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.
Bill Amos doesn’t climb as often as he used to.
But that doesn’t mean his hobby has fallen to the wayside. Nowadays, Amos spends his hours off the mountains and in the office, crafting simple, functional clothing for alpine climbing.
As the U.S. economy faltered, Amos made a bold decision: he founded outdoor apparel company NW Alpine. His background wasn’t in business. He was a sociology major with a masters in teaching. But, after studying up on economics in his spare time, he figured the only way to make it through a recession was to bring manufacturing back. After all, he said, our economy is based on making things.
As many climbers, Amos said he did whatever it took to support his climbing habit. Combining that passion with the design talent of Portlanders, he launched the company in 2010 with two products — a soft-shell pant and the Black Spider Hoody.
The business started small, selling direct via the web, but has grown to take those sales to outdoor retail. With a roster of 15 U.S. stores, Amos is looking to expand here and abroad in Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and Middle East. All products are manufactured in Oregon.
“I was interested in creating this company because although there’s a lot of apparel around, a lot of it is lifestyle oriented. It’s not technical gear,” Amos told SNEWS. He said he wanted to create “simple, fun apparel that performed well for climbing.”
He took out all of the extraneous features to strip the apparel down to the bare minimum. NW Alpine’s products don’t have additional features just to add aesthetic value or give sales people something new to talk about, Amos said. “We’re trying to fill a niche that we found that I believe was not yet filled. We want to gain traction among core climbers.”
One of the ways NW Alpine is making this happen is by including top athletes in what they call their “tribe.” Six expert climbers fill the roles of “ambassadors” for the brand, putting products to the test, passing along information to other climbers, giving the brand some feedback on the products so Amos knows what works and what could work better.
So far, the softshell bib pant has been a favorite, Amos said. “It’s a real specialty piece. It’s been well received.” The brand offers apparel in baselayer, softshell, shell, insulation, and team gear categories.
Ahead for 2015 includes an update on the Eyebright Jacket with non-branded membrane, aimed at making the jacket more breathable and affordable. The Alpha Hoody, boasting Polatex Alpha fabric, will offer insulation that is more breathable.
Though NW Alpine is currently concentrated primarily in the Northwest (hence its name), on the West Coast, near the Rocky Mountains, and in the Northeast, it has been growing every year. But even if the company expands, Amos insists on maintaining its manufacturing roots and minimalistic designs.
“It just makes sense where the market is,” he said. “We’ve found a niche and we’re going to fill it.”
Also in the future, Amos sees plans for more climbing expeditions of his own. He has a few trips planned to get out of the office and back to the mountains – where it all started.
““It’s been really exciting to see people go out and do stuff wearing NW Alpine,” he said. “It’s inspired me to get back out there and climb. I’m excited for it.”