When Ruthann Brown started working for Polartec 25 years ago, the company was small enough that she hand-made samples for brand partners.
Making clothes is in the marketing services manager's blood, she says—her mom made her clothes when she was a kid, and her grandmother worked as a seamstress. Now, Brown’s part of the team working on Polartec’s latest project—a technical fabric called Delta, which works with the body to keep you cool while hiking
1. How did you get into the outdoor industry?
The early ‘80s were such an exciting time in the outdoor industry. Visionaries like Jeff Lowe, Michael Kennedy, John Bouchard and Mugs Stump were pushing the boundaries in the mountains.
The sky was the limit for companies producing outdoor gear. We were just starting to discover color, fit and style. Companies were building specialized soft goods and better hardware. New fabrics were being developed to keep people warmer, drier and more comfortable. New companies were springing up every day. I was working for John Bouchard and Titoune Meunier at Wild Things. Every day absolutely vibrated with new ideas for stronger, lighter, better climbing clothing, packs and harnesses. We designed and built patterns, soft goods and even paragliders, and we played as hard as we worked. It was at Wild Things and working with the people there that I learned to strive to be the best, appreciate the people you work with, make the coolest gear you possibly can and have fun doing it.
2. What has been the biggest revolution in fabric during your time with the company?
There are so many! But waterproof/breathables were a big breakthrough. We launched ours, NeoShell, in 2010. It’s amazing how well it works. Of all of our launches, that’s the one I was most involved with. The day I finally got a jacket made from it, I strapped on snowshoes and bushwhacked up the mountain behind my house. The whole time, I couldn’t believe that I really didn’t feel clammy at all, and when I was at the top the jacket wasn’t wet on the inside.
3. You drove early adoptions of Polartec fabric in the climbing industry. How did you do that?
When I came to Polartec, we were looking for a way to be viewed as an authentic player in the outdoor industry. We needed a way to connect with athletes and get them to experience our new fabrics. We created Polartec Challenge—a grant program where we awarded cash and Polartec clothing to outdoor adventurers doing the coolest expeditions each year.
At first, I made all the clothing the winners wore. It was a small world; people knew me from Wild Things, and winners were friends of friends. Alex Lowe would crash at my house during the local ice fest, and while he was out climbing I would make Polartec Power Dry shirts for him with sleeves that were long enough and bibs that fit him out of our brand-new Polartec Power Shield softshell fabric. He would bring the garments back to the company where he was working and show them the fabric. These sorts of connections often led to new fabrics being adopted by outdoor brands.
4. You create samples for brands. tell us about that process.
Often, I would get a couple of yards of fabric sent to me, and the direction would be, “We have a meeting with Customer X, make something that will inspire them for climbing or running or lifestyle.” Eventually, demand far outpaced what I could make myself.
Polartec grew, and manufacturing technology leapt forward. Our sales and product team needed more andbetter garments than what I could produce on my sewing machine. I continued to outsource and oversee our network of sales sample resources, from people who can design and make one garment, to cutters who produce hundreds of samples.
What’s most rewarding to me is when a salesperson comes back after a customer meeting and says they were able to land a new account or a large program because they could give the customer a garment rather than just lay a swatch on the table.
5. there’s been a trend toward hybrid apparel. You really understand fabric—how do you know what works together?
If I was creating a garment, I would think about where it needs stability, and where it should be warm versus breathable. For a cross-country ski jacket, I might put Polartec Alpha in the front and cover it with ripstop nylon, and make the sleeves out of Power Stretch.
It’s really just experience and knowing what you’re going for. It’s almost too intuitive to explain.
This story first appeared on page 43 of the Day 4 issue of Outdoor Retailer Daily.