What will outdoor gear look like in the future? Peek into the minds of these designers whose innovative ideas are changing the industry.
Originally published in the SNEWS Outdoor Summer '09 magazine, this special web feature includes two additional profiles of designers Tae Kim and Alan Yiu, as well as expanded coverage from each designer voicing his or her perspective on the outdoor industry's future. Also, look into the world of Project OR and its influence on student designers in a special added feature.
Certain aisles of trade shows have all the buzz and desperation of a Third World marketplace. New brands hawk their wares, and a wild mix of products -- some bizarre, some silly, a few beautiful or brilliant -- line the walls. That's because the outdoor industry has become the proving ground for entrepreneurial-minded young designers who are living the dream by introducing products and ideas that are too risky or offbeat for big companies, especially in tough economic times. While many newcomers fizzle out, others make it and invigorate the industry with products that speak to consumer needs while pushing the industry's self-imposed design constraints.
Design in the industry is no longer just about building the most hardcore or lightweight gear. Many of the recent young, successful outdoor brands and designers have not entered the outdoor industry from the classic gear and technical function track. Instead, they are expanding the idea of what the industry represents (and what it sells at retail), as well as redefining the concept of design.
"It's not the outdoor industry of yesteryear," said David Schipper, a freelance production development pro who has created product for Easton, Black Diamond, The North Face and Salomon. At 47, he's been in the industry for 25 years and sold homemade gear in high school. "Now may be the best time for opportunity in the industry. When I began, you were an enthusiast. Now it's a viable job, similar to being a programmer or a long-haul trucker. That phenomenon may manifest in a negative way when a 4.0-GPA art school grad from New York City and a crusty mountaineer argue about real performance in the design room, but it also manifests positively when old norms don't anchor ideas in the past."
The industry is indeed branching out to new consumers and offering designers more outlets for expression, including new ways to address function while not neglecting hot design concepts and the morphing needs of today's consumer.
"Creativity rules the day in the outdoor industry," said John Winsor, executive director of strategy and innovation at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. "We are in a reshuffling period with a lot of consolidation and big buyouts, but we will see super entrepreneur brands that solve problems."
SNEWS® sought out a handful of notable young designers who are building better mousetraps and sharing how they utilize the perfect mix of function and fashion innovation to drive the industry.
Alan Yiu, owner/head designer
Company: Westcomb; www.westcomb.com
The Product: Versatile technical outdoor apparel.
The Story: Westcomb is one of the few designer-owned companies in the outdoor industry. Yiu actually grew up in the business. His family owns the Winner Sportwear factory in Vancouver and he started working on production issues there in the late '90s. He then studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles to gain more academic knowledge to backup and bolster his practical experience. In 2004, he founded Westcomb and began building fashion-forward technical apparel by mixing and matching technical fabrics ranging from merino to Event to Schoeller. Though distribution is still small, the company has met with huge critical success from the industry. Westcomb jackets have won a 2008 Backpacker Editors' Choice Award, a 2008 Skiing Magazine Best in Test Award, an ispo BrandNew Award and four Polartec APEX Design Awards, as well as a top SNEWS rating in 2005 for one of Yiu's original products, the Synchro Pant -- click here to read that review.
Design Philosophy: "You can't just do the same thing everyone else is doing. It's about creating points of differentiation. Design and material selection are extremely important. That's how we set ourselves apart. I wanted to make an outdoor collection that is more versatile. I want it to be appealing to people who enjoy the outdoor lifestyle and technical function fabrication but also just want to wear it and not have to use it for technical conditions."
On the Outdoor Industry: "The industry will continue to become more fashion forward, but it will have to balance that shift with technical innovation. It has to be functional at the end of the day. I think you see a lot of companies already doing this now -- they are becoming more versatile and less loud. The apparel doesn't scream, 'I'm a mountain climber. I'm a mountain biker.'"
On the Future: "Focusing on younger demographics is one way to grow the industry from the grassroots. Programs like Project OR that promote up-and-coming kids will only get more people involved. Designers are going to become more aware of our industry and realize that it offers an avenue to explore their creativity -- an industry that lends itself to being open and creative will draw talent from all over the world."
Tae Kim, founder/designer
Company: Alite Designs; www.alitedesigns.com
The Product: Monarch Butterfly Chair, Pee Light motion sensor light, Love Sack sleeping bags designed specifically for having sex and wearing outside the tent.
The Story: A native of Alaska, Tae Kim originally planned to be a commercial fishing guide. But a school counselor told him he should design cars. He studied industrial design and mechanical engineering at Purdue University, and then worked as a product designer for Ford Motor Company. But his outdoor upbringing in Alaska and desire to interact more with clients inspired him to take a job with The North Face. Seeking more freedom and an opportunity to target young newcomers to the outdoors, he launched Alite Designs in 2008. "We're really interested in people who are in that early stage of learning about the outdoors," he said. His first product was a motion-sensing light to be placed outside a tent to aid in answering nature's call. Next was the lightweight, folding Monarch Butterfly Chair which rocks, literally, and received a favorable review from Backpacker Magazine. Tae said the company will reach about $400,000 in sales this year, and $1 million next year.
Design Philosophy: "I'm all about connecting with people. My thing is user-centric design. I pick users and interview them and try to find problems they have. My graduate thesis was trying to find out why tall women have problems wearing high-heeled shoes. That project matter made me better at interviewing people and really figuring out where the problems are and how to solve them. I also think innovation is important and changing the way people perceive things and use products. For example, most sleeping bags in the outdoor market have left or right zips. Our bag has zipper openings on both sides, and you can connect as many as you want. Plus, a man or woman doesn't have to pick a bag with a right-handed or left-handed zipper. It's about opening up possibilities."
On the Outdoor Industry: "There's a huge enthusiasm for outdoor products, and I think that sometimes the outdoor industry takes itself way too seriously, and we want to bring in younger people. There's a huge market for vintage 1980s backpacks, so we'll launch three backpacks this season that are throwbacks to the '80s with updated suspensions, materials and better fit. Also, we're selling into stores that normal camping companies wouldn't sell in, like Urban Outfitters, so I think we have a real opportunity for growth."
On the Future: "Community-based design will be important where people can talk with people about their needs and design products together. We currently interview people, but we would like to do it in a broader sense. Also, we see ourselves working on being quicker to market, so we could actually deliver custom products to people in three to six weeks. I see customized products being the future of the outdoor industry."
Hanna Boone, graphic designer
Company: The Sandbox, K2 Sports; www.k2sports.com
The Product: The Sandbox is a design firm within K2 Sports that serves all the group's brands, including Atlas, Tubbs, K2 Ski, K2 Snowboard, Karhu and Line.
The Story: We were surprised at the dearth of young female designers in the outdoor industry, but Hanna Boone is here to buck that trend. With her feet in the snowboarding world, she graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2005, majoring in fine arts and web design. After a stint studying at a fashion school in London and interning in San Francisco, where she worked on the Ice Air ski jump event with Jonny Moseley, she was hired to pep up the graphics on Atlas' snowshoes. Ever since, she has steadily worked to bring new energy to graphic design at the big sports group. Boone's first ski design came out this season -- the Line Shadow -- and she is the lead designer for Atlas' new men's and women's snowshoes, spicing up the normally staid hardgoods. She is also heavily involved in K2's women's ski line.
Design Philosophy: "I simply ask, 'What would I want?' It's exciting to be able to do that, but at the same time, you have to understand specific demographics and customers for each product. I tend to try to push on color and idea. I get knocked down sometimes, but it's a never-ending battle that keeps you fresh and on your toes. I also work with the engineers a little, and if you have that understanding of how a product is put together, you can ensure it looks better and also functions well."
On the Outdoor Industry: "There's room for growth and new design and creativity, especially in women's product. Women's product is moving in big, new leaps and bounds. Women's skis are starting to get far less conservative. And men's and women's snowshoes are changing. We gave Atlas a very progressive look and feel -- not everyone loves it, but it had never been done before. There's room for those kind of risks."
On the Future: "There will be more female designers in the outdoor and snowsports industries. Women want more women-oriented product that still looks good. It will just get more and more progressive. There will be more room for us to express our creativity. In terms of skis, I would really like to close the bridge between where snowboarding has made it and where skiing is moving toward. It's moving in that direction, but it will be a much slower process. It's going to be exciting to see what happens next."
Josh Guyot co-owner with wife Sloan
Company: Guyot Designs; www.guyotdesigns.com
The Products: Wide-mouth plastic bottle SplashGuards, Squishy Bowls, wide-mouth TapGuards with built-in water filters, Gription bottle tops and stainless steel bottles.
The Story: Guyot found success by reacting to a perceived failure. In the winter of 2001, Guyot was driving back from a cross-country ski trip in Tahoe with his wife, Sloan, and water from his Nalgene bottle kept spilling all over him. Back home, Guyot, who holds a BFA in industrial design from Carnegie Mellon and worked in laboratory automation robotics, made a sketch for a bottle SplashGuard. He got EMS to pick up the product in the winter of 2002. It took off, and Guyot Designs has ramped up its offerings ever since. This spring, the company introduced a new Tap Guard, a SplashGuard with an activated carbon filter pouch -- it's also a carbon negative product, meaning over its lifetime it saves more carbon than it takes to produce.
Design Philosophy: "I'm very function first. Form should follow function. A product needs to meet a need. It can have beauty to it, but a lot of times that beauty comes from its simplicity or intended use. From another aspect, I also always try to make products that have a slight amount of whimsy, that gives a user a smile. Our silicone Squishy Bowls give you a sense of comfort, of home. We have SplashGuards with smiley faces."
On the Outdoor Industry: "There's tremendous opportunity in the outdoor industry for looking at things in different ways, making products more elegant or simple or functional. The outdoor industry has been phenomenal on the business side in terms of a safe place to start a business relationship too. A small company can grow and have a good sense of community. And there's a lot of room for a young company to make mistakes."
On the Future: "What's really exciting is the possibilities of new materials and new technology. The way social networking affects people is certainly starting to help our business. Technology is continuing to get smaller and easier to use, and there could be some fun ways that could be folded into some products, such as downloading an entire birding catalog complete with songs onto an iPhone or sending immediate position updates with a GPS app. We'll also see more of the nitty gritty of carbon negative manufacturing affecting design."
Ian Ivarson owner
Company: Ivar Backpacks; www.ivarpack.com
The Product: The Ivar Pack is a smart student or commuter backpack. It's built with organizing sections that make it easy to order stuff in the depths of a day-to-day pack, as well as creating better weight distribution so the pack is easier on the back. Ivar added three new models in the spring.
The Story: Unlike the other designers profiled, Ian Ivarson did not go to school for design; instead, he studied finance and marketing at the University of Denver. But he had been germinating the idea for an easy-to-organize pack since he had been a junior in high school and received the support and encouragement of his parents who are both designers by trade. When he graduated from college, Ivarson decided to pursue the pack instead of heading on a career track in the finance industry -- a decision that looks very sage now. With just enough guidance from some family friends to get him started, he traveled to Asia and started to source and build manufacturing relationships for the first Ivar packs, which launched in July 2006. Industry vets cautioned him not to be overly optimistic at his first Outdoor Retailer show in January 2009, but he was overwhelmed with traffic and has recently expanded his sales force to 17 reps and hired a PR consultant. Building on Ivarson's marketing know-how, the company has created a fun, viral video of the pack in action: ivarpack.com/what-is-ivar/ivar-video.
Design Philosophy: "I like simple designs. Organic shapes. Symmetry. The pack is very lifestyle oriented, less outdoorsy, although we maintain a very high quality design so that it can hold up to heavy use."
On the Outdoor Industry: "It's a hard industry to fit into to be honest. There are so many brands, so many manufacturers. All those players make it difficult to break into the industry. Right now, it's over-saturated."
On the Future: "There will be more quality and less quantity. Consumers will be spending more on high quality instead of on a lower-quality product that they have to replace two or three times per year. Products will be better designed and there will be less saturation. We will fit in because our product is so innovative."
Chris Miksovsky owner
Company: HumanGear; www.humangear.com
The Product: capCAP lids for wide-mouth bottles and GoToob squeezable travel tubes.
The Story: Chris Miksovsky may be a bit older than our other up-and-comers, but he moved into design later in life too. First, he earned an undergrad degree in political science, but spent most of his salad years exploring the world. He worked with radio-controlled models, traveled, worked on cattle ranches and fishing boats, and picked grapes. In 1998, he decided he wanted to pursue a career in design and spent two years at the University of Colorado before heading to a masters program in product design at Stanford. He then worked at the renowned IDEO design firm for three years before deciding to branch off on his own. After getting "frustrated at trying to convince boring companies my ideas are worthwhile," he founded HumanGear in July 2007, launching successfully the capCAP, a user-friendly squeeze-bottle-type lid for wide-mouth bottles (he stresses it makes room for a human nose when drinking). In winter 2008, he introduced the squeezable GoToob, and he plans on growing the business.
Design Philosophy: "I picked the name HumanGear for a reason: I was indoctrinated in human-centered design. It's essential to think about how people use products, how they really use them, not how you think they might use them."
On the Outdoor Industry: "My personal experience has been that the outdoor industry seems very receptive to smart, new products that address compelling human needs in elegant and functional ways. I've heard of other industries where it is basically impossible to get any shelf space in a big retailer without having a whole line of some sort, or having to pay through the nose for a peg. Of course, fostering small companies with good ideas is great for everyone: the small company, the distributor and the retailer who get to profit from their efforts, and the end-user who ultimately gets a better outdoor experience."
On the Future: "I hope the outdoor industry is headed toward more human-centered innovation. I've been very grateful for the support HumanGear got early on. We've tried to repay the support by working very hard to introduce more new products, like our GoToobs, that innovate in tired or overlooked areas, and that can bring new revenue to the companies that carry us."
Project OR snazzes up the supply side of the outdoor industry and gives student designers 48 hours to show their stuff.
How, oh how, do you make textile suppliers sexy? That was the problem Outdoor Retailer show director Kenji Haroutunian has faced for years. "How can you bring attention to the supply side of the show, of the industry," he said. "We can't bring bikinis and rap stars to our show. But we still want to draw attention to suppliers. There's a lot of business and innovation on the design and sourcing side at the show."
The answer? Identify the best design colleges in the country and invite students to come and compete in an apparel design showdown at the Outdoor Retailer trade show a bit like Iron Chef. The aspiring young designers would have 48 hours to design, source and build a prototype, all during the show. The concept launched in summer 2008 and picked up steam last winter. Colorado State University student Ron Rood won the competition with a mid-layer jacket he dubbed The Rocker that combined technical, eco-friendly fabrics from Schoeller, ITW Nexus and United Knitting with QIO System's PANiQ sound system, creating a fully functioning stereo jacket. Key to Rood's victory was the fact that he is a telemark skier and was able to use his familiarity with wintersports functionality to drive his design.
Rood beat out other talents from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, the Savannah College of Art and Design, Fashion Institute of Technology and the California College of the Arts. The judges included industry icons Skip Yowell of JanSport and Pam Theodosakis of Prana, as well as newcomers like Ground's Luke Pezzimenti and Westcomb's Alan Yiu.
Take a look at video documenting Project OR from Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2009 by clicking here.