By  on January 16, 2014

LOS ANGELES — Outdoor apparel brands are laying the groundwork today for a more lucrative tomorrow.

Brand owners and representatives heading to the Outdoor Retailer show should be in a relatively upbeat mood with apparel sales in the outdoor sector rising about 10 percent last year from the year before, according to data provided by Outdoor Industry Association VantagePoint. The Outdoor Retailer trade show is expected to draw 22,000 attendees and 900 to 950 vendors to the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City from Wednesday to Jan. 25.

That mood is tempered by potential speed bumps ahead as outdoor apparel brands attempt to widen their reach beyond core enthusiasts, respond to Millennials’ attitudes toward outdoor sports and the clothes needed to do them, cope with unpredictable weather and navigate a retail landscape challenging to small specialty retailers that have long been the backbone of the industry.

“What we have heard from [Outdoor Industry Association] members is they are feeling good about where they are and the sales they are seeing in the short term. It is more the longer term that is creating the anxiety, and there is uncertainty in terms of how the industry is going to change,” said Christie Hickman, vice president of market insights for the association. “The industry is at a point where it is starting to recognize that there is a level of evaluation that is going to be absolutely essential in order to survive in an omnichannel environment. That recognition is there, but there is still a struggle about how to act on it.”

There are signs emerging that outdoor apparel brands are strategizing to chart a course toward a healthy future. One of several growth areas is with merchandise aimed at niche sporting activities such as backcountry skiing and snowboarding, Spartan races, mud runs and triathlons that are becoming less niche, according to Kenji Haroutunian, show director for Outdoor Retailer and vice president of the sports group at Emerald Expositions. He argued brands and proponents of these activities should take a page out of rock climbing’s notebook. Once viewed as a high-risk adventure sport for daredevils, it has greatly expanded participation.

“The industry’s opportunity is to take the outdoor message to a broader audience that is more mainstream,” said Haroutunian. Talking specifically about backcountry, he suggested the industry has to confront avalanche dangers to allay fears that are keeping some people out of the backcountry. At Outdoor Retailer, he continued, “We are going to be doing more things to highlight [avalanche safety] developments and have open forums to unite the industry and give them a chance to talk about it and come up with creative solutions. How are we going to help people feel that it is safe? The good news is that we have been down this road before with rock climbing. People now understand the risk and reward. There are hundreds of rock-climbing gyms in the country that prove that. That shows there is an appetite for adventure sports from a broad and diverse audience. We feel a responsibility to help the industry move forward there.”

Already, outdoor apparel brands are benefiting from the mounting interest in backcountry trips, triathlons, Spartan races and mud runs, among the many activities that are gaining traction. Haroutunian singled out Denver-based Flylow Gear as an example. “Flylow is a hip brand for the younger generation with looks for Millennials, but it is all about backcountry functionality,” he said. Australian import 2XU, which specializes in compression apparel and has roots in triathlon, is another brand that’s taken off. The brand has said its sales have jumped at least 40 percent annually for the past five years and, last month, L Capital, a private equity fund sponsored by Groupe Arnault and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, bought 40 percent of 2XU for an estimated $75 million.

As triathlons, Spartan races, mud runs and similar sports attract greater numbers of people, Fred Hernandez, director of marketing for 2XU, said those who try those activities begin to use gear marketed for them across all their athletic pursuits, a phenomenon that has further lifted the brand’s sales. For winter this year, the brand is presenting a collection of base and midlayer thermals. Going forward, 2XU will unveil compression items that will target particular muscle groups rather than taking a general approach. “For a multisport athlete, you are talking about a do-it-all type of equipment,” Hernandez said. “It really gives the dealers a new category to sell in their stores without really replacing or having to substitute something that they have.”

With climate change and wild temperature swings, product versatility has also become crucial for outdoor apparel brands looking to outfit consumers no matter the thermometer readings. Known for jackets designed to brave the intense cold, Toronto-based Canada Goose has been diving into lightweight shells, notably the Canyon Shell, a slim-fit jacket for $595 that is launching at Outdoor Retailer. “We wanted to offer consumers every option available to stay warm so they can embrace the cold and experience more from life,” said Spencer Orr, vice president of design and merchandising at Canada Goose.

It’s not only brands that are responding to the demand for diverse offerings. PrimaLoft, a high-performance jacket insulation purveyor, is broadening its range with new proprietary insulations that, for the first time, combine down and synthetics. PrimaLoft Gold and PrimaLoft Silver Performance Down Blends utilize a proprietary method for fusing the two together. For expeditions in the bitter cold, PrimaLoft Gold Insulation Performance Down Blends combine the benefits of PrimaLoft and down to keep people very warm, even if they sweat or get rained on. According to PrimaLoft, it retains 95 percent of its warmth when wet and dries four times faster than untreated down.  For 2015, the brand has developed PrimaLoft Silver Insulation with Migration Resistance, utilizing ultra-fine fibers about half the size of cashmere fiber that doesn’t escape from materials the way down feathers often do. Mike Joyce, chief executive officer of PrimaLoft, explained that those properties enable PrimaLoft Silver Insulation to be put in fabrics that might be open to allow for breathability for aerobic activities. “It allows your body heat to come through the fabric and evaporate, while still keeping you warm,” he said. 

From the lightest to the heaviest weights, outdoor companies have usually excelled at churning out merchandise that functions well to brave the conditions. But when it comes to being on top of the latest trends in fashion and technology, they haven’t been as successful — and those trends are becoming increasingly important as Millennials reshape purchasing patterns. Hickman said, “It’s not just OK for them to have something that is technically advanced and doesn’t look good. They don’t accept that as Boomers and Gen X did in the past. Other industries have come in and taken a bit of the [outdoor] business with consumers who don’t necessarily need as technically advanced products and are looking for a more fashionable solution that will get the job done, but is not necessarily the best of the best. The changing consumer base and the changing needs has really had a big impact on the industry.”

As a result, outdoor apparel makers are injecting fashion in order to steal back market share from those interlopers. Canada Goose is adding bright and bold colors, including what it calls summer light and jade green, and redwood and pacific blue, to its collections. Woolrich is rounding out its assortment at Outdoor Retailer with the fashion-forward Woolrich White line and John Rich & Bros., its line made with Italian licensee WP Lavori. John Rich & Bros. is also premiering a sneaker collaboration with Tuscan shoemaker Buttero, as well as the Eskimo Coat, a fur-lined, insulated shell with a removable lining; the Arctic Anorak, a shorter version of the traditional anorak, and the Sundance Jacket, a lightweight, down-filled nylon jacket. Prices for Woolrich White mostly range from $50 to $450, while prices for John Rich mostly range from $100 to $700.

Woolrich’s introductions of John Rich & Bros. and Woolrich White at Outdoor Retailer are intended to signal to the outdoor market that Woolrich is elevating and enlarging its repertoire. Nick Brayton, president of Woolrich, said, “I do think that there’s a better appreciation for lifestyle outerwear than there used to be. That trend is continuing to prove itself to be more of a movement. So, we don’t think that is going to change. As a result, we have chosen to focus on that even more so than we have in the past.”

Technology has become more of a focus for many outdoor apparel brands as well. This represents somewhat of a reversal for the industry, which has often catered to outdoor enthusiasts who have decried technology for interfering with their experience of nature. And Haroutunian and Hickman contend it’s a reversal that must happen to draw Millennials into the outdoor industry fold.

“There is a focus on making our sports more relevant,” said Haroutunian. “Young people are not predisposed to go out and do a lot of adventuring out of the four walls of their home. We have the whole digital revolution. That is seen as a threat. There is a counter movement in the industry for wearable technology.”

Haroutunian highlighted snazzy goggles that allow wearers to shoot videos and scour data on speed and altitude, as evidence that the outdoor industry is starting to embrace technology and specifically mentioned Zeal Optics, which is exhibiting its HD Camera Goggle 2.0 for $399 at Outdoor Retailer. Furthering Haroutunian’s case, Mike Lewis, digital marketing manager for Boulder, Colo.-based Zeal Optics, exclaimed, “The response to the new Camera Goggle has been insane.” Hickman believes wearable tech products like Zeal’s goggles aren’t merely gimmicks. “The blending of the virtual world and the physical world is happening,” she said. “I don’t see it as a trend. There are so many products out there focused on GPS technology and big data. I don’t think that is going to go away [because] there is a need from a Millennial perspective.”

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