While the CES hordes inside the Las Vegas Convention Center parsed the massive load of circuits, bits and bytes, innovation of a different sort — courtesy of The North Face — greeted select invitees at a private exhibit just outside the halls.
Just by the Monorail station, close to partner BMW Designworks, the outerwear company held its introductory CES presentations to highlight Futurelight — a new textile innovation that, it promises, offers 100 percent waterproofing and breathability in a functional fabric that feels impossibly soft and light to the touch.
According to Scott Mellin, global general manager of mountain sports at The North Face, Futurelight began with a challenge: how to create a garment with total protection and maximum breathability, so outdoor athletes and enthusiasts don’t have to take their shells on and off.
“When we talked to our materials team, they said, ‘Well, we understand what you want to do, [but] we can’t do that with our existing supply chain. We’re going to have to build it from scratch,'” Mellin told WWD. “We went all the way down to the chip level — that chip being the origin of the younger cube of nylon or polyester — and developed our own yarns, developed our own weaving, which was really insightful. Because when you go from chip, to yarn, to cone of yarn, into the weaving process, then you can actually manage the textile and the finish in a much more coherent way.”
He described Futurelight as a three-layer garment comprised of a face fabric, a backer fabric that’s next to your skin, and a film in the middle.
“The film is what manages the waterproofing and also blocks the breathability,” he said. “In all of our incumbent technologies, our supply chain, that film or membrane is a solid. And we knew that, in order to meet the demands of the athletes, what we’re going to have to create is a mesh.”
The company created a new technique called “nanospinning,” which puts liquid polymer through a process that operates at the nanofiber level — “working at 200 nanometers in the scale of fiber,” Mellin said. The polymer acts as the middle film, which ultimately gets laminated to the face and backer fabrics.
The amount of polymer or film determines the level of breathability. And since the mesh is adjustable, the tech offers The North Face a wide range of options to tune it in three gram, four gram or up to seven gram weights. The company’s previous materials allowed for 50 gram weights.
It’s a level of protection and flexibility that’s completely new to the brand.
“It’s a very delicate film,” Mellin added. “But when laminated, it’s also what gives us this credible hand-feel.” He says that Futurelight is 100 percent waterproof, but with four times the breathability and 150 times the air permeability of existing technologies.
The boon for mountain climbers and other outdoor adventurists — who often traverse multiple altitudes and microclimates — should be obvious. Dealing with shifting moments of rain, cold and heat in one day, sometimes within one hour, can make apparel planning, packing and carrying a challenge.
Now that it’s had its coming-out party at CES, it will head to ski resort uniforms for partners in Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows this fall. The company is also planning handwear — think gloves and mittens — and is exploring tents. In the spring of next year, the market may see Futurelight shoes and dresses.
Beyond that, the company has been in talks with partner BMW Designworks, with whom it created a concept geodesic camper made of Futurelight. Now the automotive company is interested in motorcycle side bags and carriage systems.
It all sounds great. But the only problem with a functional fabric this soft and light may be consumer skepticism. The company is still working on the public messaging for the new textile. And for that, it has some great narratives to draw from.
“It’s interesting if you think about outerwear on a linear timeline,” said Mellin. “So 100 years ago, we were wearing fur. And then 60 years ago, we were wearing boiled wool. When Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt. Everest, he was in a boiled wool jacket. And then there were nylon jackets, with plastic coating on them. Then there was Gore-Tex. And then there was Futurelight.”
The North Face’s testing process is also no joke. Mellin showed off another part of the exhibit featuring three outerwear packs. “There was obviously a lot of laboratory testing going on, but this is the sexier part of our validation work,” he said, pointing to a set of three outfitted mannequins. “These are the actual kits that Jim Morrison took up Cho Oyu in Mount Everest in April. And this is Hilaree Nelson’s kit that she summitted Lhotse in, the fourth highest mountain in the world, in September. And that’s Jim’s kit. He was also on the Lhotse expedition.”
The company pulled the kits out of their bags the moment they returned. This is the proof, he said. “We validated it through our ski and snowboard athletes throughout South America during the summer. We have even gone to the extremes of sending two of our athletes to Canada in the coldest period of the Canadian winter on a climate mission. They climbed one meter and shoveled 17 feet of snow in 21 days. … So we know it’s also good for shoveling. You can climb in it. You can ski in it and you can run in it.
“We’ve validated it at the top of the world,” he said.