The North Face was founded in 1966 by Douglas and Susie Tompkins, at the time husband and wife. While today one of the world’s foremost purveyors of outerwear, The North Face started as a small retailer stocking mountaineering and climbing gear in San Francisco, California. The couple named the store after the coldest and most unforgiving side of a mountain: literally, the north face. Two years later, in 1968, the fledgling company was acquired by Kenneth Klopp, who relocated The North Face to Berkeley. Under Klopp, The North Face started designing and producing its own apparel and equipment.
Throughout the ‘70s the brand emerged as a favorite among outdoor aficionados and introduced skiwear to its offering as the decade wore on. Expanding The North Face’s apparel offering was important, but the brand’s legacy was cemented in 1975 with the introduction of the
Oval Intention tent, a geodesic dome that set the standard for lightweight mountaineering equipment and established TNF as an influential player in the market. By 1978, the company had reached the point of signing licensing and distribution deals in foreign markets. That year, Goldwin Co. acquired the exclusive distribution rights for The North Face in Japan, where it is one of the most important conglomerates in activewear and fashion. We’ll get to that story in a bit, though.
In the 1980s, with The North Face entrenched as one of the brands of choice among skiers and alpinists, the Californian company introduced a range of extreme skiwear, which was followed by the launch of the expedition system line in 1988. These extreme weather lines would come to be hugely influential in The North Face’s evolution throughout the ’90s and ’00s and would spawn the Summit Series line, among others.
Odyssey Holdings acquired The North Face in 1988, after which the company invested heavily in equipment, but couldn’t keep up with demand. As a result, The North Face wasn’t capable of meeting orders on its books and was faced with a revenue shortfall in the face of rising expenditure. In 1993, Odyssey Holdings filed for bankruptcy for The North Face. The following year, the company was sold at auction to a group that would eventually be named The North Face, Inc and would guide the brand back to profitability. It would also set the brand up to change hands again, joining VF Corp.’s portfolio of brands in 2000—if the VF Corp. name sounds familiar, it is also the parent company for the likes of Vans and Timberland, among others.
Despite the bankruptcy in the early ’90s and the wheeling and dealing that followed, The North Face emerged as a veritable cultural force in addition to being a high-performance mountaineering brand. The same year the company filed for bankruptcy, 1993, The North Face’s Steep Tech jacket appeared on Method Man and the brand became a favorite among youth in New York. The trend extended across the Atlantic, where The North Face became synonymous with a certain breed of hard-nosed young men. Thomas Gorton, Digital Editor of
Dazed explained that, “In Merseyside […] if a crew of guys dressed in black North Face got on [the bus], nine times out of 10 we’re in trouble. Nine times out of 10 the lads wearing North Face are gonna win, too.”
Embedded among the youth and embodying a certain status, The North Face has spawned some of streetwear’s most iconic jackets. While collaborations, limited releases, and specialized product have all made their mark,
the mainline Nuptse has arguably been the pre-eminent puffer on the market since the ’90s. Its ubiquity is a testament to the power of The North Face’s main line and proof that even without any of the below diffusion lines or special projects, The North Face would still wield considerable clout.