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NANTUCKET, Mass. — “I’ve got to tell you today is an absolutely perfect Windstopper day,” said Bruce Troutman, thermal product development director for W.L. Gore & Associates.
Apparently, 42 m.p.h. winds and overcast skies here were a good thing in Troutman’s eyes, as he enthusiastically welcomed a dozen media types before a two-hour hike through the island’s woods and wetlands. There’s nothing like a “nor’easter,” New Englanders’ nickname for whipping northeasterly storms blowing in from the ocean, to ratchet up wear-testing a few notches.
“Are you familiar with the wind-chill effect? You will be today,” said Mark Hepler, Gore-Tex’s footwear account manager.
Instead of using University of Delaware students to test out its products as it typically does, W.L. Gore & Associates rounded up a less seasoned cast.
“Trained athletes do not make good test subjects because they’re used to pain and discomfort,” Troutman said.
So, Gore recruited about a dozen reporters for a three-day getaway this month filled with hiking, biking and play-by-play product briefings. An escape to the great outdoors was the draw for most, but Windstopper, AirVantage and Gore-Tex XCR footwear were the focus for Gore executives, as proven by their interest in plunging hands into buckets of ice water, spraying air-packed aerosol cans on windbreakers and inflating vests.
That’s no surprise, since Gore staffers are known to cut out of meetings at their Elkton, Md., headquarters to do some wear-testing of their own, provided it’s raining hard enough. They are equally diplomatic about their definition of comfort.
“Comfort is what works for you,” Troutman said.
They’re keeping the terms loose and developing climate-controlled items for today’s finicky, nomadic consumers who want one outfit to take them from one activity to the next, regardless of any change in temperature.
Troutman, a 20-year Gore veteran, admitted that even he had reservations about new technology when he first got involved with the company. A former outdoor leadership instructor in the Adirondacks, Troutman initially worked for Gore as a consultant and had his students wear-test prototypes.
“The first year in, I didn’t trust this at all,” he said. “We carried double gear.”
But once he experienced the benefits of “breathable” clothing, he bid good bye to braving the outdoors in water-soaked cotton and PVC ponchos. Two decades later, he aims to keep his team focused on the end users’ needs, which rank easy care as a top priority.
The group assembled one Friday night on an island best known for its whaling days and quiet retreats to find out how to stay dry in the outdoors.
Troutman’s pitch centered on Airvantage, an adjustable insulation system for outerwear, which allows wearers to inflate their jackets or vests by blowing a few short breaths into a hidden valve. When they overheat, they unplug the valve to deflate the garment. On average, the technology adds about $90 to a garment’s retail price.
Charlie Thwaites, a Scotland-based Gore staffer, developed the adjustable insulation concept and fine-tuned the product. Gore tested it in “some pretty severe environments” in South America, Canada and the Rockies, Troutman said.
“We wanted to solve a need in the marketplace for people who didn’t want bulk, but still wanted protection,” he said. “Until that point, we’d been focused on keeping water out. But keeping air in is another game.”
Marmot, Oakley, Columbia, Rossignol and Rainforest are some of the usual suspects offering the technology, but less athletic-oriented labels like London Fog, Lands’ End, Hugo Boss and Swiss Army are also interested.
Most of the crowd considered the product to be a practical option, save for a Health magazine editor who had her readers’ hygiene concerns in mind. Suspecting some consumers might not be thrilled about using the valve, Gore has developed disposable caps and a tongue-and-cheek marketing campaign with the tag line, “Inflate Responsibly.”
Troutman also made mention of how Gore staffers tried unsuccessfully to grow any sustainable bacteria and mildew in AirVantage chambers.
“We haven’t seen any dead colonies,” Troutman said.
Meanwhile, editors wondered, “That’s good to know. Is it time for dinner?”
By the following morning, the focus shifted to Windstopper soft-shell fabrics, insulated stretch material designed to be windproof, breathable and water resistant. Created by the same team that developed Gore-Tex, Windstopper is a membrane with 1.4 billion microscopic pores per square inch. Thin enough to let perspiration escape, but thick enough to keep wind out. The membrane is bonded between two layers of a high-performance fabric.
During a nature hike the following day, Windstopper jackets shielded the group from blasts of wind even though red-tail hawks and osprey struggled in the gusts. They also did the job after a few brave souls dove into a pond to cool off from a bike ride.
With more sports-minded people recognizing the benefits of Windstopper, Gore aims to gain consumers outside the athletic realm. Windstopper now accounts for 20 percent of Gore’s sales. The company has approached Kenneth Cole, Swiss Army and Brooks Bros. about using Windstopper.
“It’s not just on the mountains anymore,” Hepler said.
Tom Cabaniss, Windstopper product specialist, said recent research has shown that once a consumer buys a Gore product, they typically buy five more.
“What we’re hearing from people is that consumers are becoming savvy enough to ask for specific items,” Cabaniss said.
Time constraints and other sociological changes are prompting more people to tackle outdoor activities in a day instead of a few days, Troutman said. Given that, they experience a variety of weather changes since they may limit their ascent and/or descent in one day, for example.
Gore, in turn, is also trying to speed up its research and development. With 5,000 employees and $1.3 billion in sales, that calls for a lot of legwork and chasing down every lead. The company is experimenting with the use of global positioning devices in clothing — something that would be useful to climbers and firefighters alike.
“There’s a book about business called, ‘Only the Paranoid Survive.’ We’re like that,” Troutman said.