Outdoor Retailer Winter Market '07: Technical outerwear

And with this article, we bring to a close our Outdoor Retailer Winter Market trend wraps from SNEWS®...bringing you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories from Winter Market. With that in mind, here's our take on noteworthy trends and new products for technical outerwear.
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And with this article, we bring to a close our Outdoor Retailer Winter Market trend wraps from SNEWS®...bringing you the most comprehensive take on trends, directions, colors, styles and innovations in stories from Winter Market. No, each report does not name every company with new product and we apologize in advance if a company feels its product was not mentioned when it should have been. So if you're not mentioned, our brains were either too fogged out from the smog to think straight or we didn't think your product stood out sufficiently -- you pick one. With that in mind, here's our take on noteworthy trends and new products for technical outerwear:

Overall, and amid all the buzz over the new Gore booth and company rebranding, there were other technical outerwear trends worth noting, included a comeback by polyester (just as long as disco doesn't make a comeback as well we're happy). Additionally, wool is clearly being more prevalent even in outerwear lines. And, naturally, there's an overall industry trend toward using more natural fibers as well as an increased use of recycled fabrics. But the big story in outerwear, at least for this show, was Gore.

Gore-Tex rebrands and revamps
The complete revamping of the Gore-Tex story is both a boon and a headache for outdoor retailers. Without doubt, the new Gore-Tex Pro fabric with the improved backing and the use of microtape is a significant technological upgrade to XCR. The SNEWS® team has been using Pro Shells for quite some time and we are convinced that the performance claims aren't just marketing hype.

Many companies used the new technology as a springboard for refreshing entire lines of performance shells -- long overdue in some cases. A prime example is Arc'Teryx, which had been resting on its laurels for the past few years while other clothing brands were showing more sophisticated designs. The new technologies gave the company a reason to alter much of its line instead of merely swapping fabrics.

Gore-Tex has also made a major commitment to publicizing the new technology story with an impressive ad campaign. This is going to create interest and help drive customers into shops to see what all the hype is about -- always a good thing from the retailer perspective.

However, based on what we are seeing and hearing from our retail friends so far, there is significant fear that the new naming system will create some confusion among consumers. Part of the problem, in our view, will arise from the poor visual merchandising distinction between Pro Shells and Performance Shells -- the hangtags are visually almost identical. Gore-Tex missed an opportunity to help consumers with at least a differentiated colored stripe along one edge of the famous black diamond hangtag, one that would help distinguish the lines from one another.

Consumer confusion too is likely with the new hybrid shells (such as The North Face Mountain Light and Outdoor Research Furio) that feature PacLite bodies with Pro Shell shoulders and arms. While this practice isn't new -- combining the best breathing material with the most durable in a lightweight package -- only the most tech-savvy consumers will understand that the jackets, even though they carry the Pro Shell hangtag, aren't going to perform as well as a garment made wholly from Pro Shell materials.

Gore Pro Shell highlights
There was so much activity in new Gore-Tex hard shells, it earned its very own subsection in our trends coverage.

Of course, it was hard to miss the white mansion at the end of the hall that Arc'Teryx used to show off its new line featuring a dozen models of Pro Shell jackets (twice that if you count women's versions). Among the most interesting new technologies at the show was the use of a polyester face fabric on the high-end SV shells. Normally, polyester is known for decreased abrasion-resistance but better water-resistance compared to nylon. Yet Arc'Teryx claims to have achieved a Gore-Tex Pro Shell fabric that is both highly durable and with a near-permanent DWR -- it may not be the Holy Grail, but we're getting closer, if true. In some parts of the world, the Patriot SV and Fission jackets are likely to be popular since they combine Pro Shell with PrimaLoft insulation for wet-weather warmth.

Not to be outdone, Marmot has updated the classic Alpinist with the Performance Shell laminate and a stretch face fabric. The new Alpinist X is the first Gore-Tex shell that features welded seams throughout. However, the Exum jacket will appeal to hardcore alpinists since it is made with lighter Pro Shell fabrics. Meanwhile, the La Grave Jacket combines Gore-Tex Pro Shell and Soft Shell into a stylish piece for the alpine market.

One of the lines that really benefited from the new fabric packages was Outdoor Research. The new Mentor jacket with light Pro Shell fabrics is its first "heavy-duty" shell and it appears to offer superb performance and a good value. And the Furio jacket is an even better value since it combines PacLite with ProShell without giving up much in terms of features.

Among the most unusual new shells will be the Mountain Hardwear Escape jacket, which features a PacLite laminate with a polyester face fabric that falls in the Performance Shell category -- it should deliver great value at $250 retail. The hardcore types will go for the Argon jacket with Pro Shell fabric and features.

The North Face put all the bells and whistles in the Free Thinker jacket and pants for the alpine skiers who want it all, including Pro Shell fabric. And for the climbers who think less is more, the Modulus jacket delivers lightweight performance.

The Mammut Extreme collection has always featured some of the best technology on the market. But the fatal stumbling block to U.S. consumer popularity has always been the Euro-centric navy/orange colorway, often with huge logos. It appears our Swiss friends have finally accepted that fashion can go with function and the new Extreme Logan jacket and pants, featuring stretch Pro Shell fabric, will also come in black/gray. But the real hits in the line may be the women's Ama Dablam and Annapurna jackets that feature Comfort Mapping with Pro Shell fabrics, plus great styling.

While Eider may not have been on your radar yet, this French brand has been showing persistence in the U.S. market, in part due to superb technical products as well as unique style. The Commodore jacket and Condormax pants are made with stretch Pro Shell fabric and have the detailing discriminating climbers expect.

Millet is another major French brand, although if you weren't looking, it was easy to miss as the company was tucked away upstairs in an out-of-the-way room. Currently, only selling direct to a select few specialty retailers in this country, Millet is as high-end as anyone in the business. To wit, the Ridge Hybrid jacket that combines Gore-Tex Stretch Pro Shell and Soft Shell with Comfort Mapping.

It wasn't all a Gore story to be sure
While a majority of the really new technical outerwear being introduced by major lines for next fall will sport a black diamond hangtag, there are still a great many cool new products featuring other fabrics too.

The most wow-factor easily goes to the Mountain Hardwear Quark jacket, which is essentially made from tricot laminated to its waterproof/breathable membrane. With no face fabric, this shell only weighs 10 ounces, so it's no heavier or bulkier than a plain windshell. While the $200 and single color choice (gray) may seem daunting, the ultralight crowd will be oohing and aahing over this piece.

Another piece that will catch the eye of the technically oriented is the Westcomb Specter hoody, which is available either as a lean hard shell or with PrimaLoft insulation. Featuring eVent fabric, this is a high performance and increasingly popular (for good reason) waterproof/breathable alternative to Gore-Tex and the plethora of proprietary fabrics.

The Arc'Teryx Dually Belay jacket and vest will interest those who spend their winters in wet places. The proprietary insulation is treated with DWR and then laminated to an outer shell for a minimum of seams. If it works as claimed, this should set a new standard in the category.

Also on the drool list for those who live in cold, wet weather will be the new Patagonia Primo down jacket. Based on the popular waterproof/breathable hard shell designed for backcountry skiing, the new insulated version should be luxurious on the nastiest of days. The Winter Guide jacket and pants are insulated soft shells built for climbers that want warmth and durability in a trim package.

Of course, soft shells are so commonplace now that it takes a lot to stand out in the crowd. The new Isis Annapurna jacket was one that may have men wishing they could wear one. Just clean lines and a nice stretch fabric with a great hand.

The Kailash jacket from RAB features a new soft shell fabric from eVent that should compete with the best from Gore-Tex, Malden and Schoeller. This British brand has a stout reputation amongst the hardmen of the Isles and it has a good chance of catching on with outdoor adventurers in the United States.

Performance apparel
Much has been said in the past few years about the blurring of climbing/yoga/lifestyle apparel. One of the most exciting new companies at Winter Market was taking the same approach with athletic wear. MPG Sport from Santa Barbara showed a line of workout clothing that anyone, not just hardbodies, can comfortably wear around town. Of course, other athletic brands have tried to bring fashion into their lines but, for the most part, their apparel still looks like sweat clothes. At first glance, the MPG line looks like stylish, casual apparel, but a closer examination reveals it to feature careful design with technical stretch fabrics that have a great hand. This is a brand to watch.

Another surprise in performance clothing came from Zoot Sports, a company best known for triathlete apparel and wetsuits. Clearly built for athletes, the new line of cool weather clothing features designs and fabrics that will appeal to many who play hard in the outdoors: trail runners, climbers, cross-country skiers, etc. With this addition of warmer apparel, this may be a brand worth considering for a specialty retailer that wants to be different from the stores carrying the likes of Hind, New Balance, Nike and Sugoi.

SNEWS® has already reviewed the NuMetrex Heart Rate Monitor bra (click here to read) with the sensor woven into the fabric and given it a hearty thumbs up. Soon the company will be introducing a Cardio shirt for men that will retail for $55. This should appeal to guys who hate the chest straps of heart rate monitors. Both are compatible with most brands of monitors, but there are some notable exceptions, such as Suunto.

And now for something completely different
No Outdoor Retailer Winter Market would be complete without a new brand with waaaay outside the box thinking. For example, a couple years ago, we first saw the unique Versalayer jacket with adjustable insulation; a product that is now delivering and garnering well-deserved attention.

This winter, we couldn't help but notice the AeroVest that inventor Larry Smith was wearing. Designed for emergency insulation, it's a one-size-fits-all mylar vest that weighs only 2 ounces and is the size of a cell phone. Unfolded, the $15 vest is inflated by the user and worn under a shell for one-time-use insulation; like any space blanket, you'll never refold it to the original size. Overall, a pretty good idea for trail runners or other weight fanatics who sometimes overextend themselves.

On the other hand, we were completely baffled by the Xip3, um, thing. Sure, versatility is generally a good thing. But who really needs a jacket that converts into a daypack that converts into a pillow? Sometimes just because you can build it, doesn't mean you should.

Another new kid on the block was Scapegoat, a line of nine men's jackets from Boulder, Colo. This could best be described as very technical casual performance outerwear for the urban Yuppie who plays outdoors. With retail prices from $220 to $550 and a high degree of detailing, the line puts a new twist on crossover apparel.

Eye on the ladies
New fabric technologies are allowing companies to customize the look and feel of technical fabrics, thereby pushing the envelope on fashion forwardness. This has also meant that the attention to detail with subtle fabric patterns, embossing and counter-colored seams and stitching has risen to a new level. The change in color palette is also refreshing. There is a welcome absence of pink and most companies are backing off using just flower patterns (and equally girly insignia) to differentiate their women's lines. The season's blues, browns, greens and deep red colors (for those that got it right) are refined and gorgeous and won't make consumers look like they're a billboard, flowerpot, street-crossing flag, or a woman dressed as a man for the day.

Another notable for next season is that companies are focusing on women, either by significantly expanding their existing collections, such as with GoLite and Isis (which in particular expanded its insulation offerings) or by making a first real focused push to have a women's collection, such as Mammut with its alpine outerwear and snow lines. The company claims women's is its fastest growing category.

On the stylish front, female-focused companies such as industry veteran Isis, and relative Winter Market newcomer Lole (see the Claudia I and II jackets or the Vail) continue to lead the way, but The North Face with its suede and cord ski pants and Mountain Hardwear (which made a concerted focus down this path last season) are garnering deserved attention too. And within the realm of technical product with flare, Outdoor Research's Arria down hoodie is a standout, and the unique detailing on the elegantly streamlined GoLite Cayenne jacket is eye catching. Who would have ever thought you could call an outdoor jacket elegant?! Arc'Teryx's color palette is outstanding (especially next to companies that went a little bit too fluorescent).

And even though the company was not "officially" at the show and is bowing out of future trade shows, Columbia's new revised line is worth checking out. With just a media room at this Winter Market, the company unveiled a streamlined line that follows such themes as simplicity (or simplexity as they call it) evidenced by the Madison Quilted Soft Shell and the "wow" factor (check out the Titanium Sapphire Sky jacket). Of course, it wouldn't feel like Columbia without a 3-in-1 jacket, and the External Explorer parka offers a refreshing spin on this as a double-breasted jacket made of polyester/cotton with a sweater fleece. The 3-in-1 variations were popular with other companies as well, including Marmot, Lole and Outdoor Research, which introduced the functional shell and insulated liner Women's Varia Jacket.

Insulation seems to be a reliable seller for women, with many companies having several offerings in this category, including knee-length variations such as the Chloe coat by Isis and Marmot's new Metro coat. Sierra Designs had several nicely designed insulation pieces with prices that consumers will find easy to swallow.

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