In The Studio

Wearing What Matters

Designers Double Down on the Value of Durable Goods for Active/Outdoor

Via Kim Brannock's Instagram: Finding inspiration in the natural world for development of outdoor gear.

Creativity in the time of isolation has designers turning to what they have on hand. “We learn to adapt and use creativity to forward that,” says Kim Brannock, who turned header card swatches as well as old camping gear into good-looking functional products during shelter-in-place COVID restrictions.

Brannock, founder of SY Designs in Bend, OR, is not alone in prioritizing the value of re-purposing in today’s world. Indeed, across the board, designers are increasingly leaning into the concept of “make from what we have” to re-service for future use, as qualities of simplicity and self-sufficiency heighten as people endure weeks of pandemic realities.

Investment in durability and quality are other factors designers look to favor when coronavirus lockdowns lift. “I’ve always been in that category of people who appreciated clothing far more than others. I felt like I was standing on a soapbox explaining the value of textiles and what we wear,” says Kristen LittleJohn, gloves product developer at The North Face. “I now feel even stronger that if we need a new pair of jeans that we buy a brand that does better for the world. We have all been suckered into wanting to get a good deal.”

Adrienne Moser also recognizes a shift in values that has occurred in the past two months. “Cheap is not valuable,” states Moser, VP product for SAXX, who sees consumers’ buying habits swinging away from disposable fashion and to better made goods. Moser recalls a visit to Japan where home space is limited and closets are small. “Constraints dictate that wardrobes be condensed, so instead of buying 10 shirts, consumers shop for one perfect shirt,” says Moser, who believes COVID-19 circumstances will influence similar selective purchasing to transpire in the States.

“We have to ask ourselves, how much stuff do we really need.” – Poppy Gall

Quarantine on Consumption

These are not new trends; sustainability, including a “renew & reuse” mantra, has been a key driver of innovation within the active/outdoor industry for years. However, the current crisis has been like a trend pressure-cooker, accelerating change and now bringing these trends to fruition.

Discussions with designers reveal a stronger commitment to level up conscious- consumption. They believe the time is right for a re-set in terms of industry expectations surrounding a “new-for-newness” sake approach that has become a drumbeat in outdoor product development in recent years.

“I want to consume as little as possible, try to achieve zero plastic and give few of my dollars to multi-millionaires and billionaires.”– Kristen LittleJohn

“We need to take a really long hard look at what matters,” says Brannock, who works together with leading brands in outdoor, fish, hunt and workwear. “We can’t just keep doing more, more, more. There is already so much textile waste. The path we’re on is clothing becoming frivolous. I don’t want to make another version of what’s already available.”'

Designer Poppy Gall agrees that a re-evaluation of what we buy is called for, as well as a need on the part of brands, and the industry overall, to reduce redundancy. “We have  to ask ourselves, how much stuff do we really need,” says Gall, owner of Poppy Gall Designs based in Vermont. Gall is hopeful that when post-pandemic shopping resumes the consumer is going to be willing to pay $100 for a pair of top-quality work gloves made by a local vendor that will last a good long time, instead of spending $10 for a cheap pair at a big box store.

Poppy Gall Instagram: COVID-related sewing creations and her own Popia Design knitwear collection.

LittleJohn shares Gall’s point of view. She states, “Today’s circumstances fuels my desire to buy from small local makers and support small shops.” It also encourages her to strive for her bigger goals. “I want to consume as little as possible, try to achieve zero plastic and give few of my dollars to multi-millionaires and billionaires,” LittleJohn explains.

“Instead of buying 10 shirts, consumers shop for one perfect shirt.”– Adrienne Moser

Moser, who has worked at Columbia Sportswear and Patagonia, says, “People want to simplify their lives. Give them enough but not an over abundance that will be discarded.”

The Bigger Picture

Gall makes a connection between designers’ creativity focused on re-purposing goods and how the supply chain has swerved to making PPE. “We see woodworkers using their CNC cutters to make plastic face shields and others re-tooling facilities to produce masks. Maybe new niches will emerge for outdoor to produce domestically,” says Gall, who specializes in knitwear product design and development.

Certainly the pandemic has illuminated the vulnerability of a supply chain reliant on China. A New Zealand farmer recently confided in Brannock that he feels rejuvenated by his efforts to create verticality on his sheep farm. He said “to go full circle on his own soil” has been amazing, according to Brannock.

Perhaps the COVID-19 experience will embolden made in America production, too, Gall shares.

“We need to use our creative energy toward making things that are purposeful for our future.” – Kim Brannock

All designers contacted view this period as a  turning point. For Moser, she expects a rebirth of camping, hiking and paddle. “There is a big need to be outside,” says Moser. “It should be a phenomenal year for camping; It’s a low budget, healthy outside activity.”

While Brannock and the others can’t say exactly what will happen when business returns, there is a consensus that the industry is at a tipping point when it comes to a design ethos. Says Brannock, “We need to use our creative energy toward making things that are purposeful for our future.”