Selling breathability as a system: Why can’t outdoor apparel layers all just get along?

More outdoor manufacturers and suppliers are introducing systems of individual apparel — from base layers to jackets — designed to maximize performance through combination. But there are challenges in selling systems to consumers. SNEWS takes a look at the latest products, plus their marketing strategies.
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Retailers and manufacturers know the story all too well. A consumer buys a top-of-the-line waterproof/breathable jacket, only to return it complaining that sweat built up underneath and chilled them from the inside.

But as is often discovered, the jacket isn’t necessarily the culprit — it might be an inferior baselayer or insulating layer underneath, unable to transport and evaporate moisture. The jacket, or any layer in one’s outdoor apparel system, can only perform as well as its fellow components.

It can be hard to get consumers to give up their favorite soft cotton T-shirts or older performance apparel layers when buying a new piece in the system. And even some of today’s latest and greatest outdoor apparel doesn’t quite work together.

With all that in mind, more outdoor manufacturers and suppliers are introducing systems of individual apparel — from base layers to jackets — meant to be combined to maximize performance.

“Nobody just wears a shell when they go for a hike,” said Duncan Edwards with fabric technology supplier Cocona. “Just looking at the breathability of a laminate doesn’t tell the whole story. Manufacturers need to test the entire system.”

At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012, Cocona and The North Face unveiled their partnership to develop TNF’s new FlashDry line of products — including more than 100 baselayers, midlayers, outerwear and accesories that claim to work best when worn together. Cocona’s active carbon and mineral particles, imbedded into each layer's fabric, accelerates moisture removal and dry time, company officials said.

“Typically, when a person puts on a layer, like a jacket, the drying rate goes down,” The North Face Director of Product for Performance Kevin Joyce told SNEWS at the show. “When you layer with FlashDry, we’ve measured the drying rate going up. The layers make the jacket laminate work better by spreading the moisture. Instead of making it cue up in a single long line on the inside of the laminate waiting to get through, there are a bunch of short lines quickly moving the moisture."

The challenge will be to win over consumers. While The North Face probably can convince buyers the technology works, the tougher sell will be getting them to ante up for all three layers — a hurdle that didn’t go unnoticed by the company’s marketing team.

“We understand that consumers respond poorly to that notion,” of having to buy a set, said Jessica Lange, public relations coordinator with the The North Face. “So we’re saying try the baselayer — it being the most important next to the skin — and then we can go from there.” She said The North Face will help retailers educate others on the technology and science of the system, but won’t be pushing any consumer package deals. Company officials claim FlashDry still outperforms the competition with moisture management, even without its counterparts.

As many brands expand and broaden their product lines, retailers and consumers can expect to see more attempts to market the performance benefits of same-brand systems, minus the heavy hand that the products must be paired.

Take Keen, which markets its new line of socks as tailored to work with its shoes. More wintersports helmets and goggles are being designed in brand pairs. Some of the latest outerwear pieces have aligned pitzips with their same-brand insulation layers to maximize breathability and access to interior pockets.

Most manufacturers, although not all, seem content to hint that their products work best together, but maintain the consumer’s freedom to mix and match gear. After all, you see some, but not a lot of 3-in-1 jackets out there.

--David Clucas

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