PrimaLoft debuts its Luxe insulation, which is meant to look, feel and perform like down — with better moisture management. See it in numerous pieces, including the Montane Hi-Q Luxe Jacket (MSRP $239), the Dynafit TLT Jacket (MSRP $220) and the Flylow Tamara PrimaLoft Luxe Hoody (MSRP $225).

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3M also looks to mimic down with its Thinsulate Featherless Insulation, of which a proprietary version is micro-baffled in Rab’s Nimbus jacket in a lightweight Pertex Quantum outer. “A lot of synthetic jackets look flat and plain,” said Rab U.S. Marketing Manager Jon Frederick. “This is blown in, just like down, and it looks and feels just like down.” Similarly, Mountain Hardwear redesigns its synthetic Micro Thermostatic Jacket (MSRP $175) with its Thermal.Q Elite, multi-denier filament insulation for both a soft feel and high loft.

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“The toolbox is so much bigger now,” said Jordan Wand, vice president of product and marketing at Outdoor Research. “With an explosion of insulation options,” everything can be tailored to user’s needs. That includes the inner lining material, which Wand called “perhaps the most important ingredient for active insulation” because of its role in moving moisture out. For the lining to be effective, it has to be airy and work with an insulation that won’t leak through. Outdoor Research’s Uberlayer Hooded Jacket (MSRP $299) does that with a super-breathable stretch mesh lining, 60-gram Polartec Alpha insulation and a woven nylon outer, dense enough for enough protection. “We found out through trial and error the best balance between water/abrasion/wind resistance and breathability,” Wand said.

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Wool also is rising as an alternative insulation fill, bringing its thermal regulating properties to the category. For highly aerobic activities, see SmartWool’s 60-gram SmartLoft insulation, which is body-mapped into its Propulsion 60 Jacket (MSRP $180) and protected by poly exterior with DWR finish. The back and sleeves of the piece are made with a tightly-woven, 100-percent merino wool for extra breathability. Or, for more protection, there’s the Double Propulsion 60 Hoody (MSRP $200) with the SmartLoft fill and DWR poly outer on both the front and back.

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Staying in the wool field, check out Ramtect. The company presents an insulation fill made of American wool fibers that doesn’t require downproof fabrics. That means brands can still use a natural insulation — wool instead of down — yet take advantage of lighter and more breathable linings and shells for those more active adventures. Ramtect allows for the use of fabrics that can more than double the breathability versus the ones used to enclose down, said the brand’s co-founder Doug Hoschek.

Yet another alternative insulation — compressed air. Newcomer NuDown introduces itself to Winter Market, headed up by former Salomon and Ride Snowboards executive Bob Hall. The idea of using air chambers to create insulating loft in apparel was pioneered by sleeping pad brand Klymit, which sold its IP to NuDown. The big attraction is the ability for “variable insulation,” Hall said — being able to pump air for more loft, or release it for less loft. Hall and two former Patagonia designers look to bring the idea to reality with more consumer-appealing styles in a debut lineup of jackets and vests for 2015-16.

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For those customers that can’t decide which insulation is best, brands are trying to deliver the best of both worlds with down/synthetic blends. “Consumers want flexible pieces,” said Keith Patterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Bergans of Norway. “Everyone is under a time crunch these days, so they want to be ready to go with something that’s lightweight and packable.” Bergans brings the Eggen Jacket (MSRP $219), sporting a Pertex Quantum outer filled with PrimaLoft’s 60/40, down/synthetic blend in a box-baffled construction with no stitch-throughs to mitigate drafts. The ultimate insulation hybrid — rivaling a mixed-tape for its different contributions — might be the Outdoor Research Diode Jacket (MSRP $325). It includes PrimaLoft’s 70/30, down/synthetic blend in the body covered with the lightweight Pertex Quantum, and PrimaLoft Luxe across the shoulders, arms, cuffs and waistbelt covered in the more water-resistant Pertex Endurance.

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For athletes working up a sweat, but also requiring a bit more insulation and protection, Marmot introduces the Headwall Jacket (MSRP $325), which aims to move moisture quickly via a highly breathable lining and lightweight 20-denier, stretch waterproof/breathable, air permeable outer. Sandwiched in-between is PrimaLoft’s new Active Insulation, engineered to maintain its stability and prevent mitigation, even with lighter and more airy linings. And with a bit more loft, but still focusing on more movement, Canada Goose’s Brookvale Jacket (MSRP $440) employs an 15-denier, stretch outer.

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While you’ll see a lot of active-insulation pieces on the show floor — it’s by far the hottest trend — don’t forget about the so-called static-insulation apparel.

“The active-insulation market is the fastest growing category and certainly provides wider comfort and use range into the spring and fall, but it’s still only 20-25 percent of the market,” said Brian La Plante, category manager for outerwear at Marmot.

Not every customer is out to break a big sweat when the thermometer reads 0 degrees, and no store wants an unsatisfied customer when a product didn’t keep them warm enough. Yet, even in this case, don’t reach for the over-puffed, “Michelin Man” jacket. Brands have gotten a lot better at creating toasty insulation pieces that cater to the thinner fashion styles of today. Look no further than the Columbia HeatZone 1000 Jacket (MSRP $450), part of its rebooted Titanium line to be worn by the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team through the 2022 Winter Olympics. It features TurboDown Wave insulation, an update on Columbia’s synthetic/down hybrid layering. The construction lays a sheet of synthetic in a wave pattern to create alternating baffles without heat-escaping stitch-throughs. Water-resistant down is blown between these baffles to create loft and trap heat.

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The North Face brings its FuseForm technology — an outer layer with varying high-tenacity yarns on a single piece of fabric — to the insulation category with the Dot Matrix Hooded Down Jacket (MSRP $399), featuring 700 goose down fill, and the Dot Matrix Insulated Jacket (MSRP $299), a 100-gram PrimaLoft synthetic-fill version sporting a two-layer waterproof/breathable shell.

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Last but not least, for all the talk about down blends and synthetics, Adidas Outdoor, switches back to 100-percent down (previously going with a down/synthetic blend) in its top-of-the-line TechRock insulation jacket (MSRP $395) with a 10-denier Pertex Quantum outer in the body and Pertex Endurance on the shoulders and hood. The simple reason for the switch, said Adidas Outdoor Managing Director Greg Thomsen: Despite all the synthetic advances, down still offers the lightest and most compressible insulation, two of the top demands from its customers.

--David Clucas 

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