Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '06 Trends: Technical apparel

A look at the latest trends and new products for technical apparel including hybrid jackets, thermal mapping, stretch hard shell and down sweaters from Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.
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The SNEWS® team of editors powered by imported dark chocolate and numerous espresso shots (not necessarily in that order), zigged and zagged around the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market floor to ensure we could bring you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories that will run until we pass out. No, each report is not complete and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. We're only covering product that stood out to us, so if you're not mentioned, our brains were either too frozen from our early morning runs to see you, we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently, or we started drinking espresso shots too early in the afternoon -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on trends and new products for technical apparel including hybrid jackets, thermal mapping, stretch hard shells, down sweaters, and more:

The next step beyond hybrid jackets and pants appears to be thermal mapping of the inner surface for both 3-layer hard shells and soft shells. With hybrids, different fabrics are sewn or welded together in different areas of a shell for better durability, breathability, or stretch. Thermal mapping involves varying the thickness of the inner fleece laminate to increase warmth and comfort. There are lots of terms for this technology -- W.L. Gore calls it Comfort Mapping Technology, for example.

Body mapping of base layers started about five years ago. Mid-layer fleeces with variable thicknesses soon followed. Now computers are mapping the outer layer as well to increase efficiency. Even fabrics with dissimilar inner surfaces can be seam-sealed. Over the next few years, this technology will likely prove as significant as welded seams.

Blurring the line between hard and soft further, several more companies will offer hard shells with panels of stretch Gore-Tex XCR next season. These high-end, high-ticket (all around $400 to $450) shells include the Macpac Prophet jacket, Mammut Motion XCR jacket, Marmot Skylight jacket and The North Face Ama Dablam Stretch Infusion jacket. What the companies aren't doing, however, is a good job of explaining to consumers when they should choose a stretchy hard shell instead of, or in combination with, a soft shell.

Ultralight and ultra-compact down sweaters (12 ounces or less) have made a resurgence in a big way -- just about all the major brands have them. Once fairly common, these fell out of favor when fleece came along. MontBell deserves credit for reawakening interest in this category largely due to that display with the balance beam holding the company's down sweater and a cotton T-shirt. Certainly, every designer who walked by MontBell's booth in 2005 on the way to the fabric corner of Outdoor Retailer took notice.

PrimaLoft is coming on strong as the techie insulation flavor of the year. However, there appears to be considerable confusion about the difference between PrimaLoft One and PrimaLoft Sport that Albany and clothing manufacturers have done little to clarify.

OK, enough general trend babble. On to products that stood out to our roving editors' eyes:

Arc'Teryx – All of the creative juices went into the Descent line of skiwear for next fall. The men's and women's Scorpion jacket ($550) and pants ($375) feature the new Gore-Tex Softshell High Loft fabric in key areas for warmth and Low Loft in the body. The Matador jacket ($450) is tricked out with a new Windstopper shell, 200-gram PrimaLoft Sport insulation, and all the bells and whistles

Meanwhile, the Ascent line of technical products, on which the company earned much of its reputation for innovation, is getting long in the tooth and still lacks a decent hood.

Cloudveil – Insulated soft shells are catching on. The Spacewalk jacket ($290) combines Schoeller Dynamic with 60-gram PrimaLoft One. While the current Zero-G is more ski specific (warmer, no hood), the Spacewalk is versatile enough for backcountry skiing and climbing.

The new Carve mid-weight base layers ($50-$65) puts polyester next to the skin and wool on the outer surface, which in theory, should offer the best of both worlds. Both Macpac (Interwool, $55-$125) and Patagonia (Axuwool, $75-$100) think otherwise and put merino next to the skin and polyester on the outside.

Ground  – The distinctive curvy styling and performance materials continue to make this company stand out from the crowd. The new Parallel System jacket ($350) is a soft shell with a zip-off hood and a lightweight zip-in PrimaLoft Sport liner that is available in four colors for men and three for women. The Exentric jacket ($280) is a similar soft shell with a stowaway hood and pit zips but no liner.

Isis – It isn't quite as light as some of the other ultralight down sweaters, but the new Whisper jacket ($170) has the girl thang goin' for it. The fit, styling and colors will certainly appeal to the ladies.

Lowe Alpine – Thermal mapping makes its way into soft shells next season. The new Titan jacket ($230) features a high-loft inner face that is increased where warmth is needed and decreased for breathability. Men can have any color they want, as long as it's black, and women can also have red.

Mammut – We don't know why the Swiss have such a fascination with navy and orange, but at some point, the company has to let it go! The revised Extreme collection of three jackets and two pants has lots of great features as long as you don't mind the colors. Fortunately, the rest of Mammut's technical clothing collection continues to offer performance and even, gasp, a bit of fashion.

The new Atlas Hybrid jacket and pants ($400, $300) may be designed for skiing, but the performance soft shell fabrics and clean lines make this system (the jacket and pants can connect to form a quasi-suit) a candidate for alpine and ice climbing as well.

Marmot – The not-so revolutionary anymore Revolution series brings back the light panels that seem to be a great technology idea still in search of a perfect application. But at least this time, the Oracle EL Jacket ($400) is entering the nearly-affordable range due to the use of stretch PreCip instead of Gore-Tex (the first effort ran $750).

The Super Hero Jacket makes a comeback after a brief hiatus. The new version uses a mix of Windstopper fabrics (the old version included Polartec fleece) and adds a zip-off PreCip hood and hand pockets to increase versatility, though the price goes up to $260 (previously $225).

Designed as a mid layer, the Ama Dablam jacket ($180) is a very light down jacket with an attached hood that stuffs into its own pocket. The remarkable compactness and comfort should appeal to men and women (four color choices each).

MontBell – While the UL Down Inner ($140) may have reawakened the interest in down sweaters, the snap closure turned many people off. Next fall, the men's and women's jackets will have front zippers, hand-warmer pockets, and 800 versus 700 power-fill down all for the same price and weight (7 ounces, still the lightest). Take note of better colors, too. New to the line is a slightly warmer Light Alpine Down jacket ($150, 11 ounces) that is more like what other companies call premier "ultralight" pieces.

Mountain Hardwear – The new GTX 2.5 jacket and pants ($300, $250) feature a PacLite hard shell laminated with fleece in key areas to increase warmth for minimal increase in bulk or loss of breathability. This should be a nice system for all things alpine and the PimpChimp fleece both looks and sounds cool.

Expanding on the existing Offwidth jacket, a price-point stretch woven soft shell ($95), Mountain Hardwear will introduce a version lined with fleece ($155) or PrimaLoft One ($175); the latter also has pit zippers and an iPod pocket.

The Downtown jacket ($145) is more technical than it sounds; it's well suited to the backcountry. This is lightweight down jacket with a full PimpChimp fleece lining -- tactile appeal is huge. The women's version should be very popular.

Among the more unusual new products for next season is the Mastiff (men's) and Shiba (women's) jackets ($165) made with Polartec Biomimicry fleece. The construction resembles dog fur with long outer guard hairs and short inner hairs for insulation. The jackets, pullovers and vests have a nice look and feel with good performance specs. This technology is certain to evolve in the next few seasons, but some are already calling it intelligent design.

Outdoor Research – The new Chaos jacket ($240) uses three weights of PrimaLoft Sport inside a Windstopper shell with an attached hood. For cold, damp weather, this should be the next best thing to staying inside all cozy beside a fireplace drinking a hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps. Alas, it's for men only.

Patagonia – Welded seams continue to spread through the hard shell line: first came the Stretch Element and now the Stretch Metabolic jacket ($275) goes stitchless. Both this revised jacket and the new Metabolic pants ($220) are likely to be strong contenders for favored lightweight technical shells.

While MontBell may have brought back the quilted down sweater, Patagonia added style and ran with it. Next season, the 10-ounce Down Sweater ($175) gets a flashy new fabric and an inner pocket that doubles as a stuff sack (awesome feature).

Joining the stampede to embrace merino wool as ideal technical underwear, Patagonia at least adds its environmental ethic to the discussion. Available in three weights (oddly named Wool 2, 3 and 4), the uber-trendy fabric is made without chlorine bleaching agents. For those who still fear the thought of sheep snuggling up to your skin, Capilene keeps getting better and will even come in the all-critical white again, along with a bunch of other colors.

Salomon – The company is claiming that the new Sonic Shield jacket ($450), Advanced Shield jacket ($580) and Advanced Shield pants ($270) have the longest-lasting DWR on the market. The jackets are soft shells with welded seams that are essentially the same, but the Advanced also has a zip-out PrimaLoft Sport liner and detachable hood. While we need convincing (no, just because Salomon says it is so, doesn't mean we buy it), the concept of a truly long-lasting DWR has been a holy grail of the outdoor industry for decades. The proof is in the testing -- game on.

Spyder – Yeah, we were surprised to see Spyder at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, too. After all, the company is the epitome of the alpine ski racing scene and about the last brand you'd think of for backcountry. But get used to seeing it, as the company is making a strong and very respectable play for outdoor retail attention. There are two series: the high-end Pryme, which is only for men because apparently women don't play hard outdoors, and the mid-range Axys, which is for men and women who want to look good on the trail and in town.

The Pryme series has all the bells and whistles including hoods with gills to reduce fogging and smorgasbord of fabrics. The Maverick shell ($500) and Maverick jacket ($550), both are made with Event but the latter is also insulated with PrimaLoft Sport. The Refuge shell jacket ($475) uses a different waterproof/breathable fabric and has a hood with a clear visor. The Manali shell jacket ($500) uses yet another waterproof/breathable with welded seams. While the Odyssey shell pants ($425) feature yet another waterproof/breathable and convert from bibs to pants.

The Axys series is more akin to the lifestyle collections of other brands -- the products are named after mountains for which they're unsuitable. There are three jackets, Teton and McKinley for men and Fuji for women (all $350), with zip-out insulation and a removable "balaclava." The Rainier jacket ($275, men's and women's) is made with Thinsulate.

It's hard to imagine serious outdoor stores will carry this line yet as a collection, though there are some nice styles scattered about. More likely, this first attempt from Spyder will be used by ski resort shops that want to look "authentic," while still offering Bogner and Kjus.

The North Face – The high-end Fountainhead jacket has morphed yet
again. Next season, the shell changes from Stretch Gore-Tex XCR to the
company's own HyVent Alpha fabric with stretch panels. The entire
construction is laser cut with welded seams now, and the shell loses
the core vent pockets and goes back to pit zippers. The price remains
the same at $450, but the weight drops by 7 ounces (now 23 ounces).

The new Stitchless Insulated Universal jacket ($500) is similar but
adds a lining of PrimaLoft One and a detachable hood (it's a confusing
name, though, because the Universal Stretch Infusion jacket is still
XCR). For a bit less water resistance and a lot less money, the new
Outer Limits ($350) has a Windstopper shell with PrimaLoft One lining
but lacks pit zippers or hand-warmer pockets.

Another entry in the ultralight down category is the new Flash jacket
($230, 12 ounces), which features 900 power-fill down, hand-warmer
pockets, and stuffs into a chest pocket. The warmer Elysium jacket
($280, 23 ounces) uses 800 power-fill down with a longer cut, yet is
still lighter than the classic Nuptse jacket.

VersaLayer – Among the most interesting new products at Winter Market, the Ability Softshell ($350) is certainly unique. Featuring retractable insulation, it allows temperature regulation without removing a pack or unzipping -- just pull the Spectra cords to wrap the body core and pull another cord to accordion the synthetic fill away. The proof is in the testing, of course (which the SNEWS® team is currently conducting), but it's an interesting concept.

Westcomb – The new kid on the block last year is still the one to watch this year. For starters, the company is among the few serious outdoor brands that haven't yet been acquired by a large corporation. Westcomb also brings a refreshing, youthful enthusiasm that seems to have faded from many other big name companies. Westcomb established itself with a well-designed line of soft shells. Next fall, the company adds a full line of hard shells made with Event fabrics and expands the rest of the collection. The Mirage Jacket ($380, men's and women's) has unique styling and careful detailing; also available insulated ($470). The Arcane Jacket ($290) is an insulated soft shell with a rollaway hood that should be great for alpine conditions.

Wild Things – Arguably the most "core" brand for alpinists in the Salt Palace, Wild Things has been pushing the light-and-fast envelope for 25 years. Wild Things will be the first technical brand to offer Aerogel (the uber-insulator that is 99.5 percent air) for padding on products. (Burton dabbles with it, but from our viewpoint, the company does so more for marketing than function.)

For the developing sport of skiing/snowboarding with wind power, there is the new Snowkite jacket. This is an Event anorak with a special buckle that connects the harness worn under the shell to the kite rig.

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