A letter from The North Face's founder is still the brand’s manifesto, a half century later.
The North Face’s birthday celebration wasn’t exactly like its original grand opening, 50 years ago. Rather than an intimate live show by the Grateful Dead, an enthusiastic DJ set the mood. Instead of happening in the non-conformist San Francisco, it was across the country in the white-collar capital of Manhattan. And in lieu of the Hells Angels manning the door, the brand got Emily Harrington, Jimmy Chin and a small collection of other world-class mountain athletes to do the schmoozing.
Indeed, a lot has changed about The North Face in the half-century between Doug Tompkins opening the first location and the company launching its 69th, a shiny new 5th Avenue flagship. But if you talk to anyone with the company, they’ll tell you that there’s plenty more that’s stayed the same.
Focusing on technical gear
“We are hyper-focused on the authenticity of our brand,” says company President Todd Spaletto, but for a company that appeals to a market as wide as The North Face, it would be easy to forget where you started.
In the first mail-order catalog a couple years after his grand opening in 1966, Tompkins, who passed away less than a year ago, included a manifesto setting forth a vision for his young company. In it, he called for the end of the gimmicks that he saw plaguing an industry filled with “technocrats counting thread by thread in an attempt to replace competence with equipment.” The gear you were going to find in the following pages wasn’t going to be flashy, but even in the harshest locations, it was going to work.
With a focus on technical, high-performance climbing and backpacking equipment in the original North Beach location, the company moved shortly thereafter to the other side of San Francisco Bay where it started designing and manufacturing its own products for the same activities.
Five decades later, The North Face’s iconic Half Dome logo is everywhere—a common sight among both college campuses and the icy slopes of Meru. But even as their appeal stretched from entrepreneurs in Midtown Manhattan to Conrad Anker-wannabes in the Himalaya, the brand has stayed true to its demanding roots, and its founder’s words.
Pushing the limits of product
Innovations in the 1970s in cold-weather outerwear, early partnerships to introduce GORE-TEX to their line and radical redesigns in tents—with input from Buckminster Fuller, the father of the geodesic dome—solidified them early on as one of the premier manufacturers for the world’s harshest environments.
By 1972 they were proving it by outfitting expeditions to traverse the Brooks Range in Alaska. In 1978, they sent one of the first all-women teams to climb Annapurna, the tenth highest mountain in the world.
Today, some of the most widely-known elite mountain athletes foster some relationship with The North Face. With one of the most extensive and accomplished teams in the industry (made up of 75 climbers, alpinists, skiers, snowboarders and ultra-runners), the brand has supported roughly 280 expeditions sending its athletes all over the globe. But according to Joe Vernachio, vice president of product, TNF’s athletes serve a purpose much more important than marketing.
“It’s the athletes and their trips that propel us forward,” Vernachio said. These mountain experts are a constant source of ideas and inspiration for the brand’s products, and it’s their expeditions that supply the company’s R&D.
Designing for the modern athlete
But it’s the same “athlete-tested and expedition-proven” technology, as stated in an early mission statement, that’s also made The North Face popular in less intense environments.
According to Vernachio, one of the single largest changes the company has seen in its consumer in 50 years comes from the fact that outdoor athletes do more and want technical gear that can keep up through all their daily activities. And even though TNF has grown for that everyday consumer, Vernachio said that’s not who they design for, instead focusing on the demanding activities of its athletes. But through the technical solutions the brand has pioneered, combined with a keener eye for their consumers’ more diverse day-in-and-day-out needs, the company has become more popular outside of the mountains than nearly any other technical brand.
The North Face experience
Even before they unlocked the doors for the first time, a small crew from the company’s more than 2,000 retail employees was busy on Fifth Avenue. A crows of gawkers scrutinized them from the other side of the glass panes that line half the storefront, floor to ceiling. But the onlookers were particularly focused on one area: the Two Meter Dome Tent near the outside of the floor. The geodesic design was pioneered by the brand in 1976 and is a rare sight in the depths of New York City.
According to the merchandisers tasked with dressing mannequins in Everest-worthy garb and building fitting rooms out of tent fabrics, this latest location is less about product and more about the experience that comes with them. “The most valuable thing we offer is the way people feel when they do these things,” Spaletto said, which is why the store features a boulder-sized, overhanging climbing wall, a base camp-style lounge complete with camp chairs and a mock fire pit and that party-sized domed expedition tent.
Tompkins began his 1968 letter with the hope that his new company would “serve as a guide for the first halting steps toward a new enjoyment of the outdoors”—that it would introduce his customers to new experiences.
Fifty years later, that’s still the goal, and a tent on Fifth Avenue is the leading edge.