High Tech Outdoor Fabrics
When Gore-Tex was introduced in 1978, outdoor enthusiasts added the term waterproof/breathable to their lexicon. The days of simple plastic ponchos were no more. For the first time, outdoor enthusiasts could enjoy hiking, backpacking, climbing or paddling in weather conditions that previously would have sent them scrambling back inside their tent, cabin or into the car and headed for home.
For decades, Gore-Tex has been the preferred fabric supplier for many of the outdoor industry’s leading brands. Like all technological breakthroughs, though, challengers eventually entered the fray claiming they were just as good as the original. In 2011, outdoor enthusiasts had many new materials to wear.
“We have been working with waterproof/breathable fabrics now for years. We are Gore-Tex’s oldest licensee on waterproof fabrics,” reports Brian LaPlante Marmot’s category merchandise manager. ”Having been at this game for a very long time we’ve had a chance to see a lot of different technologies over those years.
New waterproof breathable fabrics from Gore-Tex, Polartec, GE Energy, Mountain Hardwear and Columbia will give outdoor consumers more options than ever.
Polartec is introducing NeoShell; described as an exclusive sub-micron fiber membrane that enables a two-way air exchange that significantly improves the climate inside the jacket.
GE Energy is making its award-winning eVent Fabrics collection of waterproof-breathable fabrics available for apparel companies to brand as their own. Mountain Hardwear is partnering with GE for the launch of its proprietary collection of DryQ waterproof-breathable apparel, debuting in Fall 2011.
Finally, Columbia is also introducing an alternative to existing waterproof breathable fabrics. Columbia’s Omni-Day is an ultra breathable waterproof membrane that increases airflow and is extremely air permeable, helping regulate body temperature to keep excess moisture from collecting when the activity level is high.
A Continuum of Performance
In technical apparel marketing messages, the words waterproof and breathable follow each other like fraternal twins. In reality, they describe functions that can lay far apart on a continuum of performance. Finding the right balance and compromising between the two poles is a challenge faced by every technical apparel brand.
“People wanted simply “waterproof” and based on great marketing on behalf of some industry giants, consumers started to recite numbers like 10,000 and 20,000 mm as the meaning of “not getting wet sitting on a chairlift”, says Samantha Kilgore, marketing manager, Rab USA, LLC. She continues, “Gore-Tex, like Kleenex, simply became another word for waterproof. It seemed as though everyone just tolerated being sweaty and clammy because that was the price to pay to have a waterproof jacket. But now, people are learning that there are more and more options, and that feeling clammy inside your nearly rubber waterproof shell is no longer necessary. As people have had a chance to use much more breathable fabrics while still maintaining the protection from weather, they are beginning to ask for better and better breathability.”
With the new fabrics, hikers, paddlers, trail runners and campers may not have to compromise in finding the balance between waterproof and breathable.
Mountain Hardwear’s introduction of Dry.Q takes advantage of GE’s breathability features. “Waterproof is the baseline. Either a fabric protects the wearer from outside precipitation or not. But the variables come into play when you consider the breathability and durability of the waterproof garment or fabric,” explains Paige Boucher, spokesperson for Mountain Hardwear. “Because Dry.Q is air permeable, it begins to work as soon as the garment is put on. Other fabrics need moisture and heat to build up before they start to breathe so they end up feeling clammy and wet inside.”
Gore-Tex isn’t sitting on past successes. Planned for Fall 2011, Active Shell features a lighter, thinner Gore-Tex membrane using a new lamination technology allowing for extreme breathability.
“Ultimately, our objective at Gore is to always reduce the compromise consumers have to make. That said, depending on the activity work rate and environment, there are times when one may take more precedence over the other,” says Timm Smith, Gore product developer. Smith continues,” The done-in-a-day fast forward athlete for instance, may not need extreme wet weather protection and highly abrasion/tear resistant materials vs. the expedition mountaineer. This opens up another degree of freedom for reducing weight, and improving breathability.
Since the introduction of the waterproof/breathable technologies, apparel has evolved as well as the activities pursuing by outdoor enthusiasts. Consumers are asking for different apparel options for their specific activities. “I actually think the consumer’s basic “measurement of performance” has always been and will continue to be based on perception during use,” notes Smith. “That is, are they staying dry and comfortable in the outdoors? That said material innovations have come a long way in raising expectations. Yesterday’s stretch goal is today’s minimum standard. It can be a bit crazy sometimes, but that’s what makes it fun.”
Consumers who are considering purchasing new technical shells have a wide selection of brands to choose from all claiming to offer waterproof/breathable attributes. Skepticism about these claims isn’t necessarily surprising. “Skepticism is something that we are extremely aware of because we are making outerwear for the most active athletes for use in the most extreme conditions in the world. It is fantastic to have a waterproof material that keeps you 100-percent dry from the outside, but if you are soaking wet from your own moisture on the inside, you are no better off,” says Kilgore.”
Chad Kelly, a product manager for the GE Energy performance fabric line suggests consumers are less cynical about brands claims than they are uncertain how to accurately compare one brand’s claims against the next. “It’s not so much that consumers are skeptical as they might be confused, as more brands come out with waterproof/breathable garments. It’s more complex, with more companies, and they’re all touting the same attributes. Waterproofness and breathability are now the ‘cost of entry’ for an outerwear jacket. Unfortunately, performance varies widely and it can be tough for consumers to know the differences. Our job is to educate our customers and consumers, and help demystify the claims about waterproof/breathable materials.”
Brands claiming superiority often tout research findings to support their claims. Competing statistics from different points of view often add more confusion than clarity. As a long-time category leader, Gore-Tex has heard the “we’re just as good as Gore” claim almost annually. “I think it’s tempting
to make big claims, especially for those trying to make a splash with new technology. The problem is when you dig beneath the surface, often times the science behind those claims is half-baked at best” says Smith.
The reaction to today’s latest and greatest apparel technology doesn’t always translate to a rush of consumers through a retailer’s front door. Jordan Wand, Outdoor Research vice president of product and marketing says, ”It comes down to the question, how much performance do you really need? There are trade-offs. We use ProShell technology from Gore-Tex for product that goes to the top of Everest and is used in the most extreme conditions. Not every user needs that level of performance. Consumer’s eyes have been opened up. The best isn’t always what I need for my specific use for that day. That’s why our tiered approach is the right one. It’s not a one-size fits all approach for the current user.”
New technical fabrics offering another level of waterproof/breathable performance offer consumers even more choices. “It’s the best of times and the most challenging of times. It’s great that we have all these great technologies out there,” notes LaPlante. “ It gives the consumer incredible number of choices to find the right garment for their type of activities. The challenge is on the brands to explain these technologies in a way that the consumer understands and directing them to the right product for their end use activities. It falls to the brands to do a good job of educating the consumer.”
While waterproofness is a term easily defined and understood, explaining breathability is more complex. Comfort is a hard thing to define. It depends on what the person is doing, their physiological factors,” says Richardson. In my opinion, the marketing of breathability is very hard. I’m a product guy, but I wouldn’t’ want to be tasked with telling a story that everyone is going to be comfortable in this garment.”
LaPlante adds,” It’s a challenge to explain to the consumer. They don’t understand that there is an upper end threshold of breathability in the garment. It’s a hard message to get across. The biggest challenge we face is really defining what breathable is and what the consumers’ expectations are concerning breathable.”
Even the newest fabric introductions can fail to meet consumer’s expectations if used in unintended ways. “The new NeoShell jacket we feel is the most breathable shell ever to hit the market and have science to back that up yet someone can take that for a high-exertion run and overwhelm it, explains Simmons.” We’re saying that within its category when you really need waterproofness this is the most breathable thing in its space. There are always going to be trade-offs.”