When it comes to hot-weather apparel, Columbia Executive Vice President Mick McCormick says the outdoor industry effectively has had only one answer for the past 30 years — moisture-wicking polyester.
But give any technology that amount of time, and people are bound to copy it, he said. While the outdoor industry introduced moisture-wicking apparel, sportswear giants like Under Armor and Nike have taken control of the sector with well-marketed copycats.
“That $30 piece of polyester is no really different than that $60 piece,” McCormick told SNEWS. “Take off the logo, and it’s all the same thing.”
Columbia and its sister brand Mountain Hardwear officials set out to take back summer for the outdoor industry. And Columbia, specifically, was in need of a summer balance. Two-thirds of its business is winter products, officials said, and the company felt the burn of that sole-season reliance following this year’s weak winter.
To make a bigger splash in summer 2013, McCormick said the company needed to introduce a different approach to keeping cool. Something that was both effective and visual for the consumer — a blueprint the brand sucessfuly used with the launch of its radiant Omni-Heat technology a few years back.
Columbia put the challenge in the hands of its vice president of innovation, Woody Blackford and his team. Already, the team had debuted a cooling technology called Omni-Freeze Ice, which, similar to other brands, used a chemical-based approach to bring a cooling sensation to the skin when the user began to sweat.
But the technology had its limitations. For one, the cooling wouldn’t last that long. As soon as the garment became completely soaked with sweat, the cooling reached its capacity, and the effect wouldn’t return until the apparel dried and was reintroduced to moisture. The application also had a limited lifetime of about 30-50 washes. Furthermore, some consumers were wary of the chemical reaction on their skin, despite most brands using xylitol, a natural sugar alcohol used most commonly as a sweetener in chewing gum.
Blackford set out to find a better technology, and told SNEWS he found it in the form of a polymer used in the water filtration industry. These particular polymers absorb moisture, but also are structured to be hydrophobic, meaning they look to repel the water once it’s absorbed. To do so, they need energy to break the bond.
“It’s a mechanical reaction that requires heat,” Blackford said. And an active person’s body on a hot summer’s day has plenty of heat to give. By printing the polymer on the inside of apparel, he deduced, the polymer could not only draw moisture, but also provide a cooling effect by drawing body heat as well.
Columbia and Mountain Hardwear have applied the technology to a new line of apparel, accessories and footwear slated for spring/summer 2013. The technology is dubbed Omni-Freeze Zero for Columbia and Cool.Q Zero for Mountain Hardwear.
The technology comes across visually as printed blue rings on the inside of the garments, which is important for the retail environment, McCormick said.
“This truly is retail theater,” he said. Columbia will distribute sample sleeves and spray bottles to retailers and marketing teams across globe to help demonstrate and sell the product. A few squirts of water on the sleeve simulates sweat and activates the cooling effect for the consumer.
“Normally when you want to get cool, you take things off,” McCormick said. “In this case, you’ll want to add layers.”
Mountain Hardwear will target a growing running market with its new line of Cool.Q Zero apparel and accessories, while Columbia will focus on the outdoor and fitness crowd, and beyond. Officials think fireman, policemen and construction workers will flock to Omni-Freeze Zero to keep them cool underneath their top layers of clothing and equipment.
“We have long had great market penetration in cold-weather environments,” McCormick said. “But 90 percent of the globe’s population lives in warm-weather environments. If we do this right, Columbia can move toward more of a 50/50 balance between winter and summer product.”