Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 Preview: Winter technical apparel

Combined forces: New fill mixes aim to insulate — from the elements and rising down prices.
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This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Winter Market preview is brought to you by Cordura.

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Leading up to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014, SNEWS is previewing some of the top trends and new products you’ll see at the trade show and All Mountain Demo in Salt Lake City, Jan. 21-25. You can access all these articles and more in our digital edition of the O.R. Daily Day 0.

Welcome to Economics 101.

The demand for down-insulated outerwear is sky-high, but the supply of natural feathers and clusters is limited, leading to price hikes of nearly 30 percent in the past three years.

That’s got outdoor brands thinking about how they can continue to serve consumer demand for down products, but use less of it and potentially improve performance. The answer at Winter Market 2014 seems almost unanimous: Mix it with synthetics … in many different ways.

Showgoers will see new down insulation concoctions layered, blended and zone-mapped with synthetics — all aiming to maintain the lightness, compressibility and comfort of the natural stuff, while leaning on the science lab for support.

It reminds us of the ongoing rush to merino wool, and the rise of merino/poly mixes. The same questions are likely to surface: Will consumers accept what could be described as “watered-down down?” Is performance actually improved? And at what point in a mix are benefits compromised? Not everyone will jump aboard the trend. Some are bound to keep it all natural.

Elsewhere on the show floor, manufacturers will debut down and synthetic pieces that simply use less insulation altogether. They’re not being cheap; rather, they’re responding to another big trend of the more active and athletic winter outdoor enthusiast.

Customers are working up a sweat in winter, whether they’re skinning up a backcountry slope or out on a cold-weather run. Look for new solutions for these endeavors that not only zone insulation, but also find new ways to move moisture through it.

>>Adidas, Black Diamond and Helly Hansen will debut insulation pieces with PrimaLoft’s new Down Blend fill, which literally blends down clusters and short-staple synthetic fibers together to maintain loft, softness and compressibility. The “gold” version, seen in the Adidas Climaheat Ice Jacket (MSRP $350), includes 70 percent water-resistant goose down mixed with 30 percent synthetics. “It’s added moisture management,” said Adidas’ Greg Thomsen. “You really can have the best of both worlds.”

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>>Columbia approaches the down/synthetic mix with layering, such as in its Tubro Down Diamond Jacket (MSRP $325). A continuous-filament synthetic layer is placed closest the body to provide structure and moisture management, while the down is placed on the exterior for loft. It’s all sandwiched between two layers of Columbia’s silver-dotted OmniHeat liner to reflect and keep heat inside.

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>>Marmot layers and zone maps its 800-fill, water-resistant Down Defender over Polartec’s synthetic Alpha insulation in its new Megawatt Jacket (MSRP $300). Targeted for cold-weather aerobic uses, the piece relies on the warm down/synthetic layering in the core and hood, while employing the highly breathable Alpha insulation everywhere else.

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>> Speaking of breathability, brands are working hard on the midlayer front, trying to move consumers away from sweaty down puffies. We saw it last year with Polartec Alpha, and this year Outdoor Research debuts its Superlayer Jacket (MSRP $225) with a 65-gram, high-loft, continuous PrimaLoft Silver synthetic insulation inside a breathable softshell woven face and moisture-moving inner mesh liner.

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>> Merino wool players continue their push toward tougher outerwear pieces. SmartWool will show its new PhD SmartLoft Divide Hoody Sport (MSRP $260), which uses a mix of three different insulations. There’s a 60-gram spun wool insulation through the core and hood, as well as in part of the back and arms; the brand’s HyFi nylon-face/merino next-to-skin layer appears on the inner arms and good portion of the back; and a DWR-treated version of the latter is on top of the shoulders.

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>> Brands also are mixing synthetic insulations to boost performance. Instead of using the standard 100-gram insulation, Mountain Hardwear discovered it could quilt together its Thermal Q.Elite 40-gram layer with a 60-gram layer to create a baffle-like construction with no stitch-through seams, yielding virtual 130-gram insulation results at a fraction of the weight in its Super Compressor Jacket (MSRP $295).

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>> No synthetics for Sierra Designs. The rebooted brand is sticking 100 percent to its water-resistant DriDown in insulation pieces. To boost warmth with less fill, jackets like the men’s and women’s DriDown Hoody (MSRP $199) rely on a light PU coating to block wind and down leakage, yet still allow for breathability and moisture management. Extra bonus: No toggles and cords for the hood, the jacket’s center zip does all the cinching work to provide the right fit.

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>> Innovations aren’t always about new materials. Some impressive changes come in way things are made. Be sure to check out The North Face Fuse Uno Jacket (MSRP $399), which is cut from a single piece of three-layer, waterproof/breathable fabric, then folded and stitched together like origami. The construction cuts the amount of seam taping by nearly half, improving protection and reducing weight. And although it’s only one piece of fabric, the material is pre-zone-mapped with varying high-tenacity yarns for durability at the appropriate areas in the finished product.

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