One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring series, SNEWS will identify and highlight the new kids on the outdoor block vying for a place on those shelves.
In the quest to find a better and more sustainable insulation than down or synthetics, there’s been the idea that air — plain, simple and free air — could be the answer.
Using air chambers to trap and reflect body heat has been wildly successful in the outdoor sleeping pad world. But can it succeed in apparel? Lightweight sleeping pad brand Klymit introduced the idea to outdoor apparel several years ago, but there was something missing, proponents of the tech claim — an attractive design to spur adoption.
Entrepreneur and Klymit angel investor Jeff Pickett thought the innovation deserved a second chance, so he bought the intellectual property and spun off NuDown Inc. in 2013 to focus solely on the tech in apparel. Not long after Pickett’s purchase, he invited his his neighbor, fellow investor and outdoor industry veteran Bob Hall to lead the start-up.
Hall’s held CEO positions with Salomon and Vuarnet (among other companies), taken on chairman duties with both SnowSports Industries America and the American Ski Federation, and accepted the role of acting president of the Outdoor Industry Association during a rough patch in the organization’s history.
Pickett, while an avid outdoorsman, is relatively new to the outdoor industry. His roots stretch back to Silicon Valley where he’s had his hand in a variety of major technology deals.
With those backgrounds, Hall tells SNEWS he thinks NuDown can be successful intersection of the technology and the outdoors. “We don't think for a minute that we’re here to put The North Face out of business. We think we we’ve found one way and will find more ways to bring clean technology to this industry,” he said.
It’s not just about replacing feathers with air, Hall said. With the company’s proprietary NuTech system, the user can personally regulate the amount of insulation by pumping air into the garment’s dynamic air chambers via a pocket-size hand pump — thereby increasing or decreasing the garment’s warmth. The chambers also can be filled via canisters of lighter Argon gas, but that isn't required — regular air will do.
“Deflate the bladder, decrease insulation,” Hall said. “And the genius of this thing is it’s not only that you’re decreasing insulation, but that you’re moving the insulation away from your body. And you’re not just adding insulation [with inflation], but moving it in by the torso and around the body.”
The two investor’s first step after taking on NuDown: Go dormant. Aware that time was needed both to separate the new brand from its Klymit roots, as well as to refine the garment’s look, Hall and Pickett took the original line off the market for the duration of 2014.
“We believed that the bladder wasn’t the problem,” Hall said. “The problem was the package. What was needed was to put the bladder in an Arc’teryx, Kjus, Descente or Mountain Hardwear-level garment.”
To achieve that, Hall hired on Julie Ringler and Kimi Davies-Rice, Patagonia’s former vice president of design and development for apparel and senior designer, respectively. Hall said that creativity was essential for dealing with the sizing difficulties inherent in a dynamic garment.
“For most designers, a women’s medium is a women’s medium. For NuDown, [the garment] can be inflated from 0 psi to 2.5 psi. As you inflate it, the bladder shrinks because the channels fill up with air and the whole garment shrinks. So is your medium at 0 psi or at 1.2 psi or at 2.5 psi?” he said. “Take that in the apparel world, and that’s a very challenging thing to deal with. We needed designers willing to embrace it.”
Embrace it they did, adding on top-of-the-line components — find PrimaLoft Gold fill in the collar and sleeve, Polartec Neoshell fabric and YKK Waterproof zippers — along the way.
NuDown also hopes to put a new spin on breathability. Historically, breathability involved moving air perpendicular to the skin, through the layers of fabric and out of the garment. With NuDown, breathability is parallel to the skin. Release the air in the bladder, and cool air circulates up and down between the user’s skin and the bladder.
“You essentially open up the garment so that it falls away from the skin,” Hall said. “You really feel the chill of cool air rush in, which is much more efficient than air having to migrate out.
NuDown also thinks it has a sustainability story to tell — although that wasn’t the planned-on platform. “We were pleasantly surprised at how many people were shopping for non-animal alternatives, and we didn’t build the brand around that platform, but sometimes you just get lucky and get a tailwind,” Hall said.
As for where to find the $400-$800 garments, the products will exclusively be sold in specialty retail shops. “We’re not calling the big box shops,” Hall said. “And the big boxes are not calling us.”
-- Courtney Holden
Does NuDown have what it takes to make it in your specialty outdoor retail store? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page. Or, email us about another newcomer to the outdoors we should feature here.