Uncommon Clothes for Uncommon People: A Brief History of Patagonia
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date December 01, 2017
The history of Patagonia, one of America’s most respected outdoor brands, doesn’t go back as far as of its peers, like L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer, but in 40 years, the brand has made an outsized print on American culture. The secret behind its success is simple; while many brands try to cultivate a particular image depending on the ebbs and flows of the marketplace, Patagonia has had a consistent identity from day one. As a privately held company with a small group of visionaries at its center, the company continues to soldier on, serving its core customers, regardless of the whims of the moment.
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This concern for its core customer—the rugged lover of the outdoors, the wide-eyed mountain climber, the restless adventurer—has been Patagonia’s focus from the very beginning. Founder Yvon Chouinard began with an authentic passion that you can’t fake, because his original customer was himself. Chouinard spent his twenties like many wish they had: he scaled Yosemite’s Muir Wall, kayaked the rapids in Yellowstone and traveled to the tip of South America. He alternated between the thrill of battling surf and the challenge of mountain climbing as he bummed his way around the world.
His passion for climbing led him to stumble backwards into the business world. Chouinard launched his namesake company, Chouinard Equipment, a climbing gear outfit, when he was only 19 years old. The enterprise began because Chouinard was so unhappy with European pitons (climbing spikes) that he created his own, teaching himself blacksmithing skills along the way. In the early days, he would haul his anvil with him up and down the West Coast, peddling his wares as he climbed and surfed. The company erupted from its humble beginnings in a Burbank backyard chicken coop, and by 1970, Chouinard Equipment was the largest supplier of climbing equipment in the U.S.
As his climbing equipment gained a following, and Chouinard continued to think about how he could improve life for climbers, he grew interested in apparel. After discovering how much his fellow climbers liked rugby shirts in the early ‘70s, he started importing them and other breathable materials for sale to his peers. Demand was so high that he shortly started building clothing of his own.
Though Chouinard designed outdoor clothing throughout the ‘70s, it was the release of the signature Pile Fleece jacket in 1977 that put Patagonia on the map. Inspired by a layered sweater favored by North Atlantic fishermen, Chouinard and company sought to create a garment that would provide warmth while absorbing moisture. Early attempts were flawed, but still incredibly popular, despite performing imperfectly in the elements and revealing a tendency to pill. It wasn’t until the early eighties that the company developed Sychilla, a double-faced fabric that does not pill.
Patagonia’s next great innovation came in 1980 when the company brought insulated long underwear made of polypropylene to market. Not only did the product become a bestseller, it helped popularize the concept of layering among the outdoorsy masses. By this point, Patagonia had developed a culture of redefining what outdoor gear looked like by challenging traditional notions about serving the outdoorsman. Patagonia was even a pioneer in the color of its products. Throughout the 1980s, neon-drenched garments were perfectly normal, but not in outdoorsy clothing. Traditionally gear had been drab and austere, dominated by muted browns, greens and beiges. Intelligently catering to both popular culture and its dedicated group of climbers, Patagonia changed all that by releasing its products in bold colors. From French red to turquoise blue, It only takes a trip to your local REI or major adventure outfitter to see how Patagonia provides far more than Earth-toned offerings.
In 1985, Patagonia introduced both fleece jackets made of Sychilla and Capilene polyester long underwear products in the same season. These two revolutionary fabrics deepened the culture of innovation at Patagonia. The company understood that they were no longer constrained by materials already being used in its industry. Patagonia’s robust commitment to research and development continues to this day. This also marked the beginning of prioritizing recycled materials at the company. Fleece jackets have since become a staple outdoor wear, copied by Patagonia’s competitors and big box retailers alike.
Patagonia didn’t just revolutionize the outdoor space when it came to product innovation. The company also became a legendary advertiser. Patagonia understood that its customers were, in many ways, in their own club. Many people—even those who never make it out of their respective city limits, let alone to the High Sierras—want to be a part of this coterie of mountaineers and adventurers. The brand’s identity was just a important as the product. Enter the Patagonia catalog. Beautiful outdoor photos and copy inspired by the likes of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway were given just as much space as product pictures and descriptions. Photos from prominent outdoor photographers like John Russell, Galen Rowell, and Corey Rich have graced the catalog’s pages. The novelist Craig Halloway has kept his day job at Patagonia on and off for thirty-five years. Patagonia and Chouinard himself remain proud of the catalog to this day. “We were the first to use real people, and captions saying who and where they were,” he told The New Yorker.
The catalog was a milestone in fashion merchandising. In 2010, the publication received a coffee table retrospective, Unexpected: 30 Years of Patagonia Catalog Photography. The catalog continues to abide by a principle of including 50% “non-selling editorial content,” meaning that half of the catalog is devoted to photos and stories of the sorts of adventures Patagonia customers aspire to have. Sometimes, the photo subjects aren’t even wearing Patagonia gear. Much of the work is customer submitted.
Like any brand, Patagonia has had its ups and downs. After a period of rapid growth in the ‘80s, the company found itself overextended. Patagonia was so close to bankruptcy that Chouinard at one point flirted with a high interest mafia loan just to keep the company afloat; he declined the eighteen percent loan when shareholders offered him a loan with better terms, so long as they could pull their money out of the company. After some begging, and laying off 20 percent of the workforce, Patagonia managed to survive. This tumultuous time left a lasting impact on the company’s corporate culture. Patagonia vowed to think small from then on, remaining privately held, and focusing on its core consumer. For Chouinard, authenticity and quality were always key. He would never make “outdoorlike” clothing; he would always produce the genuine article for his most genuine customers.
This mentality still holds true today. Though the company has found success among the style-conscious crowd, innovation is still key at Patagonia. Recent breakthroughs in materials include Tencel, a lyocell fiber built from the pulp of trees grown on sustainably run farms and Yulex, a natural rubber for wetsuits that reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80 percent over competing manufacturing processes. Some of their most impressive recent technological breakthroughs include H2No waterproofing—one of the most rigorous waterproofing standards in clothing retail—and superior wind protection provided by their signature multi-layer Gore-Tex fabrics. It’s important to note: even with all this product-facing innovation, Patagonia has always kept the environmental impact at the forefront of what and how they create.
Though Patagonia had always been environmentally conscious, it was time for a head-to-toe environmental audit of the company (including a look at sustainability) after this dark period of reflection. The company pledged to donate one percent of sales (or 10 percent of profits, whatever is higher) to grassroots environmental organizations, a practice that continues today. By 1996, the company was using 100 percent organic cotton. This culture has continued through to present-day. In 2011, it launched the “Common Threads” program aimed at making its clothes repairable and recyclable. Its famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign called attention to the amount of resources it takes to produce clothing, and urged customers not to buy more than they need. Patagonia even offers free repairs on all its products, and operates a store that only sells refurbished products.
Patagonia has found ways to get customers involved in their initiatives. The recently launched Worn Wear program has already peaked interest from the Patagonia faithful. Whether you buy a Patagonia garment new or cop a piece used from their Worn Wear store, you can trade it in at any time. They will wash it, and refurbish it for resale if possible, and you will receive credit towards new or used products. Refurbished Worn Wear gear is available for purchase online or at any of a number of specialized pop-up shops around the globe.
As with other legacy brands like Carhartt and Dickies, Patagonia has enjoyed a street style renaissance in recent years, earning the cheeky nickname “Patagucci.” High-end designers have been inspired by the iconic Patagonia fleece in their collections for years. While it’d be damn near impossible to state the full scope of the Patagonia intersecting influence on runways (coincidental or otherwise) NYC fashion nerds might recall Patrik Ervell’s Fall/Winter 2014 show is a perfect example of the Patagonia fleece’s impact on high fashion. As Millennials grow nostalgic for the outdoor fleeces their families bought them in preparation for that national parks vacation, the brand has gained newfound cool cache. Patagonia is suddenly something it never aspired to be: cool. With ‘90s-era nostalgia and technically-inclined fashion design making major strides in the past few seasons, it makes perfect sense that the power of polar fleece—and especially a Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T—would reassert itself as a comfortable style staple for far more than mountaineers and dads.
Unlike some other legacy brands, Patagonia has resisted capitalizing on its newfound cache with high-end collaborations and largely avoided limited runs at boutiques, brands and stores spanning from Opening Ceremony to Supreme (that said, it's not opposed to working with those outside the fashion space—like when the label collaborated on its own brand of beer). It has preferred to keep its focus where it has always been: explicitly outdoor merchandise and the core customer base that has been loyal to them for decades. To this day, at company headquarters in Ventura, California, they call fashion, “the F word.” The company approaches design more like you would a high-end automobile than you would a boat: let’s make it aerodynamic first, and then see if it can be pretty.
With that in mind, It’s hard to imagine its hardcore customers would want it any other way. Once you’ve trusted a brand to help you climb a mountain, you don’t really care if it makes it into the style blogs or not.