Climbing Higher: A History of Arc'teryx Veilance
Climbing Higher: A History of Arc'teryx Veilance
- Words Alex Rakestraw
- Date October 2, 2017
In a world full of hyped-up Demnas and Rubchinskiys, a cursory read marks Arc’teryx Veilance as just a quiet voice in the crowd. With a suitably-Byzantine “high fashion” nameplate and inaccessible price tag ($1800 jackets; $300 wallets), anything short of a try-on blends Veilance right into the luxury market—although, perhaps like with everything Arc’teryx, this is simply by design.
Among fashion cognoscenti and inauspicious millionaires alike, Arc’teryx Veilance (pronunciation: Arc·Tair·Icks Vay·Lens) has captivated imaginations by packing Everest summit tech into understated menswear staples that feel just as at home on Fifth Ave. In fewer words: Veilance stands out by simply fitting in. However, unlike its peers in Paris and Milan, the story of Veilance starts in a Vancouver basement.
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In 1989, climbers David Lane and Jeremy Guard founded Rock Solid Manufacturing in Vancouver, BC. The two, long-time outdoorsmen, began by simply making the gear they wanted but just wasn’t yet available (in many cases, because it didn’t exist). Two years of industry innovation later, the pair renamed the company “Arc’teryx” in honor of Archaeopteryx lithographica, the world’s first modern bird—a reptile that had, in some sense, “disrupted” its own movement by evolving wings.
That was 1991. In 1992, paleontologists discovered the “Munich specimen” of Archaeopteryx, the seventh complete fossil ever found. That same year, Arc’teryx released a thermomoulded foam climbing harness, the first of its kind. In an instant, the climbing world evolved. Three years of rapid growth later, Arc’teryx began a secret internal initiative to create a better waterproof jacket—one built to dominate any competitor in both looks and construction. In 1998, the original Alpha SV, a Gore-Tex jacket built for ice climbing, did just that.
Another category it usurped was the price tag.
While Arc’teryx jackets were bombproof in function, their sleek, streamlined silhouette compared to other Gore shells of the day rendered them, in their own way, a luxury fashion product. This was not lost on anyone. “Arc’teryx products are the Hermès bags of men’s performance wear,” declared Errolson Hugh of Acronym, speaking to 032c in 2011. A 1998 review of the first Alpha SV in Climbing magazine famously noted that the jacket (then: $450; now: $749) cost the reviewer more than his first car. And yet, perhaps due to the aesthetics of function as much as function itself, the jackets were a smash.
Before long, Arc’teryx had expanded its original line of extreme climbing jackets into a full range of apparel covering sports both winter and otherwise. While many had grown to wear Arc’teryx gear off the mountain, what we think of as the modern techwear/athleisure segment was very much still in infancy. As a result, the company stuck to its hardcore roots.
Yet, like with most things Arc’teryx, foresight and inspiration coursed internally. When Tyler Jordan (Arc’teryx employee #4) was promoted to CEO in 2005, his vision was elevated in turn. By then, the nascent technical field had taken its first steps—Vancouver neighbor Lululemon (founded 1998) had gone from a backroom to a standalone store by 2000, and more nylon was bound to come. 10 years on from that first jacket prototype, Jordan believed great opportunity existed at the intersection of style and substance.
Arc’teryx, makers of Himalayan jackets and the first waterproof zipper, needed a fashion line. Conroy Nachtigall, apparel designer and native Canadian, joined Arc’teryx in 2003, two years before Jordan’s promotion. “I originally wanted to do my own label that was going to be technically focused menswear, but the whole process of setting things up was so daunting that I needed to find some backup work,” said Nachtigall, speaking to CODE magazine in 2009. “I approached Arc’teryx to find out whether there were any possibilities there. To my surprise, they were thinking of doing a line with the same approach I had been contemplating. The project didn’t come together at the time, so I worked on the summer sportswear (24) and snow sports (Whiteline) lines.”
That was 2003. Two years later, with Jordan at the helm, feelings began to thaw.
“Tyler was always super keen on doing what would become ‘Veilance’,” explained Nachtigall, speaking to Dry Clean Only earlier this month. “Finally, we just said ‘ok, let’s stop talking about this and just do it.’ I started working out what the designs should look like, then we built the first collection.”
After a mid-March teaser, Arc’teryx Veilance was unveiled to the world October 10, 2009. The original collection consisted of just 15 pieces: four jackets, three pants, two button-ups and a litany of tops available in sleeves short and long. Every garment was a distinctly Arc’teryx take on a menswear staple piece (i.e. a sport coat made from Gore Windstopper), with prices roaming well above four figures. The ultra-limited list of original stockists list is a “who’s-who” of all things expensive outerwear. BEAMS took care of Japanese distribution; The Tannery was the sole US account; London’s now-defunct “The Hideout” was one of a handful in all of Europe.
Initial reactions were, in a word, curious. Streetwear sites like Highsnobiety picked up the news, as did local Vancouver sources. Notably, few outdoors magazines or pure fashion publications seem to have acknowledged it. Even the then-new “arcteryx veilance” [sic] SuperFuture thread was silent for most of Fall 2009. To cap it all off, this bold new collection of $1,000 jackets had launched in the shadow of the global financial crisis. It was as if Veilance—that technically-focused menswear line designed to blend in—had done its job too well.
Looking back at Fall 2009, it’s easy to empathize with a befuddled press. The original collection carried all of the technical wizardry of Arc’teryx products – it just lacked the mystique. Products were named rather bluntly (“Long Coat”; “Sweatshirt”). Initial paid promotion was meek. While Veilance is by no means bland, to anyone viewing photos on a press release, it may have all seemed rather… flat. Matte black M-65 jackets made of Gore-Tex Pro would captivate in person, but as words captioning an emailed JPEG, all those trademarked performance fabrics become matte in turn.
Yet, with Nachtigall at the helm (and Jordan’s blessing from the top), Veilance had room to stretch. For Spring 2010, the collection dropped to 10 pieces, but introduced both Arc’teryx naming conventions (from “Blazer” to “Blazer LT”) as well as a pale yellow Field Jacket. For Fall 2010, Veilance doubled down on outerwear, swelling the line to 18 total pieces, 11 of which were jackets. This same season, global launch events were held at elite stockists like Firmament Berlin and Amsterdam’s 290sqm. The latter famously featured a Gore-Tex “basin” between store entrance and collection, leading guests along a stone path over water suspended by Veilance’s signature waterproof fabric.
It’s no coincidence that the dormant SuperFuture thread—silent since August 2009—revived during this same season. Arc’teryx Veilance had arrived.
From this point onwards, Veilance began a slow process of experimentation within both color and technology. The same core menswear silhouettes returned year after year, but a quick glance through the company’s archives reveals an iterative trial-and-error resulting in just as much genius as true eccentricity. Fall 2011 featured “Stealth Pants” made from emerald green Windstopper. Spring 2012 featured a mixed-media “Deploy Composite Jacket” in iridescent seafoam. The coup de grace: Fall 2012’s blaze orange “Insulator Jacket,” a neon-drenched layering jacket ostensibly designed to be hidden.
During this time, cultural bellwether 032c profiles Arc’teryx Veilance in what is perhaps the best written work ever done on the brand. The piece, featuring an interview with Nachtigall himself, lays it out simply: “Practically speaking, Veilance runs the risk of becoming the Hummer of clothes, producer of perfectly optimized garments that are nothing more than a look, functional in a world that has no need for its capabilities.”
Yes, more and more people now knew Veilance existed—they just needed a reason to wear it. Clothing designed to blend in, paradoxically, needed a brand.
By Spring 2013, a distinct Veilance brand image had begun to crystallize. That season introduced 20 total pieces, 12 of which were outerwear, every garment both sleek and muted. Products were sprinkled with a hint of Arc’teryx naming convention (“Partition Coat FL”), yet far from the Greek letters of the Alpha/Beta mainline hardshells. With foundations laid in spring, one could only imagine what lay in store for winter.
That Fall, Veilance introduced the Patrol IS, a flagship 3-in-1 coat retailing for an all-Arc’teryx record price of $1,800 USD. “The Patrol was the next step,” Conroy Nachtigall told Dry Clean Only. “It was this crazy insulation that didn’t make sense but we knew worked really well, and we just put it in the best possible Gore-Tex shell, then just stepped back. We knew it was a next-level thing.”
“Do you really need tons of carbon fiber in a car that isn’t going to be raced? No. But, it does make the car drive super nice.”
With a Patrol IS as the opening shot, Veilance’s Fall 2013 video lookbook—a first for the brand—landed on every major streetwear site. The same uncompromised design instinct still powered the collection. Only the marketing and execution had sharpened. Suddenly, Veilance was in the same conversation as brands like ACRONYM, Visvim, and Ten-C: with a Gore Pro fishtail parka costing more than your rent, Veilance coats were bonafide grails.
Add this to the fact that Arc’teryx opened its first US store in September 2013, and Jordan’s original vision for Veilance (“designing products market we believe will exist in the future”) seemed to be falling in place. After years of growing its wings, Arc’teryx Veilance was ready to fly.
Unfortunately, evolution is not always kind. Tyler Jordan, the original champion of Veilance, left Arc’teryx in 2012. Nachtigall would leave in turn close to one year later amid shakeups within Arc’teryx design, eventually joining Jordan at performance apparel startup 7Mesh Inc. With the line’s identity just beginning to stabilize, its very future now seemed in question.
In stepped Lars McKinnon. With Nachtigall’s departure, McKinnon (formerly his assistant) was thrust into the role of Designer in August 2013. Working alongside stylist Stephen Mann, a longtime creative who began working with Veilance in 2010, the two began the towering effort of continuing the brand’s now-tightened direction. Yet, rather than dilute the Veilance line, McKinnon and Mann—soon joined by apparel veteran Taka Kasuga, who joined Arc’teryx as Design Director of Lifestyle in 2015—built on its foundations, and arguably, even further refined the original vision. Fall 2014 introduced 19 pieces, totaling 12 coats, 0 base layers, and the line’s first-ever accessories (some suitably high-tech gloves and bags). Spring 2015 introduced a range of pale blues and reds across the line, bringing color in the mix while retaining the “natural neutrals” color palette codified during Fall 2013.
By Fall 2015, Veilance was able to confidently introduce pale oranges and greens within the context of a full collection. Gone were the emerald green “Stealth Pants” from years past: now, even brilliant blue GORE-TEX car coats blended in to Veilance heritage just as well as a busy downtown street.
Under McKinnon, Kasuga, Mann, and an ever-expanding Vancouver design team, the bird wasn’t just back in flight—it was soaring.
Despite some ups and downs since then, Veilance has more or less stabilized. McKinnon left Arc’teryx for adidas in 2016. The first Veilance-only concept store opened in New York as a November-January pop up that same year. A wave of Arc’teryx brand store openings swept the US. Occasionally, a new silhouette is introduced or retired (the Conduct Anorak, a pullover Gore-Tex shell retailing for $800 USD, debuted in Spring 2017). Fall 2017 will even see the brand introduce a full line of leather carry goods. But most importantly of all, in the background, a vibrant community equal parts style-conscious and performance-obsessed keeps the gears turning.
To quote David Clardy of Arc’teryx Boston: “My Veilance guy is usually a business type who wanted something as streamlined as possible, or someone in the fashion world who liked the direction that Veilance was taking.”
“The Veilance customer is, in some ways, like the clothes themselves,” explains Bryce Sissac, a product specialist at Arc’teryx Chicago who splits his time between Veilance and Chicago’s famous Notre boutique. “They’re low-key dudes who are secretly powerful. We have Chicago real estate CEOs come in who buy four pieces at a time because they like the looks, but love the construction.”
In my opinion, Veilance is male fashion’s endgame. Just as the same handful of sneaker silhouettes have historically dominated footwear, the same 10 or so clothing staples have dominated menswear. Why not render those garments in the best performance fabrics on offer?
The stigmas we have surrounding performance wear in non-performance settings tend to fade once “performance” tropes (neon color schemes; obnoxious branding; superfluous pockets) become less visible. Remember: while we now look at denim jeans as low tech, riveted pants made of rough, abrasion-resistant cotton were essentially performance wear when first introduced. What are Voronoi AR pants if not the next step, tuned for life with a MacBook rather than a pickaxe?
“For me, Veilance is a progressive idea that change what people can or can’t do in their everyday lives,” Kasuga told Dry Clean Only. “The design process generally starts from advanced material development, three years prior to the market. Currently we are looking at 2020.”
“Sometimes these materials require a new construction method in order to achieve the purpose of a particular product. We build everything in house: material and tooling development, pattern making and sewing up prototypes until it’s perfect. It reminds me [of] when I worked at Comme des Garçons. I’m fortunate to have such a talented team here on the design floor.”
Long story short: there’ll always be a new “best” material, and if history is any indication, designers will make the same staple items from that material. The first will be visionaries; the second, adapters; finally, vintage clothiers whose jobs depend on poo-poo’ing that day’s “best.” It’s the diffusion curve in action, plus or minus some waterproof zippers.
Yes, you likely won’t test your Gore Pro fishtail by waiting for the bus in a drizzle—but we live in an abundant society. You don’t need a Veilance piece, but once you try one on, it’s difficult to want anything else.
Special thanks to Taka Kasuga, Conroy Nachtigall, Bernard Capulong, Gabriel Authier, and Marco Barneveld of The Dyneema Project for making this piece possible.